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John Szarkowski: Photographs

June 11 - September 5, 2005


The Center for Creative Photography ("the Center"), University of Arizona, will present John Szarkowski: Photographs, the first major retrospective of Szarkowski's work, from June 11 ­ September 5, 2005. One of the most influential and visible photography curators and critics of the twentieth century, Szarkowski held the position of director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 1962 to 1991. Less well known is the fact that Szarkowski began his career as an accomplished photographer in his own right, and has remained one to this day. The exhibition features seventy-five gelatin silver prints, including fifty of Szarkowski's early works -- pictures of the Midwest dating from 1943 until he accepted the curatorial post in 1962 -- and twenty-five of his later works, many of which were made around his farm in upstate New York. Though they vary in subject and date, these works present a remarkable and consistent vision. They are gentle, sophisticated pictures informed by a humanist sensibility. They depict the lived landscape, both urban and rural, and impart a sense of history, place, and the way we as Americans once regarded land. (right: John Szarkowski, Schoolhouse, Town of Lincoln, Bayfield County, Wisconsin, 1949; gelatin silver print; courtesy the photographer and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; © John Szarkowski)

John Szarkowski was born in 1925 in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he spent his formative years in an environment informed by the agricultural traditions of the Midwest. His interest in photography began at about the age of eleven. Szarkowski went to Madison in 1943 to attend the University of Wisconsin; his studies were interrupted by U.S. Army service during World War II, and he received his BS degree with a major in art history in 1948. After graduation, Szarkowski was hired to be the museum photographer for the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. A small institution, the Walker gave Szarkowski the opportunity to learn about contemporary art while experimenting with new ideas. At that time, there was a constant flow of paintings from New York to Minneapolis for exhibition, and Szarkowski remembers being profoundly affected by seeing ambitious art such as paintings by Barnett Newman and other Abstract Expressionists. The photographs he took in the year after he arrived at the Walker reflect this experience. (left: John Szarkowski, Young Pine in Birches, 1954; gelatin silver print; collection San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © John Szarkowski)

Like other photographers of the time, Szarkowski enriched his photographic knowledge through books, becoming familiar with the work of August Sander, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston, among others, and working through books to develop his own ideas. Szarkowski particularly admired Weston's mature photographs -- which dealt with subjects from Weston's life, and are more complex than his more familiar earlier work. He admired both their compositional elegance and their natural informality, which he deemed fresh and daring.

In 1949 Szarkowski had his first solo exhibition -- a series of portraits -- at the Walker Art Center. In 1951 he joined the staff of the Albright Art School in Buffalo, New York, and shortly thereafter began photographing architect Louis Sullivan's Prudential (Guaranty) Building. These photographs fueled his interest in creating a book about Sullivan, employing photography as a form of criticism, and he moved to Chicago to pursue this idea. In 1954, Szarkowski received a Guggenheim fellowship for the Sullivan project; this award, he says, was pivotal in his professional life. The Idea of Louis Sullivan was published in 1956.

Between 1958 and 1962, Szarkowski reestablished residence in northern Wisconsin and continued work on a variety of photographic projects. In 1958 he published his second book, The Face of Minnesota. In 1960 he was given a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1961 he received another Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed him to work on a book about the value of the wilderness, specifically examining the Quetico-Superior area between northern Minnesota and Canada. Later that year he was offered the position of director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, succeeding Edward Steichen. Szarkowski accepted the position and moved to New York, assuming his new duties on July 1, 1962. During Szarkowski's twenty-nine years as director, the Department of Photography produced 160 exhibitions, many directed by Szarkowski. He also authored a number of books including the classic work Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art published in 1973. In 1991, he retired from the Museum of Modern Art, becoming its photography director emeritus. (right: John Szarkowski, Old Stock Exchange, Traders, 1954; gelatin silver print; courtesy the photographer and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; © John Szarkowski)

Szarkowski's personal photographic pursuits were limited and private during his tenure at MoMA, but he returned to photography full time after retiring from the museum. His later pictures examine the old apple trees and barn on his property in upstate New York and the changes of attitudes toward the land from the period after World War II to the present.

