Glass is everywhere in photography. From Eugène Atget’s reflective vitrines to Lee Friedlander’s sly self-portraiture, photographers have long been in thrall to the visual complications glass can inject into a composition. Glass is present not only as photography’s seductive subject but also as its physical material.
Photographs were commonly made on wet-plate negatives (glass coated with photosensitive emulsion) in the 19th century, and then on the improved and portable dry-plate negatives, before film was manufactured at a sufficient strength in the 20th century to serve as a transportable medium for photographic emulsion. Sometimes the very glass of the negative becomes part of the photograph’s story.
Broken glass, and broken windows in particular, are a notable byway in photography’s history. Brett Weston made one of the most striking examples in San Francisco in 1937. Weston was not recording evidence of a crime, or even particularly making a sociological comment. He was describing an abstraction with his camera, the calligraphic presence of a jagged black hole surrounded by a gray remnant of glass. What has been broken away dominates the picture. We see an outline like a map of a fictional island.
There’s more dark to see here than glass, and the darkness is deep and mysterious, a mouth agape in an unending scream. About this picture, John Szarkowski, the influential curator at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote that the black shape “is not a void but a presence; the periphery of the picture is background.” In the middle, in that darkness, is where Weston’s self-portrait would be, if the window were intact.