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John Szarkowski, 81; N.Y. museum curator helped establish photography as art form

July 10, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

John Szarkowski, the longtime director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a dominant figure in the establishment of photography as an art form, has died. He was 81.

Szarkowski, who began his career as a photographer and returned to his camera in recent years, died Saturday in Pittsfield, Mass., said Peter MacGill of the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York. Szarkowski died of complications from a stroke he suffered in March.

"His influence on postwar American photography has been so profound as to be incalculable," critic Andy Grundberg wrote in the New York Times in 1990, the year before Szarkowski retired.

Other curators acknowledge talented photographers by giving them a museum exhibit. "Szarkowski made discoveries," Grundberg, administrative chairman of photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "When he showed the photographs of Diane Arbus, that was a discovery."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Szarkowski obituary: The obituary of photography curator John Szarkowski in Tuesday's California section misstated the title of one of his books as "The Face of Minneapolis." The correct title is "The Face of Minnesota."

Szarkowski included Arbus in the 1967 exhibit "New Documents," which also featured Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. All three photographers shared a common influence -- documentary photography.

None of their names were well known at the time, but all of them came to be considered among the leading talents of their generation.

"John was very interested in trying to understand photography as a whole, the concrete and the ephemeral aspects," Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, said Monday. "And he had a first-class mind."

In the 1970s, Szarkowski's controversial show of William Eggleston's work was the museum's first major exhibit of color photographs.

Eggleston's images of landscapes, suburbs and the people who inhabited them were "perfectly boring," Hilton Kramer wrote in a 1976 review for the New York Times. He said Eggleston's style suggested snapshots, a growing trend in contemporary photography that "has all but derailed Mr. Szarkowski's taste."

Others saw the Eggleston exhibit as a breakthrough.

"That show announced color photography," Grundberg said. It challenged the established idea that only black-and-white photography conveyed the technical skill and aesthetic depth required of an art photograph. It was one of many times when Szarkowski "stuck his neck out," Grundberg said.

In addition to younger talents, Szarkowski championed the work of older masters, including Ansel Adams and Walker Evans, with major exhibitions of their work. He also introduced audiences to European photographers, including Eugene Atget.

"John set the rules of connoisseurship," said Stephen White, a photography dealer and former gallery owner in Los Angeles. "He made the Museum of Modern Art a paradigm for the field. He set the standard on how to display photography, how to look at it, how to frame it."

Szarkowski did so in part because other major museums from California to Washington, D.C., were slower to commit to photography as a major part of their collections. His position at the country's premiere museum for modern art works gave him a strong platform, and few curators were as passionate about the subject.

"John wasn't the only voice, but not everyone made their opinions as strongly heard as he did," said Arthur Ollman, former director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.

Szarkowski's polished writing style and his ease as a lecturer attracted an ever-widening audience of people curious to learn what makes certain photographs and photographers important.

"Szarkowski was probably the most eloquent voice for photography during the greatest rise in interest in the subject," Ollman said. "He had supreme confidence in his own taste, and he was so persuasive that he could convince people about his opinions."

Some argued that Szarkowski was a formalist who liked photographs filled with straightforward information but wasn't much interested in manipulated images, radical abstractions or avant-garde concepts.

As young photographers including Cindy Sherman made references in their work to painting, sculpture, movie stills and posters, "John had no affection for it," Grundberg said. "He totally missed that boat."

He also resisted the homosexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, despite what some critics saw as their historical significance.

Two major books that Szarkowski wrote during his early years at the Museum of Modern Art established his reputation.

"The Photographer's Eye" in 1966 included work by known talents, professional photographers and amateurs. In the text, Szarkowski explained the significance of photography as a relatively new art form.

"The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process ... based not on synthesis but on selection," Szarkowski wrote. "The difference was a basic one. Paintings were made ... but photographs, as the man on the street says it, were taken."

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