A window seems an easy enough object to define. It lets in the scenery, the light and the dark, and at the same time it allows us to see what’s taking place outdoors, or to not feel so enclosed. For a photographer, the window – mostly rectangular, vertical, or square – is a readymade frame, and even the average person can point his or her camera and shoot through it or, more creatively, arrange images from the outside alongside images from the inside, or attempt to capture shadows or reflections.
If a photograph of a window “is a view of a view,” then a photograph is also a window, and in some of the photographs in The Window in Photographs – those by Eugène Atget, Milton Rogovin, August Sander, and Shizuka Yokomizo – we look at people in their windows who seemingly look back at us in ours.
This slim volume by Karen Hellman accompanies an exhibition now on view at the Getty Center. The book, with somewhat less images than are in the show, contains 80 color plates, although “color” in this case is mostly sepia or black and white since the work – all of it drawn from the Getty’s own collection – tends heavily towards the earlier years of the medium.
Symbolically, windows resemble a caesura, that semi-colon of pause and separation, and so might suggest a sense of yearning – especially if a lone figure is introduced into the composition. This is encapsulated in the one early 19th century painting that Hellman shows us, Caspar David Friedrich’s “Woman at the Window” (1818), which seems to find its modern equivalent in Geoffrey Crewdson’s “Untitled” (2002). We could also turn this idea on its head and say that a window gives us something to transcend or to aspire towards.
There are works in this collection that don’t seem to have much to do with windows, per se, because windows tend to be essentially “invisible” since it’s not the glass itself that holds our attention. And so they’re more about the act or the art of looking, with the frame serving as portal or gateway. Crewdson’s carefully composed “Untitled” has a window in it, but is our focus really on the window?
A window can be likened to a blank canvas or to a sense of freedom, but if there are crossbars obstructing our view then we may feel imprisoned. “Kitchen Window” (1971), by Walker Evans, is an example of this. On the other hand, veiled windows (by way of shutters or curtains) are like closed eyes. Paul Strand’s “Barn Window and Ice, East Jamaica, Vermont” (1943) and Dorothea Lange’s “Serviceman Star in Bungalow Window” (1940s) convey this impression.
Some of the most arresting work here utilizes shadows, silhouettes, reflections, and soft focus, the hallmark of such early 20th century Pictorialist photographers as Alfred Stieglitz, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Fred Holland Day. For those wanting the additional touch of atmospheric melancholy there is the alluring work of Josef Sudek.
As noted, the book and the exhibition tilt heavily towards photography in its near-infancy, with images by William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, and so forth, but contemporary photographers are also represented, the likes of which include Abelardo Morell, Uta Barth, James Welling, and – with her fiercely glowing windows – Yuki Onodera. Also very high on this list is Sebastião Salgado, whose work often is breathtaking, and bordering on the near-miraculous. (“Genesis,” up through Jan. 4 in the Peter Fetterman Gallery at Bergamot Station, bears this out)
At the Window: A Photographer’s View can be seen through Jan. 5 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in the Getty Center at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. It coincides with Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu.