John Szarkowski, 81; Cast New Light on Photography

Author, curator and photographer John Szarkowski, shown in Tucson in 1992, launched and resurrected many artists' careers.
Author, curator and photographer John Szarkowski, shown in Tucson in 1992, launched and resurrected many artists' careers. (Photos © 2007 Lee Friedlander)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

John Szarkowski, 81, who created a fresh vision of the art of photography during his long tenure as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, died July 7 at a rehabilitation center in Pittsfield, Mass. He had complications from a stroke in March.

Mr. Szarkowski (pronounced shar-KOFF-ski) came to the trendsetting New York museum in 1962 as a relatively obscure photographer from the Midwest. By the time he retired in 1991, after presenting 160 exhibitions and writing several books, he was, in the words of a 2005 Vanity Fair article, "the single most important curator that photography has ever had."

He introduced the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and William Eggleston, secured the lasting reputations of Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Andre Kertesz and rediscovered the forgotten French master Eugene Atget. Moreover, Mr. Szarkowski was the most influential photography critic of his time, writing several books now considered classics, including "The Photographer's Eye" (1966) and "Looking at Photographs" (1973).

At MoMA, Mr. Szarkowski succeeded Edward Steichen, who had been one of the leading figures in photography since the turn of the 20th century. Mr. Szarkowski brought a sharp curatorial eye to the museum, with an emphasis on the casual, spontaneous nature of photography.

"The truth is that anybody can make a photograph," he said in a 2000 interview. "The trouble is not that photographs are hard to make. The trouble is that they are hard to make intelligent and interesting."

Mr. Szarkowski drew his authority as a curator from his experience behind the lens, from his deep knowledge of the history and mechanics of photography, and from his graceful, nuanced writing style. Perhaps the best summary of his views came in an essay he wrote about Helen Levitt, who chronicled the poor neighborhoods of New York. In her photographs, he wrote, "routine acts of life are revealed as being full of grace, drama, humor, pathos and surprise, and also filled with the qualities of art."

Mr. Szarkowski was always keenly aware of how changes in technology -- in cameras, film, developing processes and magazines -- affected photography. But he had little patience for computer imagery and manipulation, which came into vogue during his final years at MoMA and put him at odds with some younger artists. Such images might have been art, he suggested, but they weren't necessarily photography.

"Our faith in the truth of a photograph rests on our belief that the lens is impartial, and will draw the subject as it is," he wrote in "The Photographer's Eye."

"This faith may be naive and illusory . . . but it persists. The photographer's vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand."

Mr. Szarkowski was born Dec. 18, 1925, in Ashland, Wis., and served in the Army in World War II. He liked to describe himself as a "dumb hick," but he played clarinet in an orchestra as a young man and graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in art history. He began taking pictures when he was 11 and named his dog after Civil War-era photographer Mathew Brady.

From 1949 to 1953, he was a photographer for a Minneapolis museum and a teacher in Buffalo. In 1956, he published a book on the buildings of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, and two years later his book of Minnesota country scenes became a surprise bestseller. When he was named curator of MoMA, he put his camera aside for nearly 30 years.

In 1967, Mr. Szarkowski presented the influential exhibition "New Documents," which gave Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand their first major exposure. After a penniless Arbus committed suicide in 1971, Mr. Szarkowski arranged a publishing deal that allowed her children to profit from royalties on her work.

He mounted six exhibitions of the then-unknown Atget, the chronicler of Paris; he devoted solo shows to Brassai, Kertesz, Bill Brandt, Elliott Erwitt, Dorothea Lange, August Sander and Berenice Abbott; and he helped elevate Evans, Weston and Adams to the status of major U.S. artists of the 20th century.

As a U.S. News & World article noted in 1990, "Szarkowski's has been the dominant vision in American photography, championing new talent, resurrecting artists who had fallen into obscurity, amassing for the museum one of the world's great collections and persuading artists and mass audiences that photography is to be taken seriously."

After he retired in 1991, Mr. Szarkowski taught at several colleges across the country. He also returned to his cameras, often photographing his farm in East Chatham, N.Y. His reflective landscape images are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA. A retrospective of his work opened in San Francisco in 2005 and continues to tour the country.

His wife of 44 years, architect Jill Anson, died in December 2006. A son, Alexander Szarkowski, died in 1972.

Survivors include two daughters, Natasha S. Brown and Nina S. Jones, both of New York; and two grandchildren.

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