by Mike Johnston
—Last summer, without much fanfare, John Szarkowski officially retired from his position as the Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern art, after almost exactly twenty-nine years on the job. His career was thus almost exactly contemporaneous with Johnny Carson’s, and within the small world of art photography he has been almost as much of a one-man show. He leaves behind a legacy and a corpus of writings that have made him, over those three decades, one of the half dozen or so most influential single individuals not only in recent contemporary photography, but in the medium’s entire history.
Once a photographer himself, Szarkowski’s ascension to his position was as breathtaking as it was fortuitous. He had a strong advocate at the museum in 1962 in Lincoln Kirstein, with whom he shared a kinship in values and outlook and even literary style. He may have been, at the time, a compromise choice to break a stalemate between competing factions on the Board; he may even have been a chosen because the Trustees, after years of dealing with the prickly Steichen, thought he would be more tractable and easier to manipulate. It is difficult, now, to know. In any event, the story goes that when the young man was summoned from the Midwest to appear before the Trustees, a Board member said, “I suppose you know why you’re here”—and Szarkowski confessed that he did not have the slightest idea. He was not, on the surface, a likely candidate for the job.
It was, as things turned out, one of the best decisions ever reached by a committee. As the arbiter of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Szarkowski has contributed enormously toward a very important and all but uniquely American tradition in the world of photography. What we have had in the U.S. that photography has not enjoyed in other countries for most of this century is a sense of serious discourse and of attentive academic audience—a coherent and articulated sense that serious photography matters.
For a suprisingly long time, the Museum of Modern Art was the locus of that tradition. For much of the postwar era, the Modern did not so much reflect as instruct the world—especially in those arts like architecture and photography which had not traditionally fallen under the aegis of the museums. In the early ’60s, the field of serious photography (ever backsliding, as the youth and impulsiveness of the medium virtually ensures that it will do) badly needed the discipline. Sentimentality, falseness, prettiness, and sloppy thinking were undermining potential for accomplishment in the medium.
The ascension of John Szarkowski proved to be just the ticket. Brilliant, boldly innovative, and resolute in his vision of what photography was and could be, he swept away both the insularity and the imitativeness that had been infiltrating art photography, and confronted the contemporary scene with the bracing—even chastening—heritage of what he considered to be photography’s fundamental nature. If the museum’s unspoken mandate was to instruct, well, instruct he did, with talent and gusto. Even if time has revealed him to be only partly right in all his convictions, he has at the same time surely not been wrong, and he also proved a powerfully persuasive and eloquent advocate of his views. He is surely one of the most gifted writers ever to turn his attention consistently to the medium of photography.
Better than anybody else ever has, John Szarkowski explicated and elucidated the great power of the still photograph as a document of fact, its status as a text, its rich potential meaning as history, the great power it can draw from its native and natural connection to the real. He connected modern still photography much more securely to its essential nature—if not exactly its nature as a medium of expression, at least its status as a scientific, cultural, social, and historical phenomenon. He razed the barriers segregating self-conscious “arty” photography from other forms, even colloquial forms, and discovered real connections between successful photographs made for every possible sort of purpose. If contemporary photography is now changing, that is at least partly because it is free to build on the sense of intellectual clarity that John Szarkowski brought to our understanding of the medium’s most relevant strengths. In any event, he proved to be about the perfect figure to lead serious photography through the Renaissance cauldron of the late ’sixties and into its boom years. At the heighth of his power, he was arguably the most influential figure in all of photography.
• • •
Within the last decade, inevitably, the situation has changed. MoMA may have been too influential for its own good. Just as the vitality of modern architecture for a time dissipated in a fog of MoMA-approved sameness, so today does the Photography Department sometimes seem to be striving to teach the same lessons in 1991 that it was in 1971. Not for half a decade or more has the Modern been at or anywhere near the cutting edge; by sticking to his guns—as of course he must—Szarkowski has lately begun to look anachronistic. Twenty years ago, to be included in a show at the Modern was to have arrived. Now, ambitious younger photographers will sometimes refuse to be shown there. Photography museums in California, Arizona, Illinois and Texas not only compete with the Modern’s Department of Photography in prestige, but better it in innovation. And with David Ross promising to bring contemporary photography to the Whitney, the Modern’s status as the arbiter of taste and direction in the field is sure to change even within the confines of the huge and diverse cultural parish of New York City.
