John Szarkowski, 81; N.Y. museum curator helped establish photography as art form

Times Staff Writer

John Szarkowski, the longtime director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a dominant figure in the establishment of photography as an art form, has died. He was 81.

Szarkowski, who began his career as a photographer and returned to his camera in recent years, died Saturday in Pittsfield, Mass., said Peter MacGill of the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York. Szarkowski died of complications from a stroke he suffered in March.

"His influence on postwar American photography has been so profound as to be incalculable," critic Andy Grundberg wrote in the New York Times in 1990, the year before Szarkowski retired.

Other curators acknowledge talented photographers by giving them a museum exhibit. "Szarkowski made discoveries," Grundberg, administrative chairman of photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "When he showed the photographs of Diane Arbus, that was a discovery."

Szarkowski included Arbus in the 1967 exhibit "New Documents," which also featured Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. All three photographers shared a common influence -- documentary photography.

None of their names were well known at the time, but all of them came to be considered among the leading talents of their generation.

"John was very interested in trying to understand photography as a whole, the concrete and the ephemeral aspects," Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, said Monday. "And he had a first-class mind."

In the 1970s, Szarkowski's controversial show of William Eggleston's work was the museum's first major exhibit of color photographs.

Eggleston's images of landscapes, suburbs and the people who inhabited them were "perfectly boring," Hilton Kramer wrote in a 1976 review for the New York Times. He said Eggleston's style suggested snapshots, a growing trend in contemporary photography that "has all but derailed Mr. Szarkowski's taste."

Others saw the Eggleston exhibit as a breakthrough.

"That show announced color photography," Grundberg said. It challenged the established idea that only black-and-white photography conveyed the technical skill and aesthetic depth required of an art photograph. It was one of many times when Szarkowski "stuck his neck out," Grundberg said.

In addition to younger talents, Szarkowski championed the work of older masters, including Ansel Adams and Walker Evans, with major exhibitions of their work. He also introduced audiences to European photographers, including Eugene Atget.

"John set the rules of connoisseurship," said Stephen White, a photography dealer and former gallery owner in Los Angeles. "He made the Museum of Modern Art a paradigm for the field. He set the standard on how to display photography, how to look at it, how to frame it."

Szarkowski did so in part because other major museums from California to Washington, D.C., were slower to commit to photography as a major part of their collections. His position at the country's premiere museum for modern art works gave him a strong platform, and few curators were as passionate about the subject.

"John wasn't the only voice, but not everyone made their opinions as strongly heard as he did," said Arthur Ollman, former director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.

Szarkowski's polished writing style and his ease as a lecturer attracted an ever-widening audience of people curious to learn what makes certain photographs and photographers important.

"Szarkowski was probably the most eloquent voice for photography during the greatest rise in interest in the subject," Ollman said. "He had supreme confidence in his own taste, and he was so persuasive that he could convince people about his opinions."

Some argued that Szarkowski was a formalist who liked photographs filled with straightforward information but wasn't much interested in manipulated images, radical abstractions or avant-garde concepts.

As young photographers including Cindy Sherman made references in their work to painting, sculpture, movie stills and posters, "John had no affection for it," Grundberg said. "He totally missed that boat."

He also resisted the homosexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, despite what some critics saw as their historical significance.

Two major books that Szarkowski wrote during his early years at the Museum of Modern Art established his reputation.

"The Photographer's Eye" in 1966 included work by known talents, professional photographers and amateurs. In the text, Szarkowski explained the significance of photography as a relatively new art form.

"The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process ... based not on synthesis but on selection," Szarkowski wrote. "The difference was a basic one. Paintings were made ... but photographs, as the man on the street says it, were taken."

In the same book, Szarkowski identified the components he used to evaluate a photograph -- "The Thing Itself," "The Detail," "The Frame," "Time" and the "Vantage Point" -- and devoted sections to each one.

A second book by Szarkowski, "Looking at Photographs" in 1973, highlighted 100 photographs from the Museum of Modern Art collection through history.

The book "gave people a vocabulary and a set of tools for evaluating photographs on their own," Ollman said.

It was "like a bible for collectors in the 1970s," White said, adding that Szarkowski "widened a collector's vision of what a photograph could be."

Thaddeus John Szarkowski was born in Ashland, Wis., on Dec. 18, 1925. His father, a postal worker, gave him a camera when he was about 11. Szarkowski printed his own pictures in a darkroom he built in the cellar of the house.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1948, he went to work as a staff photographer at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His 1958 book, "The Face of Minneapolis" shows views of community life, landscapes and local people.

He left the Walker in 1950 and took a job as a photography instructor at the Albright Art School in Buffalo, N.Y., where he stayed until 1953.

Szarkowski had become interested in the architecture of Louis Sullivan and was inspired by the Guaranty building in Buffalo. His interest, aided by a Guggenheim grant, led to the 1956 book "The Idea of Louis Sullivan," with photographs and text.

Through the early 1950s, Szarkowski had several exhibitions of his photographs, many of them images of nature or of buildings.

He was working on another book, supporting himself largely on a second Guggenheim grant, when he was invited to meet with administrators at the Museum of Modern Art. He thought the invitation might lead to an exhibit of his photographs, he later told Vanity Fair.

Instead, he moved into his office at the museum in the summer of 1962. His predecessor was Edward Steichen, whose gauzy photographs Szarkowski had admired in his student years.

In 1963, Szarkowski met and married architect Jill Anson. The couple had three children, two girls and a boy. Their son died in childhood. Anson died in December. Szarkowski's survivors include his daughters and two grandchildren.

His last major show at the Museum of Modern Art was "Photography Until Now" in 1990. It covered the history of photography from the daguerreotypes of the mid-1800s to current works including "Tom Moran," a 1988 portrait of a man dying of AIDS by Nicholas Nixon.

The result was "clearly the product of a single intelligence, one that has spent decades mulling over ways to best organize and explicate the photographic tradition," Grundberg wrote in a review for the New York Times.

Other critics cited what they saw as Szarkowski's limited interest in "now." His selection of recent works "felt like Szarkowski had only grudgingly included certain photographers and artists," critic Ingrid Sischy wrote in a January 2005 article in Vanity Fair. "Szarkowski's antipathy got in the way of his eye."

He became an emeritus curator for the museum in 1991, worked on several exhibits for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and kept up his writing and lecture schedule.

Perhaps more important to Szarkowski, he returned to taking photographs. His pictures of the apple farm he owned in rural New York were exhibited in a retrospective of his work, "John Szarkowski: Photographs," which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005 and traveled to other cities.

Images of Szarkowski's barn, orchard and apple trees were simple yet sophisticated, "testimonies to the pleasure of looking at the world, and the pleasure of looking at photographs," Sischy wrote.

Szarkowski had planted most of the trees years earlier and finally had the time to photograph them. "As you get older, you're not so much interested in seeing things for the first time but in seeing how they changed," he said.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction Szarkowski obituary: The obituary of photography curator John Szarkowski in Tuesday's California section misstated the title of one of his books as "The Face of Minneapolis." The correct title is "The Face of Minnesota."
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