PRINT October 2007


John Szarkowski

IT IS RARE for a curator to reign with virtual sovereignty over an entire medium, but during his nearly three decades as director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (from 1962 until his retirement in 1991), John Szarkowski did. His outpouring of exhibitions and catalogues at the pulpit of modern art and photography placed him on a singular pedestal in a recurrent spotlight, but it was less these conditions than his penetrating mind, eloquence, and perspective that made his opinion matter so much. In a field dominated by journalism and almost devoid of serious critical thought, Szarkowski was a flare of intellect, a lone poet among jobbing professionals. One would be hard-pressed to name another instance in which one man’s vision of an unrecognized art simultaneously created and educated its audience.

Szarkowski, who died on July 7 at the age of eighty-one, saw photography as a commodious collection of diverse species of image—studio portraits, architectural views, amateur snapshots, “nuts-and-bolts” industrial illustrations, commercial shots, photojournalism, scientific documents, and many other kinds of records. He was interested in the medium as a whole, and in his 1964 exhibition and subsequent book, The Photographer’s Eye (1966), he illustrated how the creative issues, such as subject selection, vantage, and frame, were similar whether the camera was wielded by a journeyman, a Sunday hobbyist, or an artist. He recognized that the evolution of the mechanical and technical aspects of the medium molded the options photographers had and that their choices, in the aggregate, created the medium’s history—a stream of images that, as long as it was remembered, became a valuable, usable tradition. This he richly detailed for the 150-year anniversary celebration of photography’s invention in “Photography Until Now,” his 1990 omnibus exhibition and book (and valedictory as director of MoMA’s photography department).

While democratically delighting in the vernacular of the species, Szarkowski could not help preferring photographs that consistently revealed keen “intelligence, precise intention, and coherence”—in other words, pictures made by talented, committed artists. This elite was not likely to be found among those who labored to make their pictures look artistic, like Impressionist or Constructivist paintings, for example, nor among those who earned academic degrees in art (propositions he found faintly ludicrous). Rather, to his mind, true artists were generally autodidacts who discovered in their photographic praxis a school of experience and in their subjects the resonance of larger meanings. He had learned that neither the older arts nor the classroom afforded adequate instruction in photography; this, he felt, could only arise from the individual’s vital examination of the world.

Szarkowski grew up on the shores of Lake Superior in Wisconsin and experienced an all-American, small-town youth in which family life, marching bands, baseball, farm folk, photography, music, and fishing commingled with hard work, moral decency, and public service. Threading through his formative years was a fiber of deep respect for the literal and the practical, especially when ennobled by ideas. The truths of the actual world, which this Midwesterner always revered, and photography’s infinitely nuanced transparency and open field of inquiry, which challenged his eye and mind, perfectly married his proclivities and perceptions. After apprenticing in various photographic studios and museums, he wrote and made the photographs for two distinguished books, The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956) and The Face of Minnesota (1958). In 1961, while working on a third book, exploring a tract of wilderness on the Canadian border, Szarkowski considered an invitation to become a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He later recalled that a drinking buddy at the local bar thought this shift the equivalent of trading in his fishing license for a game warden’s badge.

The aesthetic the new curator would advocate throughout his tenure at MoMA owed much to his own photographic practice, to his study of the American photographers Edward Weston and Paul Strand, and especially to his encounter via an art history professor with Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938). Although it mystified him at first, this classic book gradually taught Szarkowski that photographs could be dense with intelligence, precise and literal in description, and rich with allusive complexity. Evans’s approach eventually became Szarkowski’s essential position on the medium. In 1971 he wrote, “The photographer must define his subject with an educated awareness of what it is and what it means; he must describe it with such simplicity and sureness that the result seems an unchallengeable fact, not merely the record of a photographer’s opinion; yet the picture itself should possess a taut athletic grace, an inherent structure, that gives it a life in metaphor.” He continued, “Evans at his best convinces us that we are seeing the dry bones of fact, presented without comment, almost without thought. His lesser pictures make it clear that the best ones had deceived us: what we had accepted as simple facts were precise descriptions of very personal perceptions.”

If Szarkowski recognized Evans as a prophet, Evans was the first to remark the younger man’s brilliance, for Evans had been the referee who recommended that Szarkowski receive Guggenheim grants in 1954 and again in 1961. That year, when Szarkowski made a trip east only to find his New York publisher less than enthusiastic about his new photographs, he ventured to see whether Evans, whom he venerated but had never met, was in his office at Fortune. Evans kept mum about his role in awarding the Guggenheim Fellowships and, after hearing Szarkowski’s story and viewing the photographs, said something like, “Forget the publisher—those people never understand artists like you and me. Let’s go have a drink.” The association sealed the approval that was shortly afterward made manifest in the invitation to take over from Edward Steichen at MoMA.

