John Szarkowski: 1925-2007

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Today comes news of the death of John Szarkowski, MoMA’s great former chief curator of photography, a man whose influence over the field was immense. In his 29 years at MoMA, Szarkowski put his stamp decisively on the art and taste of his time simply by pointing to a few crucial photographers and saying attention must be paid. It was Szarkowski who understood — early and profoundly — how important it was that Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander were moving the practice of documentary “towards more personal ends”. He also understood that their pictures were as intricate and illuminating as any art of their time.

Szarkowski wasn’t indifferent to conventional documentary photography, the kind that focuses on social reportage. But he recognized that the camera could dig out more enigmatic readings of the world. It’s impossible to understate how important it was that he came to MoMA in time to promote and elucidate the work of Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand in the New Documents Show in 1967. (Nine years later he did the same for William Eggleston.) Edward Steichen, Szarkowski’s predecessor as MoMA’s chief photo curator, had set the agenda for an earlier generation with The Family of Man show, the highwater mark of what you might call “photo humanism”. Under Steichen’s aesthetic photographs were expected to have clear meanings and well constructed compositions. He could never have promoted the weirdly ambiguous portraits of Arbus or the headlong and fractured pictures of Winogrand and Frieldlander. Arbus once wrote that “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Steichen would have put a gun to his head before he would say a thing like that. Szarkowski understood it implicitly.

He had not only an eye but a voice like few others. Szarkowski’s books, especially The Photographer’s Eye and Looking at Photographs, were as important his shows. He had a wonderfully serene writing style. Though he was in effect selling a new aesthetic there was nothing of the salesman or the carnival barker in his tone. And he even put his weight behind the most understated photographer of all, Eugene Atget. Szarkowski’s conviction that nothing less than four major Atget shows (and books) over a period of years would do to make plain the depth of Atget’s accomplishment made people re-examine Atget with an entirely new level of seriousness.

I owe alot of my own predispositions as a critic to Szarkowski. There were limits to his taste, some of which I suppose I’ve inherited, too. For one thing, he never cared much for the staged photographs that arrived in the ’80s under the banner of Postmodernism. But as Philip Johnson was for a while in architecture, he was that thing that every curator aims to be, a force to be reckoned with in the art of his time.