Getting Started with Photo Theory: Szarkowski, Sontag, and Barthes


What makes a photograph a photograph? When I take a picture of you, who owns that image? Should certain things never be photographed? Do photographs belong in art museums? These are just a few of the questions writers have wrestled with since photography was invented nearly two centuries ago.

Babayeva Studio, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, albumen silver print from glass negative with inset oil painting, 1893.
Babayeva Studio, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, albumen silver...
Pierre-Louis Pierson, Countess Virginia Oldoini Verasis di Castiglione, salted paper print from glass negative with applied color, c. 1860s.
Pierre-Louis Pierson, Countess Virginia Oldoini Verasis di...

But where to begin? Even a superficial assessment of the current state of photography theory would be too long to contain here. Instead, what follows is an introduction to three important figures whose contributions to the field continue to inform discussions of the medium: John Szarkowski, Susan Sontag, and Roland Barthes. A museum curator, a cultural critic, and a literary theorist respectively, each provides a unique perspective and entry point into the world of photo theory.

John Szarkowski

“[I]t should be possible to consider the history of the medium in terms of photographers’ progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.”

Histories of art are largely underwritten by the institutions that collect, preserve, and display their objects. Beginning with Beaumont Newhall’s landmark exhibition “Photography 1839-1937,” the Museum of Modern Art in New York has played a leading role in shaping photography’s identity vis-a-vis the art world. The show’s catalog, The History of Photography, was among the earliest attempts to develop a comprehensive history of the medium and became the de facto textbook on the subject for decades following its publication.

Despite Newhall’s importance, it is a later curator, John Szarkowski, who opens this list. In 1962, Szarkowski succeeded Edward Steichen as the third director of photography, where he remained until 1991. His tenure saw (and contributed to) the rapid ascension of photography in the contemporary art world during this period.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Julia Jackson, albumen silver print from glass negative, 1867.

When Steichen offered him the position, Szarkowski was already a successful photographer with two Guggenheim Fellowships, a pair of books, and multiple exhibitions to his name. As a curator, he developed a theory of photography that owed much to the influential Modernist critic, Clement Greenberg. In 1960, Greenberg famously wrote: “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself—not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Greenberg was concerned with painting; Szarkowski was responsible for extending this attitude to photography.

Writing in The Photographer’s Eye, in 1964, Szarkowski described five “issues” intrinsic to the photographic medium: the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, and vantage point. More than a half of a century later, these characteristics remain implicit (or explicit) touchstones in photography critiques in classrooms, galleries, and museums. They were given visual form as an exhibition, where works by Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Julia Margaret-Cameron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, and many others were pulled from the museum’s collection.

Paul Strand, Photograph (Porch Shadows) reproduced in Camera Work, 1917.

The reach of Szarkowski’s vision benefitted from his proximity to MoMA’s permanent collection and prominent role in acquisitions. By virtue of venue, his exhibitions secured the legacies of masters and provided a springboard for new talent. In 1967, his now iconic exhibition “New Documents” put a spotlight on three emerging photographers: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. While by today’s standards Szarkowski’s vision may seem conservative, he was not afraid to push the boundaries of his time. For example, in 1976 he curated a show of William Eggleston’s color photographs, a major milestone for the integration of color into the art photography canon.

Dorothea Lange, Destitute Pea Pickers in California, Mother of Seven Children, Age 32, Nipomo, California (aka Migrant Mother), gelatin silver print, 1936.

In 1978, Szarkowski organized “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960.” In the accompanying catalog he described “a fundamental dichotomy in contemporary photography between those who think of photography as a means of self-expression and those who think of it as a method of exploration.” The years covered by the exhibition was crucial for the growth of photography in the art world as artists began incorporating photography into a wide range of practices including performance art, land art, and conceptual art. Accordingly, Szarkowski chose a diverse group of artists to support his thesis. The work of mixed media artists like Robert Rauschenberg appeared alongside formalist compositions by Robert Mapplethorpe while conceptual photographs by Ed Ruscha accompanied street photographs by Garry Winogrand.

A curator may seem like an unusual choice to introduce a discussion of photo theory. However, Szarkowski’s emphasis on looking at photos—looking at a lot of photos—is important for anyone interested in writing about photography. Concluding his introduction to The Photographer’s Eye, Szarkowski notes: “It is, strangely, easier to forget that photography has also influenced photographers. Not only great pictures by great photographers, but photography—the great undifferentiated, homogenous whole of it—has been teacher, library, and laboratory for those who have consciously used the camera as artists.”

Susan Sontag

“[E]ssentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”

Susan Sontag was an American writer, filmmaker, and critic. Her 1977 book, On Photography, remains one of the most widely read critical texts on photography to date. The book assembles six essays originally published between 1973 and 1977 in the New York Review of Books. Of the writers included in this article, Sontag was the most skeptical of the medium, seeing photography as a dubious surrogate for action. For Sontag, photography was “essentially an act of non-intervention,” an obstacle to directly experiencing and interacting with the world. She remarked: “The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing. This, in turn, makes it easy to feel that any event, once underway, and whatever its moral character, should be allowed to complete itself—so that something else can be brought into the world, the photograph.” Sontag was most critical of photojournalists documenting humanitarian crises, framing their career choice in moral terms.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, A Harvest of Death, albumen silver print from glass negative, 1863.

