John Szarkowski

Posted by Fabio 10 August 2011

John Szarkowski was a photographer, curator, historian, and critic. From 1962 to 1991 Szarkowski was the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, MOMA. He grew up in the small northern Wisconsin city of Ashland, and became interested in photography at age eleven. In World War II Szarkowski served in the U.S. Army, after which he graduated in 1947 in Art History from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He then began his career as a museum photographer at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

At this time he was also a practicing art photographer; he had his first solo show at the Walker Art Center in 1949, the first of a number of solo exhibitions. In 1954 Szarkowski received the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships, resulting in the book The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956). Between 1958 and 1962, he returned to rural Wisconsin. There, he undertook a second Guggenheim fellowship in 1961, researching into ideas about wilderness and the relationship between people and the land.

Then, in 1962, he was picked by Edward Steichen to be Steichen’s successor at the Museum of Modern Art. When he arrived in New York, not a single gallery in the city showed fine art photography. He wrote Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960. New York. MOMA (1978) describing photography which dichotomized two strategies of pictoral expression. The ‘Mirror’ strategy focuses on self-expressive photography and the ‘Window’ element in which photographers like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander leave their comfort zone to explore.
In 1973 Szarkowski published Looking at Photographs a practical set of examples on how to write about photographs. The book is still required reading for students of art photography, and argues for the importance of looking carefully and bringing to bear every bit of intelligence and understanding possessed by the viewer. Szarkowski has also published numerous books on individual photographers, including, with Maria Morris Hamburg, the definitive four-volume work on the photography of Atget.
He taught at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and New York University, and continued to lecture and teach. In 1990, U.S. News & World Report said: “Szarkowski’s thinking, whether Americans know it or not, has become our thinking about photography”.
In 1991 Szarkowski retired from his post at the New York Museum of Modern Art, during which he had developed a reputation for being somewhat autocratic,[citation needed] and became the Museum’s Photography Director Emeritus. He was succeeded by Peter Galassi, the Chief Curator.

In retirement Szarkowski returned to making his own photographic work, mostly attempting to picture a spirit of place in the American landscape. In 2005 he had several major solo exhibitions across the USA. The first retrospective of his work was exhibited at MOMA in early 2006. Mr. Szarkowski died of a stroke on July 7, 2007, aged 81.