Sanford Schwartz

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

Reading ["The Eye of Conscience: Photographers and Social Change" by Milton Meltzer and Bernard Cole] is a little like those times in school when you went in for a session with the guidance counselor: the man meant well, but the points he made, even about important things, were so predictable, and the terms he used were so solemn, and he repeated himself so much, that you were never sure, by the end, whether you were more bored or more annoyed with him. Like the guidance counselor's, the language in "The Eye of Conscience" isn't the kind that's geared for having fresh perceptions, or even for presenting old perceptions in a lively way. It's a shame everything is so smothered, because the book presents good subjects for its audience: how photography helps affect social change, or mirrors social problems, and how the camera, when used daily and continually, is an instrument that tells us about our instincts and feelings.

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The main focus in the book is on 10 photographers and their involvement with social problems…. The main trouble with the biographies is that the authors don't relate the individual photographer's character and motives to his pictures; the pictures just dangle alongside, like evidence. Social commitment is hammered in as the only thing to keep in mind. That commitment is important but, taken by itself, it's not why some people make memorable photographs….

[Meltzer] and Cole's assumption is that, if a career is noble and committed, the photographs automatically will be moving and important. They should have proved this—which isn't always the case here….

[The] book's implied meaning, that socially oriented photography is the kind that will most stimulate the young, is also questionable. Distinctive social photography takes more than sympathy…. Anyway, the best art made by children, whether in photography or painting, rarely shows sympathetic awareness of people and their problems; children's art is private, it's derived more from spontaneous, instinctive reactions, usually to family and friends, and it's often close to fantasy. Meltzer and Cole, because they never clearly differentiate their Social Photography theme from their Be-a-Photographer theme, and because of the way they describe their subjects' lives, make it seem as if they want art to be the product of altruism. That's wishful thinking.

Sanford Schwartz, in his review of "The Eye of Conscience," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission). August 25, 1974, p. 8.

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