23 July 2010

John Szarkowski: Visionary and Tastemaker

John Szarkowski was one of the most culturally influential people you've never heard of (NYT obit). He was curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 1962 to 1991. In this period, photography went from being a primarily commercial and documentary medium, struggling for artistic status, to its current position as a primary, perhaps even the primary, medium for visual artistic expression.

MoMA was from its beginning the most avant garde institution with respect to establishing photography as an art form, and Szarkowski was First Curator during photography's passage from the fringes of artworld to its center. The exhibits he curated were massively influential, highlighting the works of many little known or broadly disregarded photographers who subsequently and, one might argue, consequently became some of the most respected and influential artists of their day. He introduced to the public many unknown, seminal talents like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston and Elliott Erwitt, among others.

Just as importantly, he (re)discovered or elevated past masters like Eugene Atget, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Brassai, Andre Kertesz, Bill Brandt, Dorothea Lange, August Sander, etc. No one has been more influential in creating the canon of photography. So in a recent article in The Guardian, Sean O'Hagan muses (and ultimately affirms), "Was John Szarkowski the most influential person in 20th-century photography?" It can be argued that photography was the invention that most defined the 20th century. This makes Szarkowski a major, if publicly invisible, cultural figure for his time.

Szarkowski had a great eye but was also a superb writer on photography. His numerous book introductions and commentaries are a joy to read and teach much about what makes great photography great. Some have criticized his high tone, but in service of the arts, I’m not put off by some purple prose. And I do not find him so stuffy myself.

Szarkowski published at least two important general collections of photography: The Photographer’s Eye (1964) and Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, 1973; reprint, Bulfinch, 1999). Both are classics, and the latter especially. Each photograph is by a different artist and is accompanied by a brief commentary that, all together, constitute a course in photographic history and appreciation. I think the plates in the 1973 edition are very good, and that is the only edition I’ve seen, but the 1999 reissue is said to be even better, using new duotone separations.

Szarkowski was clearly a powerful tastemaker, though he downplayed his influence on the medium and even his perspicuity. "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." I think he was a visionary, too, at least with respect to a certain type of photography, namely modernist and formalist "straight" photography. This is why he could define the photographic canon, crown past masters, in the way he did: his sensibilities were entirely congruent with the photographic establishment. He was a straight modernist photographer himself, focusing on cityscapes and later landscapes.

But I'm less sure Szarkowski anticipated or agreed with the widespread incursion into photography of conceptualism and especially post-modernism, really finding its legs starting in the late seventies. Much of contemporary art photography is represented less by photographers striving to produce art than artists appropriating photography as a medium. These artists are frequently not in dialog with their photographic predecessors and often conscientiously transgressive of photography's conventions. Some artists, like Richard Prince, argue that not knowing anything about photography frees them to use it more creatively. Gregory Crewdson brings the values of a film director to his art, so he hires people to capture, process and print his photos as he directs them. He may spend up to $1 million making a single, limited edition photo, using a full film crew, and still makes serious money on every one. (Attempt this at your own financial risk.)

Art collectors go gaga over artists like Crewdson, Prince, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky, who holds the record for the highest priced photo ever sold at auction ($3.3 million). These are artists who cater to the artworld, very successfully, using photos instead of oils and canvas. They are artists first. However, most photographers are photographers first, lovers of the unique history and qualities of the medium, and working in dialogue with it. They are compelled by it, bound to it. If you want to know why, well, read Szarkowski.

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