Why Photography is Like a Window

The Art Genome Project
Sep 30, 2013 11:12PM

This week the Getty Museum in Los Angeles unveils an exhibition based on an exciting insight: that photography, since its beginnings, has depicted the window as a symbol of photographic vision. This is a natural metaphor when you remember that early cameras were, in essence, little rooms with a lens onto the outside world. The exhibition, “At the Window,” looks at the many ways photographers have used the window – to show the passage of time, to depict exteriors, and as an intermediary between the inside and the outside world. These creative uses offer The Art Genome Project some food for thought! For now, we wanted to explore some of the genes that relate to photographers at the window. Can you think of any more?

Light as Subject

Inspired by the diaphanous lighting of Dutch masters like Vermeer, Desiree Doloron turns light into a palpable material in her flawlessly executed photographs. While it is a truism that painters must paint by natural light (ideally a Northern exposure), the image of light streaming in through a window captivates photographers as well.


Sometimes the architectural details of a window trump all else. Henri Le Secq’s early photograph of Chartres Cathedral captures every jamb figure and pane of glass in unprecedented detail. In the 1850s in Paris, the ability to document architecture accurately and quickly became particularly pressing with the impending demolition of the old winding streets, an urban project called Haussmannization, which aimed to modernize the city and replace the medieval houses with impressive, Empire-style buildings. The photographer Charles Marville was commissioned to document these areas, soon to be ghosts of their former selves.   


With their uncanny atmosphere and tenuous hold on reality, Eugène Atget’s images of Paris inspired the surrealists. The reflections in the hairdresser’s shop blend the outside world and the sellable wares in a phantasmagoric vision. Even a century later, the eroticism of such commodities kept behind a window would not be lost on Daido Moriyama. 


Perhaps one of the most modern images of isolation is “the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes” in the “certain, half deserted streets, the muttering retreats” of some nameless city in T.S. Elliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the laconic musings of a defeated man who wants desperately to love, but can’t. Windows often act as a visual metaphor for the transparent membrane that separates us from others, the city’s anonymity contrasting with its false promise of company. Atget’s lens adds a layer of weariness, while Abeladro Morell, using a room as a camera obscura, lets the outside world in, where all the life of the city comes to a standstill in this deserted, lonely room.

-Jessica Backus, Researcher on The Art Genome Project

The Art Genome Project