[S-fotografie] John Szarkowski, Curator of Photography, Dies at 81
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Mer 11 Lug 2007 09:38:11 CEST
John Szarkowski, Curator of Photography, Dies at 81
New York Times, Published: July 9, 2007
By PHILIP GEFTER
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.
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
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
"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
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
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."
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