Evans was Szarkowski’s critical link back to the documentary tradition of the nineteenth century—to Eugène Atget and Mathew Brady—as well as a prescient scout of the best of contemporary practitioners, among them Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Garry Winogrand, all protégés of Evans’s whom Szarkowski presented in his watershed 1967 exhibition, “New Documents.” Like Evans, these artists deftly seized the existential facts of a moment in a way that implied objectivity but actually implicated the photographer’s ideas about the subject, resulting in the sort of credible fictions that qualify as photographic art. Although critics thought the images in the exhibition were unformed, uncomfortable, or artless, Evans’s criteria were operational, just transmuted into a more contemporary guise. Szarkowski’s advocacy of these photographs and of other photographers of the younger generation is often seen as having effected a sea change in photographic style, but, as Szarkowski modestly acknowledged, he was simply quick enough to recognize and champion the new tendency.

Throughout the 1970s Szarkowski kept working to reveal photography as a distinct and valuable art. His 1973 volume Looking at Photographs, with its succinct, colorful, and variously fascinating commentaries and its broad selection of photographs, demonstrated one hundred times over his astute ways of seeing into the meaning of individual images and went far toward attracting a larger audience to the medium. Szarkowski was not only educating the public, the new collectors, and the gallerists; he was also teaching photographers about the creative potential of their medium and pushing them to adopt his rigorous standards. When he produced William Eggleston’s Guide, in 1976, focusing attention on color snapshots, he brushed a lot of fur backward but opened the door for serious consideration of that genre and for color photography in general. Because Szarkowski gave dignity to their enterprise and really understood their issues, young photographers were drawn to MoMA during his tenure, and those who were included in his inner circle and exhibitions knew they had secured a place in history. For accomplished masters of the medium such as André Kertész, Brassaï, Bill Brandt, Harry Callahan, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Irving Penn, an exhibition organized by “the great man” promised a deeper understanding of their achievement.

Even if the state of photographic commentary had not been relatively vacuous when Szarkowski came onto the stage, his opinions would have counted. His ideas had the virtue of simplicity. Overhauling the prevailing opinion of Atget—who was still regarded as a primitive in the early ’80s, when Szarkowski mounted a four-part exhibition of the French documentarian’s work—he famously compared photography to pointing, arguing, “It must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others,” an irrefutable statement clarifying Atget’s mute genius. Szarkowski’s genius was to test his heady ideas against his real experience as a photographer; this encouraged him to jettison any insupportable theories as “woolgathering.” His broad reading, training in art history, and rhetorical abilities gave his elaboration of these ideas reference, relevance, and resonance. In addition, his measured, near-biblical rhythms, the clarity and perfect pitch of his analogies, and his playful, sardonic, and thought-provoking embellishments were captivating. At their best, his arguments were wholly persuasive and his apperceptions irresistible, and if he was occasionally irascible, garrulous, and egotistical in later years, these indulgences were more than offset by his outsize accomplishments, usual decorum, and charisma.

Although critics began to carp, Szarkowski was immovable in his stylistic preferences and secure in his position right through the ’80s. He could not bear casual ignorance or open rejection of classic photographic technique, which struck him blind to the conceptual interest of many artists who began using the medium, such as Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman. And because the new directorial mode, constructed realities, appropriated pictorial worlds, and borrowed media identities interested him not at all, during his time at MoMA the photography department ignored the work of Jeff Wall, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Robert Mapplethorpe, and many other good artists who were technically sophisticated but whose creative schemas lay beyond real life in the province of Art (which Szarkowski saw as a seductive but intellectually empty precinct compounded of artifice and attitude). This young generation perceived that the medium had creative capacities far beyond poetic documentation, but Szarkowski was unshakable in his convictions. I think he felt in his gut that his version of photography was the main stream and that he himself was the weir; thus, any big fish he didn’t catch could only be ephemeral, inconsequential, or unreal. The irony was that the man who arguably did the most to win photography’s acceptance as an art form second to none should have found so uncongenial the work of the first generation of practitioners who saw themselves not as photographers but as artists who work in the medium of photography.

After retiring from MoMA in 1991, Szarkowski continued to write about photography, but he also returned to his first love, taking pictures. On annual trips with his good friends Lee Friedlander and Richard Benson, he spent much of his time looking at potential sites without ever getting out his camera, doubtless because his long experience with, and eidetic memory for, the best photographs obviated paltry or redundant pictures. He did manage to take some good photographs of dooryards, hand-hewn barns, and apple trees, comforting elements of the agrarian past from which he and his ancestors drew their innate strength. (A traveling exhibition of his early and late photographs was organized in 2005 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.)

In the future, Szarkowski will be remembered for his brilliant clarification of modern photography’s independence from the other arts; in the present, however, all who were changed by the force of his vision are measuring the dimensions of his absence.

Maria Morris Hambourg coauthored the four-volume Work Of Atget (Museum of Modern Art, 1981-85) with John Szarkowski and was head of the Photography Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1992 until 2004.