Sontag’s observations were prescient, if biting. In the age of social media-fueled narcissism and mediated experience, many of her words have even greater resonance today: “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.” You don’t have to look far to see her words in action. Mobile phones have put cameras in the hands of everyone at all times. Advertisers push hashtags to accompany photographs of their products, further influencing what and how to photograph. Hardly an event can be attended wherein one is not photographed — intentionally or not.

In 1989 Sontag met fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz. They would become lifelong partners and collaborators, each informing the other’s work. This creative overlap took material form in 1999 when Sontag wrote an introductory essay for Leibovitz’s book, Women, “a book of photographs of people with nothing more in common than that they are women.” Sontag explains the premise of the project: “There have been tremendous changes in women's consciousness, transforming the inner life of everyone: the sallying forth of women from women's worlds into the world at large, the arrival of women's ambitions. Ambition is what women have been schooled to stifle in themselves, and what is celebrated in a book of photographs that emphasizes the variety of women's lives today.”

Onésipe Aguado de las Marismas, Woman Seen from the Back, salted paper print from glass negative, 1862.

In 2003, Sontag wrote Regarding the Pain of Others, a meditation on the representation of human suffering primarily through the lens of the camera. In her extended treatment of the topic, Sontag revisits some of her earlier positions. “The view proposed in On Photography—that our capacity to respond to our experiences with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence is being sapped by the relentless diffusion of vulgar and appalling images—might be called the conservative critique of the diffusion of such images… In a more radical—cynical—spin on this critique, there is nothing to defend: the vast maw of modernity has chewed up reality and spat the whole mess out as images.” Sontag later dismisses this popular yet reductive position: “It assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world.”

Sontag’s last essay on photography, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” published in 2004 in the New York Times Magazine, discusses the photographs that sparked the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. It would serve as her final published thoughts on the medium, a powerful reading of digital technology’s effect on acting in the world: “To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life, and therefore to go on with one’s life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera’s nonstop attentions. But to live is also to pose. To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images.”

Roland Barthes

“Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it.”

Roland Barthes was a French literary theorist who extended his efforts in semiotics (the study of signs) to photography. In his earliest text dedicated to the topic, “The Photographic Message,” (1961), Barthes famously described photographs as containing “a message without a code.” In doing so, he contrasted photography with other forms of communication, namely language. Words require de-coding to understand what they represent. For example, the letters D-O-G have no intrinsic connection to a furry animal that barks. You must understand the English language to make the connection between “dog” and the animal chewing on your slippers. For Barthes, photographs signify in a more direct manner. The visual similarities typically connecting a photograph to its subject make it much more immediately decipherable than a word. Anyone can look at a photograph of a dog and understand its connection to a dog standing next to it.

William G. Campbell, The Lesson, albumen silver print, 1856.

Barthes would dive deeper into the nuanced relationship of photographs and their subjects three years later in “The Rhetoric of the Image.” Understanding the differences between how words and photographs signify is fairly straightforward. When photographs are compared to drawings or paintings, the matter becomes a bit more complex. To distinguish photography from other visual forms, Barthes emphasized the “having-been-there” nature of photographs. For Barthes, a photograph requires its subject to be in front of a camera to be represented photographically.

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, oil on canvas, 1899.

Winslow Homer was able to paint a man stranded at sea surrounded by sharks, waves, and a waterspout from the comfort of his studio in Maine. When critics reacted negatively to the painting’s dismal subject, Homer added a ship on the horizon to rescue the man. None of this would be possible photographically without introducing a level of manipulation that would betray the medium’s purity. Just as a footprint requires a foot, a photograph of a footprint requires a footprint.

NASA, Buzz Aldrin’s Footprint on the Surface of the Moon, chromogenic print, 1969.

In 1980, Barthes veered into the personal power of photography in his most read work on the topic, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Early into the text Barthes admits that he is not a photographer “not even an amateur photographer: too impatient for that.” Instead, his aim is to explore the process of being photographed and looking at photographs.

Describing his experiences as a portrait sitter he writes: “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.” This confluence of desires is what makes certain portraits so compelling.

Adrien Tournachon, Electro-Physiologie, Figure 64, albumen silver print from glass negative, 1854-6.

As he shifts focus from the topic of being represented by the camera to looking at photographs, Barthes introduced two new terms to photo theory: punctum and studium. In short, the studium consists of the visual information contained within a photograph. When you look at a photograph from Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York, you learn something about what the city looked like in the 1930s. The punctum, in contrast, is a response elicited by a photograph that is deeply subjective, difficult to describe, and impossible to foresee. While looking at a photograph of a man walking out onto the street in the Bowery, you notice that his tie is the same that your grandfather used to wear. The immediate response that this detail elicits from you is the punctum. The photographer could not have anticipated this. It exists outside of artistic intention. It is a product of the photograph alone.

Berenice Abbott, Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, Manhattan, gelatin silver print, 1935.

Despite Barthes’ painstaking breakdowns of photographic signification, it was the indescribable effect of certain photographs that gave photography its power. He concludes Camera Lucida: “Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits… mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.” Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.”

Note: Read more about Roland Barthes on Explora here.

Who is your favorite photo theorist? Why? Let us know in the Comments section, below.


Great synopsis of critical thinking and discussion. This is stuff that every serious photographer should have some familiarity with.  I was not aware of most of this so,  thank you.

I'm glad you found it useful, Richard. If any of the writers mentioned spark your interest, I highly recommend reading their work firsthand. Thanks for stopping by!

Interesting article.  Good job B&H!

Thanks, John!