"[John] Szarkowski's thinking, whether Americans know it or not, has become our thinking about photography".
When U.S. News & World Report made this proclamation in 1990, John Szarkowski was nearing the end of his storied tenure as director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During three decades as architect and steward of one of the world's great collections of photographs, Szarkowski made unparalleled contributions to the fields of photographic criticism, history, and theory. He is considered one of the world†s leading theorists and historians of photography and is both an alumnus and recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, among others. In addition, he has held teaching positions at New York University, Harvard, and Cornell.
Szarkowski returns to his alma mater in Spring of 2000 under the auspices of the UW Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program, his residency co-sponsored by the Departments of Art and Art History.
Szarkowski rejuvenated the art world's thinking about photography via a radically new conception of the form's possibilities. For Szarkowski, the best photography reveals the unvarnished truth about reality. Szarkowski's exaltation of the simple and the direct is evident in his own photography, the groundbreaking exhibitions he has curated, and his critical and theoretical work. His many books and monographs carry their persuasive force because of their power in articulating ideas. The New York Times lauded Szarkowski's writing as "cadenced, mellifluous prose [that] complements the nuanced, metaphoric quality of his thinking." His ideas will continue to exert influence well into photography's third century.
Szarkowski's passion for the practice and study of photography was first nurtured in his home state of Wisconsin. Born in Ashland in 1925, Szarkowski spent the mid-1940s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned one of the university's first B.S. degrees in the History of Art in 1948. His star rose within the art world throughout the 1950s, with achievements including a Guggenheim-sponsored photographic study of the work of Louis Sullivan, a publication commemorating Minnesota's centenary, a stint as a photography instructor at Albright Art School in Buffalo, and one-man exhibitions of his own work at the George Eastman House, the Walker Art Center, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1962 Szarkowski was appointed Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, handpicked by outgoing Director Edward Steichen. As Director, Szarkowski oversaw a significant expansion in the Museum's photographic holdings. When he left in 1991, MoMA was home to over 20,000 photographic prints dating back to the 1840s. Under Szarkowski†s stewardship MoMA sponsored a series of exhibitions which established or sealed the reputations of many major figures of photographic art: Dorothea Lange (1966), Henri Cartier-Bresson (1968), Brassai (1968), Walker Evans (1971), Diane Arbus (1972), Harry Callahan (1976), William Eggleston (1976), Ansel Adams (1979), Eugene Atget (1981-82), Irving Penn (1984), and Garry Winogrand (1988). Szarkowski himself wrote and/or edited essays for many of the monographs accompanying these exhibitions.
Szarkowski's career at MoMA is bookended by two of his most ambitious and influential exhibitions, The Photographer's Eye (1964) and Photography Until Now (1989-90). These shows, along with the accompanying volumes of criticism, summarize Szarkowski's major concerns as an historian and theorist of photography and demonstrate his impact on the field.
The Photographer's Eye introduced the then-radical notion that artistic merit could be located not only in the work of the avowed mastersStieglitz, Steichen, the WPA group--but also in news photographs, magazine spreads, commercial work, and anonymous documentary photography. The exhibition juxtaposed, without comment, Cartier-Bresson's masterpiece "Children Playing in Ruins" with a street scene taken outside a Stillwater, Minnesota barber shop. The work of contemporary giant Lee Friedlander rubbed elbows unashamedly with a 1910 bedroom interior plucked from the Iconographic Collection of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In the companion book, published in 1966, Szarkowski asserts that the pictures in the exhibition "have in fact little in common except their success, and a shared vocabulary: these pictures are unmistakably photographs. The vision they share belongs to no school or aesthetic theory, but to photography itself."
Szarkowski championed the "vernacular tradition" of photography through additional exhibitions such as From the Picture Press in 1973. "Photography has learned about its own nature not only from its great masters, but also from the simple and radical works of photographers of modest aspiration and small renown." Prior to Szarkowski's reign at the Museum of Modern Art, this democratic aesthetic was foreign to many of the field's practitionersìparticularly those still under the sway of Stieglitz and the "Photo-Secession" movement of the 1920s, during which the more artistically ambitious photographers took pains to distance themselves from commercial and amateur picture-taking.
The eventual acceptance of Szarkowski†s vision was cemented by the mammoth and acclaimed Photography Until Now exhibition in 1989. The show marked photography†s sesquicentennial, not only by celebrating an artform but also by advocating appreciation of photography as a vehicle for technological evolution and social change. "Works by photography's masters hang in this show alongside snapshots, industrial photography, advertising, news photos and pictures of tractors from the pages of farm catalogs, U.S. News & World Report noted approvingly. The Photography Until Now book (1989) features reproductions of pictures generated for every conceivable purpose, from scientific experimentation to the selling of tabloids.
Though Szarkowski opened up the discipline to serious-minded appreciation and evaluation of "non-artistic" photography, he did not shie away from establishing criteria for appraising aesthetic value. In his writings and curatorial activities, Szarkowski articulates the necessary ingredients of a superior photograph. "Photography is a system of visual editing," he wrote in 1976. "Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite."
While even the most mechanical and automatic picture-taking (that executed by a surveillance camera) will occasionally yield an aesthetically arresting image, human intelligence is needed to filter out irrelevant detail. In Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (1973), Szarkowski writes, "Much of the best energy of photographers during the past seventy years has been dedicated to the task of thinning out the rank growth of information that the camera impartially records if left to its own devices, in favor of pictures which have been--for lack of a better word--simpler."
Szarkowski has taught the art world the value of pictures that locate and communicate the coherence of everyday existence. He prefers truths captured directly and straightforwardly by, for example, Atget's open-air still lifes or modern urban documentarists, over those replicated and manipulated within a studio. He became the most vocal early champion of the work of Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand (subjects of MoMA's milestone New Documents survey of 1967) and, later, Eggleston, whose 1976 MoMA show precipitated a heightened awareness of the artistic potential of color photography. "There's nothing wrong with the laying on of hands to muscle the world into order," Szarkowski said in an interview. "But there is something quite unique about the photographic idea of standing in the right place at the right time and accomplishing the same thing.
Director Emeritus of the Department of Photography at MoMA since his 1991 retirement, Szarkowski continues to write and lecture, bringing his insights to new generations of scholars and practitioners. In 1991, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, adding to his distinguished list of honorary degrees from the Philadelphia College of Art (1965), the School of the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts (1978), the Portland School of Art (1980) and Parsons School of Design (1988).
In Spring 2000, Szarkowski will return to the University to teach a course on the History of Photography (crosslisted as Art 448 and Art History 355) through the UW-Madison Arts Institute's Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program. He will supervise a weekly lecture and three discussion periods. Graduate students in the course will conduct independent research projects, working in collaboration with the Visual Materials Archive at the State Historical Society, the Madison Art Center, the Center for Photography at Madison, and other local repositories of the photographic image. Szarkowki†s residency strengthens programmatic partnerships among arts departments, enriches the campus and community arts culture, and presents an unparalleled opportunity for Wisconsin students to study with the man whose thinking about photography has changed the way we all look at pictures.