September 24, 2021

Week 1: Mirrors and Windows

Positions & Practice

Mirrors and Windows is an analogy that refers to two central themes in the discussion of photography–subjectivity and objectivity. The metaphor describes two opposite modes of contemporary photography, “with it divergence between those who believe that art is a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, and those who see it as a window, through which one may better know the world”(Szarkowski 1980).

However, as proposed by Szarkowski, this distinction is not intended to create a clear difference between the two modes, which is also the view of Lucy Soutter as she writes on the theme of authenticity (subjectivity) (Soutter 2018). Soutter observed that contemporary “photographs are layered and ambiguous,…and it is also possible for contemporary photographers to employ a range of disparate approaches within the same overarching project, producing an array of mixed messages” (Soutter 2018). And in reading Nan Goldin’s work, Soutter concluded that it could simultaneously be instinctive and contrived, spontaneous and self-aware. In a sense, both a mirror of the artist Goldin and a window into a world Goldin want the viewer to explore.

Reflecting on my practice, I can confidently say that I identify with both modes, although my work leans more towards the window part of the spectrum. I believe, as Paul Reas, that “… as a photographer, although you’re photographing other things, actually you’re only photographing your own life and your own experience.”(Paul Reas cited in Smyth 2018). Even though my work mainly focuses on environment issues, a part of me and my experiences within every image.

For instance, Fig 1. Depicts waste abandoned in an unused piece of land. However, I am drawn to such subjects because of my childhood memory of a landfill site I couldn’t avoid passing every day on my way to school. And my interest in the environment is a result of wanting to leave the planet in a state that my children will thrive in. But at the same time, I am pointing to, as observed by colleagues on the course, “to class divide” and “wealth and development and the fractured histories that underlie it.”

It is comforting that even Szarkowski noted that the analogy for mirrors and windows was intended to suggest a continuum or single axis with two poles (Szarkowski 1980). Since it is not a clear divide, I don’t need to choose any particular mode.

Fig 1: Conteh 2021. Mirrors and Windows.


  • SMYTH, Diane. 2018. ‘Paul Reas’ Fables of Faubus’. 1854 Photography [online]. Available at: [accessed 24 Sep 2021].
  • SOUTTER, Lucy. 2018. Why Art Photography. Second edition. London: Routledge.
  • SZARKOWSKI, John (ed.). 1980. Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. 3. print. New York: Museum of Modern Art.