John Szarkowski, Curator of Photography, Dies at 81

PHILIP GEFTER – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
July 9, 2007
John Szarkowski, a curator who almost single-handedly elevated photography’s status in the last half-century to that of a fine art, making his case in seminal writings and landmark exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, died in on Saturday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 81.
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Richard Avedon/Courtesy Richard Avedon Foundation
John Szarkowski in 1975.
The cause of death was complications of a stroke, said Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery and a spokesman for the family.
In the early 1960’s, when Mr. Szarkowski (pronounced Shar-COW-ski) began his curatorial career, photography was commonly perceived as a utilitarian medium, a means to document the world. Perhaps more than anyone, Mr. Szarkowski changed that perception. For him, the photograph was a form of expression as potent and meaningful as any work of art, and as director of photography at the Modern for almost three decades, beginning in 1962, he was perhaps its most impassioned advocate. Two of his books, “The Photographer’s Eye,” (1964) and “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art” (1973), remain syllabus staples in art history programs.
Mr. Szarkowski was first to confer importance on the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in his influential exhibition “New Documents” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967. That show, considered radical at the time, identified a new direction in photography: pictures that seemed to have a casual, snapshot-like look and subject matter so apparently ordinary that it was hard to categorize.
In the wall text for the show, Mr. Szarkowski suggested that until then the aim of documentary photography had been to show what was wrong with the world, as a way to generate interest in rectifying it. But this show signaled a change.
“In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends,” he wrote. “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”
Critics were skeptical. “The observations of the photographers are noted as oddities in personality, situation, incident, movement, and the vagaries of chance,” Jacob Deschin wrote in a review of the show in The New York Times. Today, the work of Ms. Arbus, Mr. Friedlander and Mr. Winogrand is considered among the most decisive for the generations of photographers that followed them.
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.”
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