John Szarkowski (1927-2007) PDF
Written by Philip Gefter   


Curator of Photohgraphy, Dies at 81.


John Szarkowski, a curator who almost single-handedly elevated photography’s status in the last half-century to that of a fine art, making his case in seminal writings and landmark exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, died in on Saturday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 81.

The cause of death was complications of a stroke, said Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery and a spokesman for the family.


John Szarkowski


In the early 1960’s, when Mr. Szarkowski (pronounced Shar-COW-ski) began his curatorial career, photography was commonly perceived as a utilitarian medium, a means to document the world. Perhaps more than anyone, Mr. Szarkowski changed that perception. For him, the photograph was a form of expression as potent and meaningful as any work of art, and as director of photography at the Modern for almost three decades, beginning in 1962, he was perhaps its most impassioned advocate. Two of his books, “The Photographer’s Eye,” (1964) and “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art” (1973), remain syllabus staples in art history programs.

Mr. Szarkowski was first to confer importance on the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in his influential exhibition “New Documents” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967. That show, considered radical at the time, identified a new direction in photography: pictures that seemed to have a casual, snapshot-like look and subject matter so apparently ordinary that it was hard to categorize.

In the wall text for the show, Mr. Szarkowski suggested that until then the aim of documentary photography had been to show what was wrong with the world, as a way to generate interest in rectifying it. But this show signaled a change.

“In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends,” he wrote. “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”

Critics were skeptical. “The observations of the photographers are noted as oddities in personality, situation, incident, movement, and the vagaries of chance,” Jacob Deschin wrote in a review of the show in The New York Times. Today, the work of Ms. Arbus, Mr. Friedlander and Mr. Winogrand is considered among the most decisive for the generations of photographers that followed them.

As a curator, Mr. Szarkowski loomed large, with a stentorian voice and a raconteurial style. But he was self-effacing about his role in mounting the “New Documents” show.

“I think anybody who had been moderately competent, reasonably alert to the vitality of what was actually going on in the medium would have done the same thing I did,” he said several years ago. “I mean, the idea that Winogrand or Friedlander or Diane were somehow inventions of mine, I would regard, you know, as denigrating to them.”

Another exhibition Mr. Szarkowski organized at the Modern, in 1976, introduced the work of William Eggleston, whose saturated color photographs of cars, signs and individuals ran counter to the black- and-white orthodoxy of fine-art photography at the time. The show, “William Eggleston’s Guide” , was widely considered the worst of the year in photography.

“Mr. Szarkowski throws all caution to the winds and speaks of Mr. Eggleston’s pictures as ‘perfect,’ ” Hilton Kramer wrote in The Times. “Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.” Mr. Eggleston would come to be considered a pioneer of color photography.

By championing the work of these artists early on, Mr. Szarkowski was helping to change the course of photography. Perhaps his most eloquent explanation of what photographers do appears in his introduction to the four-volume set “The Work of Atget,” published in conjunction with a series of exhibitions at MoMA from 1981 to 1985.

“One might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing,” Mr. Szarkowski wrote. “It must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others.”

He added, “The talented practitioner of the new discipline would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from a pattern created by the pointer.”

Thaddeus John Szarkowski was born on Dec. 18, 1925, in Ashland, Wis., where his father later became assistant postmaster. Picking up a camera at age 11, he made photography one of his principal pursuits, along with trout fishing and the clarinet, throughout high school.

He attended the University of Wisconsin, interrupted his studies to serve in the Army during World War II, then returned to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1947, with a major in art history. In college, he played second-chair clarinet for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but maintained that he held the post only because of the wartime absence of better musicians.

As a young artist in the early 1950s, Mr. Szarkowski began to photograph the buildings of the renowned Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. In an interview in 2005 in The New York Times, he said that when he was starting out, “most young artists, most photographers surely, if they were serious, still believed it was better to work in the context of some kind of potentially social good.”

The consequence of this belief is evident in the earnestness of his early pictures, which come out of an American classical tradition. His early influences were Walker Evans and Edward Weston. “Walker for the intelligence and Weston for the pleasure,” he said. In 1948, Evans and Weston were not yet as widely known as Mr. Szarkowski would eventually make them through exhibitions at MoMA.

By the time Mr. Szarkowski arrived at the museum from Wisconsin in 1962 at the age of 37, he was already an accomplished photographer. He had published two books of his own photographs, “The Idea of Louis Sullivan” (1956) and “The Face of Minnesota” (1958). Remarkably for a volume of photography, the Minnesota book landed on The New York Times best-seller list for several weeks, perhaps because Dave Garroway had discussed its publication on the “Today” program.

