“Luck is the attentive photographer’s best teacher.” – John Szarkowski
John Szarkowski, was an American photographer and curator born on December 18, 1925, Ashland, Wisconsin. He became interested in photography at the 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 art photographer at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. He had his first solo exhibitions at the centre3 in 1949.
He moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1951 to teach photography at the Albright Art School, and from there to Chicago, where, with the help of a Guggenheim fellowship, he worked on his book The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956). In 1962 he became director of MoMA’s photography department.
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.
During his tenure at MoMA, Szarkowski curated 160 thought-provoking exhibitions and helped launch the careers of prominent photographers Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand and expand the reputations of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, among others.
Many of his exhibitions presented groundbreaking theories on photography, its capacity as a visual medium, and its place in the museum and the larger art world. “New Documents,” the 1967 MoMA exhibition that featured little-known photographers Arbus, Friedlander, and Winogrand, introduced a personal form of documentary photography. Those artists, whose careers were largely established by “New Documents”—took striking photographs of what they found interesting in their everyday lives. That approach differed from the photojournalistic images taken by their predecessors, many of whom had clearly defined social objectives. With that exhibition Szarkowski made the controversial but ultimately convincing claim that vernacular photographs had a place in a museum.
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 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 Eugene Atget.
He wrote Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 (1978) identifying a dichotomy between strategies of pictorial expression in American photography; “It seems to this viewer that the difference between Minor White and Robert Frank relates to the difference between the goal of self-expression and the goal of exploration.” Though not all photographers in the book are American Frank was Swiss, the pictures were taken and/or exhibited there. The publication is divided almost equally into Parts I (pps. 29–86) and II (pps. 87–148).
His ‘Mirror’ analogy represents self-reflective photography, represented in the book by Jerry N. Uelsmann, Paul Caponigro, Joseph Bellanca, Gianni Penati, Ralph Gibson, Duane Michals, Judy Dater and others; while the idea of the ‘Window’ is found in the documentary approach, exemplified by inclusions of work by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Henry Wessel, Joel Meyerowitz, and Garry Winogrand.
A gifted photographer in his own right, Szarkowski was renowned for his landscapes, especially the ones he photographed in the 1960s in the Quetico-Superior wilderness between Minnesota and Ontario. His work was featured in his 1956 book on Louis Sullivan as well as in The Face of Minnesota (1958). He was also the author of The Photographer’s Eye (1966), Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (1973), William Eggleston’s Guide (1976), the four-volume The Work of Atget (1981–85; with Maria Morris Hambourg), and Photography Until Now (1989). After retiring from MoMA, Szarkowski resumed his position behind the lens; in 2005 a retrospective of his work premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
He taught at Harvard, Yale, and New York University, and continued to lecture and teach. From 1983 to 1989, he was an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.
In 1991 Szarkowski retired from his post at the MoMA, during which he had developed a reputation for being somewhat autocratic, and became the museum’s photography director emeritus.