Szarkowski Dies

one’s point of view is formed by the work one chooses to write about, because it is challenging, mysterious, worthy of study, fun.
John Szarkowski ( interview with Mark Durden, 2006.)

It would be hard to overstate the importance of John Szarkowski to photography, so I suppose it is inevitable that some of the obituaries following his death following a stroke last Saturday at the age of 81 have done so.

Great that Szarkowski was, he didn’t invent photography, and its progression into commercial galleries and the art world would certainly have ocurred (although undoubtedly rather differently) without his presence. One or two writers also need reminding that photography had started to play a significant role at the Museum of Modern Art some 25 years before he arrived there in 1962.

He built his work – as he always acknowledged – on that of others, notably Beaumont Newhall and Edward Steichen. Walker Evans, whose work had a key role in Szarkowski’s pantheon, had his first show at the museum in 1933, thanks to Lincoln Kirstein and Alfred Barr, and his major outing there, “American Photographs” in 1938, a year after Beaumont Newhall’s groundbreaking “Photography, 1839-1937“. (Kirstein, a wealthy “friend” of the museum, was also largely responsible for the publication Walker Evan’s classic book to accompany his show there.) Szarkowski’s 1971 retrospective of Evans was very much following in Newhall’s footsteps.

Szarkowki’s immediate predecessor at the museum, Edward Steichen, had given sterling service as the captain at the helm of photography, doing much to increase its popularity as an art form, particularly with his record-breaking “The Family of Man“.

But of course Szarkowski’s acheivements were immense. During his time as director from 1962-91, the museum set out a coherent direction in photography with shows such as “The Photographers Eye“, (1966), the catalogue from which remains an important text for photographers. “New Documents” (1967) introduced the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, giving a new impetus, and one that few critics of the time were ready for. Similar reactions greeted “William EgglestonÂ’s Guide” in 1976, although here the main problem for many was that Eggleston worked in colour. These shows and others changed the course of photography.

Among his other writings, “Looking at Pictures” remains one of the most engaging books on photography, and certainly one that has inspired many writers on photography, as well as encouraging photographers to think more deeply about their own work. If you don’t already own a copy, I’d suggest you go out right now and buy or steal one.

One of the great treasures of MoMA is perhaps the finest collection of the works of Eugene Atget; most came when Szarkowski acquired the Berenice Abbot collection. The set of four volumes, “The Work of Atget” by Szarkowski and Maria Morris Hambourg that were published from 1981-5 are a fine work of scholarship superbly presented.

Szarkowski retired as director in 1991, although fortunately he continued to both curate shows and write, but he was no longer the emperor of photography. At times he must indeed have had grave doubts about the new clothes worn by some of the new emperors who took his place, and photography does sometimes seem to have lost its way and be moving down strange paths with odd bedfellows.

In recent years there have been several shows of Szarkowski’s own photographs. As might be expected, they show a great care and lucidity of thought. However his much greater legacy to us is through his work as a curator and writer.

Peter Marshall

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