And despite his great brilliance and his once unassailable influence, Szarkowski has had weaknesses. He has always been more interested in photographs than in photographers; he has never brooked radically opposing viewpoints among his staff, which might have enriched the Modern’s overall contribution; and he rejects on intellectual grounds the very validity of certain elements that some photographers try very hard to get into their work, emotionality and psychological feeling-tone on the one hand and conceptualism on the other being only the most egregious examples. The two figures most central to his value system are Walker Evans and Eugene Atget—and to strike a sudden chord to the heart, like a note of music can do, is something not in either of those photographers’ arsenals, nor remotely among their concerns. They are among the most supremely factual and most austerely historical of photographers (and the most deliberately quasi-anonymous, which is a telling point). Szarkowski is simply not amenable to photography that is romantic, that is pretty, that illustrates concept, that ignores fact, or that communicates primary through intuition or what psychologists call affect. He has not seemed amenable, for that matter, to photographs that merely seek to document the beauty of the lenticular image, as opposed to documenting the aspect or the meaning of the pretext. Or to bodies of work that try to express interior realities as opposed to exterior (for instance that of the symbolist Clarence John Laughlin, or the surrealist Ralph Eugene Meatyard). Or to photographs that depend for their communicative richness on their physical presence as objects…except in the way, perhaps, that a nicely made page of letterpress does. The truth is that good photographs can be meaningless, and good photographs can be beautiful. But both these propositions, being intellectually quite barren, have come to amount to heresy at the Modern.
Furthermore, it must be recognized that for all his genius as a theoretician, an historian, a philosopher, and a literary stylist, Szarkowski—except when he is being didactic—has not been a particularly great curator. His taste is not catholic or inclusive enough. He is too much the connoisseur. Although a great aficionado of vernacular photography (Joel Meyerowitz called him “a real fisherman” of images, standing in the stream and picking up whatever floats his way), he is no popularizer; and he has certainly disdained to stoop to tasty public spectacle of the “Family of Man” sort: what sensationalism he has been responsible for has always been esoteric, not popular. Certainly he is unwilling simply to reflect what is happening “out there” in photography, a refusal which has brought him under increasingly clangorous criticism lately, as artists have begun rejecting his influence outright (or just avoiding him, as the water spilling around a dam can be said to be avoiding the dam.)
Although he himself perhaps believes that his own taste in pictures depends naturally from his beliefs about photography, the truth is that his taste, if supremely informed and exquisite, is also singular, and limited. In fact, his taste shows all the failings typical of the academician: dogmatism, didacticism, dessication, a fondness for formalism and for ambiguity of intent, and for a susceptibilty to re-interpretation, coupled to an evident lack of openness to the inroads that can sometimes be made by simple, thoughtless affection. He is a curator least likely to be caught out showing an irrational liking for any photographer who does not stand for something more than merely him- or herself.
As a result, the Museum during his tenure has some-times championed photographers who are bellwethers, or whose work dovetails with the Director’s theses but otherwise is flawed. Among photographers whose careers have flourished during Szarkowski’s watch, the most instructive in this regard is Winogrand, whom Szarkowski, famously, called “the central photographer of his generation.” Like all of Szarkowski’s numerous rather grandiose pronouncements over the years, that one was calculated to draw attention to a didactic point, although there is no evidence to suggest he did not mean what he claimed. But if it is true, it should stand as much as an idictment of the still photography of the Johnny Carson age cohort as a statement of critical concensus (or a tribute to Winogrand). Here was a photographer who by the end of his career had barely mastered rudimentary technique, whose idea of a good place to go shoot was the airport, who got emotion into his pictures by recording the anger of the strangers he intruded upon, whose way of introducing graphic dynamism into his pictures in his later years was to always hold the camera at a tilt, and whose notion of a revealing human gesture was a hand feeding peanuts to an elephant trunk. On the surface Winogrand might have looked enough like an heir to Frank, but Winogrand got everything about Frank down except the most important thing, which was Frank’s psychological acuity and his dark European romanticism. Frank’s work expresses cynical despair, Winogrand’s merely aperient curiosity: the phrase “Who cares?” was a revealing leitmotif of Winogrand interviews. Winogrand was greatly influential, but not great; a major figure, but not a master. The single most most remarkable thing about his career, in fact—aside from its eventual slouching ruin—is probably the credit and attention Szarkowski extended to him.
And if there is a nimbus of failure clouding Szarkowski’s career, surely it is symbolized by the pathetic spectacle of Winogrand, late in his life, photographing compulsively and continuously yet never even developing his film, having completely divorced his actions from any sort of direction or attempt at communication. Winogrand left behind well over 8,000 rolls of unprocessed, unproofed, or unedited film when he died. The task of editing that uncomfortable legacy fell, appropriately enough, upon Szarkowski, whose essay on Winogrand in the resulting book was the longest, most tortuous, least supportable, and least confident of his career—and who, after enormous labor, felt justified in presenting from those almost nine thousand rolls of film a total of twenty-five pictures.
• • •
All these criticisms might conspire to give the appearance that Szarkowski’s contribution is diminishing, but that is emphatically not true. It is merely not continuing.
