Monday, July 09, 2007Home

Rest in Peace, John Szarkowski

John Szarkowski, curator and pioneer in fine art photography, died last Saturday in Pittsfield, MA from complications arising from a stroke. He was 81 years old. As far as legacies go, the impact of Szarkowski's was unmistakable. He helped bring the works of Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, and Lee Friedlander to international attention, and ultimately, acclaim. He came about in a time when photography was seen as a way of recording happenings and one's surroundings, nothing more. The "New Documents" show of 1967 featured snapshots of everyday objects and scenes, an approach considered radical at the time.

It's easy to forget that even by the early sixties, when John Szarkowski began his curatorial career, that photography had not gained the respectability equated with fine art. The most cursory glance at his career shows that he had no fear of going against the flow to express what he felt about the photographic image. Case in point: Eggleston's first exhibition of color photographs, "William Eggleston's Guide," was curated and promoted by Szarkowski, and almost universally panned by critics who, until then, had only considered black and white to be fine art.

From the New York Times:

As a curator, Mr. Szarkowski loomed large, with a stentorian voice and a raconteurial style. But he was self-effacing about his role in mounting the “New Documents” show.

“I think anybody who had been moderately competent, reasonably alert to the vitality of what was actually going on in the medium would have done the same thing I did,” he said several years ago. “I mean, the idea that Winogrand or Friedlander or Diane were somehow inventions of mine, I would regard, you know, as denigrating to them.”

A retrospective exhibition of John Szarkowski's own photographs debuted in 2005 at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a national tour followed in 2006. His books about the art and craft of photography are considered modern classics; 1964's “The Photographer’s Eye,” and 1973's “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art,” act as great bookends on a period that changed fine art photography forever. Szarkowski will be missed.

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