The Center's presentation is coordinated by Douglas Nickel, Director of the Center. The exhibition premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, organized by curator Sandra S. Phillips. "These images will astound many of our visitors, who know John Szarkowski as the dean of photography curators," observes Nickel. "But if we weren't told these were the photographs of a great writer, and could view them without prejudice, we would have to conclude that Szarkowski is at least as talented with a camera as he is with a typewriter." (left: John Szarkowski, From Country Elevator, Red River Valley, 1957; gelatin silver print; collection the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund; © John Szarkowski)

Following its presentation at the Center, John Szarkowski: Photographs will travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum, September 30, 2005, through January 1, 2006; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 1 through April 30, 2006; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 18 through September 10, 2006.


Wall text from the exhibition

John Szarkowski is perhaps most widely known for his original and distinguished curatorial voice as director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Before his appointment there in 1962, however, and after his retirement in 1991, he was, and remains, an accomplished photographer, concerned with the particular beauty and distinctiveness of the American landscape and the graceful and compelling qualities of the everyday, which he fashions with apparent, though knowing, effortlessness.

Szarkowski's early photographs reflect on a culture that no longer exists: the optimism and measured humanism of the postwar years in the rural American Midwest and in its great city, Chicago. His first book,The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956), is highly original: The pictures move beyond the description of Sullivan's stately buildings to explore the uses that have been made of them.The Face of Minnesota (1958), his second book, is intended as a portrait of the state and its inhabitants. Szarkowski celebrates the virtues of traditional agriculture and its qualities of fairness and humaneness, but he also acknowledges the social and economic pressures on rural life and the historical changes already in motion.

His next project, left incomplete when he began his curatorial career at MoMA, was a series of landscapes exploring the Quetico-Superior Wilderness, a remote region of many lakes shared by northern Minnesota and Canada. The pictures possess a refined, ambitious simplicity -- a freedom elicited from the region's open skies and deep space.

Upon his retirement in 1991 Szarkowski resumed photographing, and there is an arc of continuity between his early work and the most recent pictures. He has traveled to the desert in Arizona and to old agricultural areas in the Midwest and the West, where he found wilderness and the ruins of a former history. He has also extensively photographed the nineteenth-century barn on his own property.  Published in 1997 as Mr. Bristol's Barn, these unsentimental pictures of the hand-hewn structure reflect upon and honor a past culture. They also speak to the changing American landscape -- its seasonal variations as well as the erosion of traditional ways of farming and rural life. Szarkowski's most recent pictures of apple trees heavy with abundant fruit, and of the fading summer light on the meadow behind his barn, possess a freedom of expression and quality of transcendence that is extraordinary and new.

-- Sandra S. Phillips


Related event

A Conversation with John Szarkowski and Joel Snyder
Friday, August 26, 6:00pm, Center for Creative Photography Auditorium
John Szarkowski will discuss his work and career with his colleague, historian and author, Joel Snyder, who is Professor of Art History in the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities, the Committee on the Visual Arts, and the College at the University of Chicago. Dr. Snyder is also Co-Editor of the journal Critical Inquiry, a quarterly devoted to critical theory in the arts and human sciences. Szarkowski will sign books at the conclusion of the program.


John Szarkowski: Photographs is accompanied by a fully illustrated book of the same title, published by Bulfinch Press. The 156-page hardcover volume features an introductory essay by Sandra S. Phillips, SFMOMA's senior curator of photography, a chronology; amusing and revealing excerpts from Szarkowski's personal correspondence, and eighty-four tritone photographs.

RL readers may enjoy these earlier articles and essays:

and this audio show from National Public Radio:

Photo Op: John Szarkowski's Art Vision from Day to Day, February 10, 2005


rev. 8/24/05

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