Unkind as this may sound, it may simply have been time for him to step down. Despite his stature, there has been surprisingly little expression of regret or appreciation in response to the news of his retirement—far less, I would guess, than would have been the case ten years ago, less still than the heartfelt dismay which would surely have erupted at such news twenty years ago—which comes damn close to being inexcusable, in my opinion. It may well be true, as one source sardonically observed to me, that he is departing a few years too late instead of a few years too early. But that is no very great crime, and it is no excuse (even among those who disagree with his tenets, or who have been scalded by the stern litmus test by which he judges photographs) not to honor what has been an indisputably great career. Szarkowski has hardly become irrelevant. He has simply already said, with compelling clarity, eloquence, and dignity, all he has had to say. At least officially.
If you have not yet been introduced to Szarkowski’s writings, start with Looking At Photographs: 100 Pictures From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art for his wide-ranging meditations on what specific photographers and photographs have achieved; his best essay on a single photographer (although none are bad) is the introduction to Walker Evans, published by the Museum in 1971; The Photographer’s Eye is a remarkable and detailed explication of how photographs can work; and, despite the lukewarm critical interest generated by his most recent and most ambitious (though admittedly far from most innovative) work, I think that the first four or five chapters of Photography Until Now are excellent. These recommendations, of course, are just the beginning: Szarkowski the writer will never waste a reader’s time. If we ever get a “collected writings of” John Szarkowski, it will come as close as anything to being the essential text in this field. Certainly it will be the greatest pleasure to read, or to re-read.
Although he will continue to hold a position (and doubtless considerable stature) at the Museum (to expedite “special projects,” he told me, which I translate to mean that he’ll be free to do pretty much whatever he pleases), Szarkowski says he plans to retire to upstate New York and recommence his earlier career as a photographer. One can’t deny old men their hobbies, but, on the face of it, too complete an immersion into that diversion would amount to a real pity for American intellectual culture, on a par with losing a great geneticist to the building of model DNA. Szarkowski was not before, and will certainly not be now, a great photographer. He is indeed a great artist—I think a truly great one, one of America’s best, equalled among living philosophical essayists only by Sontag—but his medium is the written word, rather than film and photo paper. If photography (not to mention the cultural vitality of the nation) is truly lucky, he will, in his retirement, soberly keep writing.
He may choose not to. If that’s the case, it’ll be our loss, but we really mustn’t begrudge him. Like those athletes who eke the most from their skills over the course of long careers, John Szarkowski has made the very most of the remarkable opportunity he was handed three decades ago. He leaves us with the remarkable treasure-trove of his writings, the salutory effect and incalculable extent of his influence, his specific discoveries and advocacies, his great and extended explication of the cultural and textual function of early still photography; to a lesser extent, he can share credit for some of the work of the artists he nurtured and encouraged. Most of all we have the austere and rigorously reasoned beauty of his essentially philosophical investigations into the enigma that is still photography. His influence shall subside, because that is the nature of things. But, current grumbling to the contrary, his contribution will not diminish. Quite the opposite, in fact. Especially as the perspective of time leads us to a better understanding of what he has taught us, his accomplishment will sustain, and doubtless endure.
• • •
It is true of great men in any field that however formidable their successors prove, their contribution is such that, though they can be replaced, they will not be eclipsed, because their work has become inseparable from the history of their subject and cannot be forgotten. The best of their successors can do no better than to stand beside them, as Szarkowski stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Stieglitz, Newhall, and Evans. Soon enough, some other name will appear on the office door at the Photography Department at MoMA; some other mind and hand will, with great knowledge, and luck, and hard thought, limn the road that still photography will take from here.
Szarkowski’s successor will have long been named by the time you read this, and we wish that person luck and courage, but there’s one more thing that needs to be said about him in relation to his predecessor. It’s a cliche, so I’ll use a better writer’s words to express it.
In Wendell Berry’s short story “That Distant Land,” which recounts the death of an old Midwestern farmer, there is an episode in which the old man’s widow bestows a pair of the old man’s shoes on their grandson. The young man narrates:
It was not an easy gift to accept. I said, ‘Thanks, Granny,’ and put them under my arm.
“No,” she said, “Put them on. See if they fit.”
They fit, and I started, embarassedly, to take them off.
“No,” she said. “Wear them.”
And so I wore them to the field.
“New shoes!” Burley said, recognizing them, and I saw tears start to his eyes.
“Yes,” I said.
Burley studied them, and then me. And then he smiled and put his arm around me, making the truth plain and bearable to us both: “You can wear ’em, honey. But you can’t fill ’em.”
And so it is. Szarkowski’s departure caps an era.
From Mike Johnston's book The Empirical Photographer
Originally published in Camera & Darkroom magazine
"The most beautifully written essay ever to appear in the magazine."
—A. D. Coleman
Copyright 1992, 2007 by Michael C. Johnston — All Rights Reserved
Support this site
Do you enjoy The Online Photographer? Any time you visit one of the following sites using the links below as a portal, we get a small commission for everything in any product category you might purchase during your visit, no matter how long you stay on their sites or how many pages you visit (and the prices are always the same to you either way). It's a nice and easy way to help enable T.O.P. to prosper while making your online purchases.