Sunday, July 8, 2007

John Szarkowski 1925 - 2007

I once heard John Szarkowski say that his career as a photographer consisted of “a beginning and an end.” We know what happened to the “middle.” That history is well written and the shift in ideas brought about under his influence is still being felt today. In fact, one could easily argue that the inflation of the art market and current attitude towards photography is greatly due to his efforts of expanding the understanding of this medium.

What fascinates me is how a man whose passion towards the medium shifted from creating images to mainly handling images in one sort or another. There may be no use in speculating (there seldom is) but I do wonder what he would have accomplished as a photographer had he not accepted the position at MOMA. Thoughts like these surface when I see images like this one from The Idea of Louis Sullivan.

The Idea of Louis Sullivan was first published by the
University of Minnesota Press in 1956 and reissued by Bulfinch in 2000. The Bulfinch reissue is finely printed and I think follows the original 1956 edition with the exception of the addition of a preface to the new edition.

I had heard that his ability to communicate and express himself was cruelly robbed of him after suffering a stroke this past spring. That kind of cruelty of life didn’t seem to enter his own photography. His book The Face of Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press 1958), unlike much of the work he championed at the museum, mostly describes a values driven society who furrow into a plot of ground and create their legacies. His subjects work hard, are neighborly, and contribute unselfishly to create a sense of community. They exist 180 degrees from the work of, say, Robert Frank.

This sense of Midwestern wholesomeness is felt in his photographs, especially in his photos of children. They are the visual equivalent of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon youths where “all the children, are above average.” They are scouts; they prey and they listen to their parents.

Szarkowski’s photographs of architecture celebrate accomplishments and improvisation in their descriptions of how, in the words of Sandra Phillips, “craftsmen and engineers solve building problems.” He approached the medium with the same sense of problem solving. This was especially true of his book Mr. Bristol’s Barn (Harry N. Abrams 1997) in both subject and application.

Since his work was segmented we will never know how it may have evolved uninterrupted. In his efforts, we can see a man finding his way and taking pleasure in looking at the world around him. And although he did find some success as a photographer with two Guggenheim Fellowships and two books published, did he have a moment of insecurity that led him to sacrifice continuing that personal exploration? Did he not have anything else to say with photography? Or did he see such strong examples set with his contemporaries that it made the decision easier to make?

Starting in 2005, several museums including the Museum of Modern Art celebrated Szarkowski’s photography with an exhibition and book. Also by Bulfinch, John Szarkowski: Photographs is a beautifully printed oeuvre of his career as a photographer.

Regardless of whether it is his photography or through his curatorial duties that we remember him, John Szarkowski was a force in this medium that is not often felt. His sickness and subsequent death may seem to leave us a bit weaker but thankfully the residue of books, essays and ideas will continue to strengthen and enlighten.

I think if we want to truly honor this man’s contribution and memory: close this browser window, turn off the computer, pick up your camera, and go outside.

Book Available Here (Photographs)

Book Available Here (Mr. Bristol's Barn)

Book Available Here (Photographer's Eye)

Book Available Here (Looking At Photographs)

Book Available Here (Photography Until Now)

Book Available Here (Mirrors and Windows)

Book Available Here (New Japanese Photography)


Matt Weber said...

If I could write as well as you, I'd try and say something about Szarkowski. The fact that he was a very good photographer has always meant a lot to me, as I think it added more credibility to his writing. Your final thought's perfect, and I shall do just that...

One Way Street said...

Hello Jeff, I find myself conflicted in many ways re Szarkowski, & reading your appreciation allows me to chill out regarding his role in photo culture. Indeed he was unbelievably brilliant & he had a lot to say. & he was no academic about it - he puts academics to shame in his passions, his erudition, his ability to present really remarkable work. At the risk of sounding ridiculous I would say his New Documents show of 67 - w/ Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander & Garry Winogrand - alone that should suffice for a milestone in photo history. Likewise I could say that his approach was also very Mandarin, very boys-club, very clique-ish. I find his watered-down Greenbergian formalism kind of tiresome & most decidedly NOT illuminating, however in spite of this he had such an amazing eye. He reminds me of the Orson Welles character in Touch of Evil. At the end Marlene Dietrich asks, "What can you say about a man? He was some kind of a man."