'Master of the Medium'
Maria Morris Hambourg on John Szarkowski, 1925-2007
By Maria Morris Hambourg, Artforum
It is rare for a curator to reign with virtual sovereignty over an entire medium, but during his nearly three decades as director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (from 1962 until his retirement in 1991), John Szarkowski did. His outpouring of exhibitions and catalogues at the pulpit of modern art and photography placed him on a singular pedestal in a recurrent spotlight, but it was less these conditions than his penetrating mind, eloquence, and perspective that made his opinion matter so much. In a field dominated by journalism and almost devoid of serious critical thought, Szarkowski was a flare of intellect, a lone poet among jobbing professionals. One would be hard-pressed to name another instance in which one man's vision of an unrecognized art simultaneously created and educated its audience....
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Maria Morris Hambourg coauthored the four-volume Work of Atget (Museum of Modern Art, 1981-85) with John Szarkowski and was head of the Photography Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1992 until 2004.
(Photo: Paul Huf, John Szarkowski Succeeds Edward Steichen, MoMA, ca. 1962.)
Featured Comment by ycl: "A great read—and a somewhat unusual one in not only correctly praising Szarkowski's enormous contribution to photography, but also pointing out some of his limits—in particular the narrowness of his aesthetics and of his view of what was an appropriate use of this medium. I was just reading A.D. Coleman's Light Readings this week, which includes a scathing critique of Szarkowski's reign as King of the photographic establishment (in the form of an 'Open Letter' to MoMA's Director and Board of Trustees), and points out some of the same weaknesses that this article discusses.
"Coleman describes Szarkowski's 'esthetic' as 'rigid and narrow,' pointing out that he 'has been notably unsympathetic to: imagery subjected to visible handwork or post-exposure manipulation; color imagery [add: with the exception of Eggleston], whether "straight" or applied; directorial imagery; mixed-media work; and serial imagery, among other forms and modes.' Coleman summarizes Szarkowski as believing in 'a severely reductivist formalism as the essence of creative photography,' one 'restricted almost entirely to the documentary genre, centered around Walker Evans as the first conscious articulator thereof.'
"I have personally found Szarkowski's The Photographer's Eye to be enormously educational, and its focus on formalist-modernist notions of 'what should be accomplished using a particular medium' quite enlightening. Nonetheless, such a view does seems unduly narrow, especially in retrospect. As the author suggests, the recent, terrific Jeff Wall exhibition, e.g., may not have occurred under Szarkowski's watch. Additionally, Szarkowski's designation of Eggleston as the father of color (art) photography seems now clearly erroneous—see, e.g., Saul Leiter's much earlier color work from the 1950s and the work of the several European photographers recently featured in the Martin Parr-curated 'Colour before Color.'
"P.S. MoMA's current showing of its permanent collection includes several of Szarkowski's post-MoMA images, for those who are interested. They are worth a look simply for (perhaps ...) confirming one wag's opinion that Szarkowski was 'the perfect man for the MoMA job'—not because he was a photographer, but because he was a good-enough-but-not-great photographer who could recognize greatness in others.' "