The Mysterious Disposition of the Window


One of the beguiling things about photography, at least for me, is the recurrence of certain themes or subject matter, and how and why photographers have, over the decades, chosen to photograph them the way they have. It’s almost like looking at the visual history of an object, and how its meaning and relevance has evolved over time. In The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer explores this facet. One of the subjects that he talks about deals with windows. The window, you’ll come to realise, has held the intrigue of those who have sought out its infinite possibilities. Here’s a look at three photographers who did just that.

In 2015, the Stephen Bulger Gallery carried an exhibition titled Surveillance that featured photographs by Andre Kertész. The word packs a severe punch, considering Kertész’s quiet and subtle observations of people and still life. Using a telephoto lens or sometimes, a telescope attached to his camera’s lens, he photographed either from his balcony or window “looking to see what they (his subjects) have to see, what he never had,” Robert Gurbo, the curator of his estate, says. He caught glimpses of women sunbathing on rooftops, of kids enjoying themselves in an inflatable pool, and of a lone man feeding pigeons in a park, among others scenes. “While the pictures are somewhat voyeuristic, they are really about observing intimacy,” Gurbo says. But knowing Kertész’s great love for the outdoors, his decision to photograph by the window was an outcome of a time in his life that he had no control over. At the onset of WWII, the U.S. government declared him and his wife as ‘enemy aliens’. Fearing that his pictures might be viewed as threatening to the country’s national security, Kertész chose the confines of his apartment, and the window became a way for him to briefly mask the loneliness and isolation that he experienced. The window did spark a certain level of joy and curiosity in Kertész. But that changed later in his life, a time when he began to project his bitterness and sadness at it.

In Iraq | Perspectives, the window (in this case, a thick bulletproof one), for Benjamin Lowy, represents a barrier, as well as an opening to view the volatile world that he traversed on, while inside an armoured Humvee. The first half of the book looks at the various stages of life and presence, amidst the ravaged and desolate terrain of Iraq. His compositions shift, from a rectangular window frame to a square one, as he finds himself in another Humvee. This affects what he chooses to photograph. But in all of them, Lowy’s role is temporal, that of a bystander, as he tries to make sense of a country that continues to find itself seeped in misunderstanding and apathy from those unfamiliar with it.

In A Road Divided, Todd Hido took to the windshield in his car. Finding himself, time and again, on the road, he sought out the camera to photograph the intrinsic beauty of the landscapes that he passed by. This time around, Hido freed himself from being withheld by his gear. His pictures were handheld (a far cry from the methodical setup in his series House Hunting) and were often tilted or photographed through the fogged-up windshield of his car. The latter, he found, loaned a sense of placidity to the landscapes he photographed. The entire process was liberating. “With the landscape, I was not afraid of beauty. I allowed myself to approach it, even though this was not popular in the world of photography, at the time. I went right up to it and I said, “Hello, beauty.” Over time, I started actively invoking the power of beauty, considering the aesthetic potential of the landscape in a new way,” he said.

“It wasn’t just Kertész… At some point, all but the most intrepid—even the most intrepid—photographers are tempted to retreat inside and contemplate the world from their window. If this suggests a return to first principles—one of the very first permanent photographs, a foggy heliograph made by Joseph Niépce in 1826, was of a View from the Window at Gras—there is also an etymological inevitability about it. The camera reverts to its origins, returns to the room into which light—and dark—enters,” Geoff Dyer had said in The Ongoing Moment. Josef Sudek, Alfred Stieglitz, Saul Leiter and Ruth Orkin, among many others, were at some point inflamed by certain thoughts that brought them to the window. Its surface holds a mysterious aura that draws you into an introspective stupor. Or maybe, it is symbolic of our desire to be close to life.

In the next few pages, you’ll encounter yet another photographer who discovered how the scratched up and tinted window in his van loaned an incredible beauty to the scenes he observed on the other side. The window was what started it all. It was his first frame, the first mental photograph he made, before it even occurred to him to pick up his cameraphone. But if you forgo its known form, you’ll realise that windows are everywhere… Our cellphone screens, the frame of a photograph, even our own eyes.

The article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: better photography, windows, Conchita Fernandes, Saul Leiter, Geoff Dyer, Benjamin Lowy, Perspectives, Opinions, February 2019, Andre Kertész, Todd Hido, Josef Sudek, Alfred Stieglitz, Ruth Orkin