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Monday, 04 March 2019


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Thanks for saying it, Moose.
John Szarkowski was immensely influential, and no doubt he was extremely knowledgeable and erudite on the subject of visual art. Yet his opinion imposed a kind of stylistic straightjacket on what was considered acceptable art photography, a modernist view quite similar in my mind to the vision Leo Castelli imposed on painting. Many of the photographers Szarkowski embraced (Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus come to mind) are pure nails-on-a-chalkboard to me, ostentatiously rejecting traditional aesthetic notions for the shock of the new.

I completely agree with Moose's take. I bought that book years ago after it was recommended here and just did not connect with it at all.


Very well said. I’ve had the book for many years.
I have always felt partly the way you do , but also partly that there is a lot to learn from John Szarkowski, even though his opinion, while an educated one , is not carved in stone anywhere (except MoMA)
You are also correct that whenever you include you also exclude and lots of great work has been excluded by neglect over the years.
It is very good to remember to take the good ( learn what you can) and leave the bad ( prejudices against work of certain types)
The history of art is full of otherwise smart folks being distraught and negative towards ‘new’ work.
Mostly, as soon as you get the curator job, you are part of the established tastes. In that sense a curator can’t win.
For those who make work , it’s good not to pay too much attention, and just do what you do.

II need to be surprised. Same-old same-old just doesn’ cut it. When I was in film school, I quickly learned that if the NY film critics hated a movie I’d love itt. As Sgt Highway said: “Just don’t bore me.”

"The shock of the new" is a very apt phrase. Critics of any of the creative arts too often prefer shock or novelty over quality. "The Green Book" is a case in point, scoffed at by the critics but appreciated by the practitioners for the quality of its acting and craft.

I'll admit I'm biased. While Don Shirley was touring the South I was wearing the grooves off the Don Shirley Trio's 45 with "Water Boy" and "Freedom" at my weekend DJ job. As the NYT obit said, Don Shirley invented his own genre. It's worth a listen.

I like a good rant as much as the next guy, and I hate to slow down Moose with bothersome facts, but nobody who has spent more than a few minutes studying photography knows that the question “Who popularized color photography” has a simple, two-word answer. For my part, I’d give the title to Saul Leiter, but he is one of a multitude of plausible candidates.

I have not read this book. I do not know who Szarkowski is. But I think I get Moose's point.

I was going to recommend Sontag's On Photography in your original post, but desisted. All text. Not a single image.

While John Szarkowski should rightly be lauded for championing the likes of Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus, the photographic environment today is so inclusive and varied that labeling someone’s work now as classic seems a machination for marketing.

We old guys need to let go. The younger photo generation is not in need of heroes(classics.) ;-)

"Flip through Looking at Photographs, and ask yourself how many of the photos were not made from the perspective of a standing adult male, using a lens with an angle of view in the range from that of a 35mm lens on 35mm film to that of a 90mm lens."

In regards to vantage point and field of view, I'm asking myself how many pictures of historical significance have been taken outside of those confines. I can think of some, but they're very much in the minority, and I suspect that's because they are, and if that's the case, what conclusions are to be drawn from it?

Mike? :)

Mike: Thank you for considering other viewpoints.

Doubt if you meant to, but reading this sort of gives the impression that Szarkowski was anti-color, when he actually championed Eggleston with the first one man color photo exhibit in MOMA's history- and received quite a bit of flak for the effort.

Also, Herzog was not the only one working color in relative isolation, so was Joel Meyerowitz- right in NYC.

What Moose said.

FWIW I find Moose's photo more interesting than the Elliot Erwitt one. The ambiguity (which an art professor told me a few years back was "Sophomoric") of the moon floating inexplicably among the row of frames catches my attention while Erwitt's photo just looks like an accidental trip of the shutter in a poorly lit gallery. I 'get' what Moose was trying to show me but not Erwitt.

Not so sure I agree. I bought this book about 50 years ago and I still have it and look through it regularly. There are probably some photographs that don't do anything for me, but a lot of them do. It's not about that. It's about what makes a photograph interesting—what it means in relation to the viewer. In that regard John Szarkowski knew what he was talking about, and for me, even today most of these still hold up.

This book never especially resonated with me, despite picking it up on Mike's recommendation, although I do enjoy thumbing through it from time to time. I tend to find the pictures refreshing for their lack of technical perfection, and I enjoy reading the commentaries on photos that I would have perhaps passed over in a different context.

In this particular instance, I think that Szarkowski wasn't saying that there were 3 ways of seeing the physical world, but that people who only trusted what they saw (and not, for example, the interpretation of a certain curator) could be divided into 3 types.

He then asserts his interpretation that with this photograph Erwitt was saying that the true function of museums is not to display pictures but to house treasures.

And he concludes that if the reader disagrees with this interpretation of the photograph, the reader must believe only what his or her eyes see, and is thus one of the 3 types of people he identified in the opening.

At least, that's my reading of the essay.

To Geoff Wittig

Yes!!! And the worst was Eggleston!!!!

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