In 1826, a French inventor named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce recorded the world’s first photograph from the second-story window of his studio. And although View from the Window at Le Gras may have been the first shot taken from a window sill, it certainly wasn’t the last. Skip ahead a century, and Walker Evans, too, would capture the courtyard of his apartment at 5 rue de la Santé in Paris, or later, vistas of the industrial American landscape through the windows of train cars. Whether looking out or looking in, the window has been used both as a framing device and conceptual tool—window as camera lens, window as picture frame, window as voyeur into private lives—and a new exhibition at The Getty, “At the Window: A Photographer’s View” traces some of the most iconic shots. From Niépce’s first windowsill snap and through early architecture and social documentary, the exhibition arrives at the conceptual work of photographers like Gregory Crewdson, Uta Barth, and Yuki Onodera—who we couldn’t help but ask about their respective takes on the window.
In haunting, cinematic photographs, Crewdson plays voyeur—looking through his camera and in and out of windows to capture eerie portraits of suburban life:
“On a basic level all photographers are drawn to the medium of photography with a deep-rooted sense of voyeurism. The very act of looking through the viewfinder is separating yourself from the world. The use of framing also evokes the notion of peering in, drawing the viewer into the image as a silent witness. In my pictures I am highly conscious of using framing devices. Windows, doorways, mirrors, all serve to create layers of separation.The various framing devices create different forms of space, and are also self referential, to some degree, in that they speak about the act of making a picture. One of the things photographers do, because they’re limited in telling a story, is to use framing along with light, color, and gesture, to help describe the narrative event. There is such a careful presentation of what is included in the picture. The framing tells the story.”
In “Look Out The Window,” Japanese photographer Yuki Onodera gathered images of lit rooms and windows of newly-built homes:
“When it is light outside, the windows are mirrors in which our own image is reflected. When you are in the dark, the glass window is an opening in which incoming light dazzles us. In this way, the mirror and the opening play their role by day and night, from inside or outside. When it is dark, don’t the walls of the house seem to be a thin membrane that somehow contains light?”
Uta Bath photographs exclusively from within her home, and windows are a repeat and unavoidable subject, acting as camera lens in framing and lighting her subjects:
“I start most discussions about my work by saying that I am interested in perception; in vision itself and in how we see, more than in what we see. I want to foreground the perceptual experience over anything we may think about whatever it is we may be looking at.
The window is a wonderful vehicle for referring to the act of looking. I always remember an image I first saw in undergraduate school by Robert Frank. It is from “The Americans”, a view from a hotel window onto a nondescript town. The photograph has a wonderful twist. By stepping back slightly and including the window’s ledge and both curtains, one thinks of the person standing at this window, looking out onto the scene. It becomes an image about the act looking. Without these simple inclusions we would only have an elevated view of an ordinary town.
I have used the image of the window in two linked projects: ‘nowhere near’ and ‘…and of time’. In ‘nowhere near’ the camera traces the repeated view out of my living room window over the period of many months. The changes that run through this series of hundreds of images consist only of framing, changes of light and the change of the seasons. The work deals with duration of looking and the prolonged engagement with nothing much at all.
The works from ‘…and of time’, one of which is included in this exhibition, are the inverse of nowhere near. They depict the light streaming through the same window, as it projects onto the floor and wall of my living room. The window becomes the aperture of the house and light and imagery project through it.”
Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 2002. © Gregory Crewdson, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Trish and Jan de Bont; Uta Barth, 2000, ...and of time, Untitled (aot 4) and Uta Barth, 1999, nowhere near, Untitled (99.8) courtesy of the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and 1301PE, Los Angeles.