Gray Tone

Peter Plagens on John Szarkowski

New York

Left: John Szarkowski, MoMA director emeritus Richard E. Oldenburg, and Irving Penn. Right: The New York Times's Philip Gefter with MoMA Trustee Chairman Robert B. Menschel. (Unless noted, all photos: Spencer T. Tucker)

At the Tuesday night opening of “John Szarkowski Photographs,” the Museum of Modern Art was cold. Not just temperature-wise, on the drizzly night fate provided for the event, but psychologically, too. There’s something a bit dark gray and businesslike about the high-end photography scene, I thought, as we ascended to the cavernous, fun-proof atrium—Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk presiding over the crush of sushi-feeding suits like a scolding exclamation point. As openings go (photography or otherwise), this one was older and richer than most, more like the Met or the Morgan, though with a few less “social X-rays” perhaps. I recognized hardly anybody from my neck of the woods, save dealer Max Protetch, who’s been known to show a photograph or two, and painter David Reed, who’s been known to show with Max.

Persevering, nevertheless among such overheard snippets as “I’ve been looking at Aperture lately…” and “I’d like you to meet one of the world’s great photo historians,” I discovered some serious looking at small, framed photographs going on in the galleries upstairs. The Szarkowski aesthetic can be rather philatelic—nuances of tone, cropping, and weird shadows reward the viewer who’s willing to peer and ponder. Not much color of course in this Walker-Evansish, Helen Levittian fare (mostly from the 1940s and ’50s); perhaps that’s why my first bit of banter, with Art News editor Robin Cembalest, turned to, of all things, her bright persimmon suit, a wardrobe staple greatly missed on this evening. With Betsy Baker, Cembalest’s counterpart at Art in America, chat (inevitably) returned to gray tones. A recent fire at 575 Broadway had made nomads of the Brant magazines, as well as part of the Guggenheim’s downtown operation. “We’ll be moved back in six weeks, maybe two months,” Baker said hopefully.

Left: John Szarkowski, SF MoMA curator Sandra S. Phillips, and MoMA curator of photography Peter Galassi. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Irving Penn, Lee Friedlander, and Sandra S. Phillips.

Cutting to the chase, I butted in on a clutch of well-wishers surrounding a robust-looking eighty-year-old Szarkowski to offer up regards from a Newsweek colleague who’d written a profile on the photographic lion several years back. “Yeah, but what has he done for me lately?” our octagenarian honoree replied, only half in jest. Sort of charming, I guess, when you consider that Szarkowski was already an exhibiting photographer with a couple of Guggenheim fellowships under his belt back when Edward Steichen handpicked him in 1962 to succeed him as head of MoMA’s photography department—-this at a time when hardly a gallery in the city deigned to show what was known as “fine art photography.” Szarkowski, who ruled with an iron loupe until his retirement in 1991 (some say he put the medium on the art-world map), was, it happened, in the midst of regaling longtime MoMA photo committee member (and federal judge) Pierre Leval with tales of ’45 and Harry Truman’s coming to the Presidency. The pretext: scouting, of course, for some ray of hope re the Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation of Samuel Alito earlier in the day.

I was raised on Szarkowski’s brand of politics, and on the same kind of photography: black-and-white reportage, rural-town grit, and people on street corners in the big city. The appreciation is supposed to be: “Wow! The photographer was arty enough to notice this when it happened, and professional enough to have had his camera ready.” Such pictures are nice enough today as art history on institutional walls, but can they command anybody’s attention in this pixelated, video-on-demand age? On my way out, I saw two student-age women looking at a Szarkowski shot of futures traders on a Chicago sidewalk. “Hey, that’s cool,” one said. MoMA got a tiny bit warmer.

Left: The masses at MoMA. Right: El Museo del Barrio director emeritus Susana Leval, justice Pierre Leval, and John Szarkowski.