When Mr. Szarkowski was offered the position of director of the photography department at the Modern, he had just received a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on a new project. In a letter to Edward Steichen, then curator of the department, he accepted the job, registering with his signature dry wit a reluctance to leave his lakeside home in Wisconsin: “Last week I finally got back home for a few days, where I could think about the future and look at Lake Superior at the same time. No matter how hard I looked, the Lake gave no indication of concern at the possibility of my departing from its shores, and I finally decided that if it can get along without me, I can get along without it.”

A year after arriving in New York, he married Jill Anson, an architect, who died on Dec. 31. Mr. Szarkowski is survived by two daughters, Natasha Szarkowski Brown and Nina Anson Szarkowski Jones, both of New York, and two grandchildren. A son, Alexander, died in 1972 at age 2.

Among the many other exhibitions he organized as a curator at the Modern was “Mirrors and Windows,” in 1978, in which he broke down photographic practice into two categories: documentary images and those that reflect a more interpretive experience of the world. And, in 1990, his final exhibition was an idiosyncratic overview called“Photography Until Now,” in which he traced the technological evolution of the medium and its impact on the look of photographs.

In 2005, Mr. Szarkowski was given a retrospective exhibition of his own photographs, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, touring museums around the country and ending at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006. His photographs of buildings, street scenes, backyards and nature possess the straightforward descriptive clarity he so often championed in the work of others, and, in their simplicity, a purity that borders on the poetic.

From his own early photographs, which might serve as a template for his later curatorial choices, it is easy to see why Mr. Szarkowski had such visual affinity for the work of Friedlander and Winogrand.

When asked by a reporter how it felt to exhibit his own photographs finally, knowing they would be measured against his curatorial legacy, he became circumspect. As an artist, “you look at other people’s work and figure out how it can be useful to you,” he said.

“I’m content that a lot of these pictures are going to be interesting for other photographers of talent and ambition,” he said. “And that’s all you want.”


Philip  Gefter
© New York Times, Published: July 9, 2007


John Szarkowski

John Szarkowski, who died on the 7th of this month, had a long run and made, to say the least, a big impact on the world of Photography. If you want to read about his many accomplishments and enormous influence, there are plenty of places to do that. This is simply a brief memory of the first time I met him:

In the early 1980s, the Photography department at the Museum of Modern Art had what was essentially an open door policy for looking at work (for all I know, it may continue to this day). No appointment was necessary; you simply put your pictures in a box, brought them in by Wednesday afternoon and left them with the secretary at the front desk. On Thursday morning, the photography curators would gather and go through all the portfolios that had been dropped off. You'd then come by in the afternoon to pick up your stuff, and that was usually that. The best you'd get was a form letter, thanking you for giving the staff the opportunity, blah, blah blah...Of course, every once in a great while, someone would get lucky and sell the museum a print or two.

I first brought my own pictures there in 1983. When I came to pick them up, the secretary informed me that one of the curators wanted to speak to me. She walked back into a hallway while I stood at the desk, stunned. I heard someone say "John will talk to him", and about fifteen seconds later, John Szarkowski was offering me his hand,

"Bladen?", he said.
"It's Baden", I mumbled.
"Ah, Baden. I'm John Szarkowski."
"I know."
"You do? OK, well, let's go into my office."

We sat down across from each other and he, I think, began to tell me how much the department enjoyed looking at my work. I say 'I think', because I was terribly nervous and, even though I could hear his words, their meaning didn't register. He began to refer to specific images in my portfolio, but his descriptions sounded entirely unfamiliar. Before long, I was convinced that he had confused my work with someone else's.

"I think you've made a mistake," I finally blurted out, " I don't think you're talking about my pictures."

Szarkowski paused. "Well, maybe you're right. Why don't we bring them in and take a look?"

'Ain't this the story of my life,' I'm now thinking. 'The only reason I get an audience with this guy is because he thinks I'm someone else...'

So they bring in a Fiberbilt case full of photos and, lo and behold, they turn out to be mine.
I left the museum that day with one less photograph in my portfolio, and the promise of a check for $125. Not a lot of money for a photograph, even in 1983, but it gave me a sense of confidence that I have rarely, if ever, felt since.

The Idea of John Szarkowski, to appropriate a phrase, may have fallen out of grace in the past decade or two; his writings, according to several schools of thought, smack of an old-fashioned patriarchy. While this view is not entirely unjustified, I continue to believe that no one has written more clearly, more compellingly and more beautifully about photographs and photography. In The Photographer's Eye, Looking at Photographs and many of the other books in what is practically a bottomless bibliography, John Szarkowski had the ability to illuminate truth, seemingly effortlessly, with simplicity, elegance and clarity.

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