He added, “The talented practitioner of the new discipline would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from a pattern created by the pointer.”
Thaddeus John Szarkowski was born on Dec. 18, 1925, in Ashland, Wis., where his father later became assistant postmaster. Picking up a camera at age 11, he made photography one of his principal pursuits, along with trout fishing and the clarinet, throughout high school.
He attended the University of Wisconsin, interrupted his studies to serve in the Army during World War II, then returned to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1947, with a major in art history. In college, he played second-chair clarinet for the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but maintained that he held the post only because of the wartime absence of better musicians.
As a young artist in the early 1950s, Mr. Szarkowski began to photograph the buildings of the renowned Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. In an interview in 2005 in The New York Times, he said that when he was starting out, “most young artists, most photographers surely, if they were serious, still believed it was better to work in the context of some kind of potentially social good.”
The consequence of this belief is evident in the earnestness of his early pictures, which come out of an American classical tradition. His early influences were Walker Evans and Edward Weston. “Walker for the intelligence and Weston for the pleasure,” he said. In 1948, Evans and Weston were not yet as widely known as Mr. Szarkowski would eventually make them through exhibitions at MoMA.
By the time Mr. Szarkowski arrived at the museum from Wisconsin in 1962 at the age of 37, he was already an accomplished photographer. He had published two books of his own photographs, “The Idea of Louis Sullivan” (1956) and “The Face of Minnesota” (1958). Remarkably for a volume of photography, the Minnesota book landed on The New York Times best-seller list for several weeks, perhaps because Dave Garroway had discussed its publication on the “Today” program.
When Mr. Szarkowski was offered the position of director of the photography department at the Modern, he had just received a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on a new project. In a letter to Edward Steichen, then curator of the department, he accepted the job, registering with his signature dry wit a reluctance to leave his lakeside home in Wisconsin: “Last week I finally got back home for a few days, where I could think about the future and look at Lake Superior at the same time. No matter how hard I looked, the Lake gave no indication of concern at the possibility of my departing from its shores, and I finally decided that if it can get along without me, I can get along without it.”
A year after arriving in New York, he married Jill Anson, an architect, who died on Dec. 31. Mr. Szarkowski is survived by two daughters, Natasha Szarkowski Brown and Nina Anson Szarkowski Jones, both of New York, and two grandchildren. A son, Alexander, died in 1972 at age 2.
Among the many other exhibitions he organized as a curator at the Modern was “Mirrors and Windows,” in 1978, in which he broke down photographic practice into two categories: documentary images and those that reflect a more interpretive experience of the world. And, in 1990, his final exhibition was an idiosyncratic overview called “Photography Until Now,” in which he traced the technological evolution of the medium and its impact on the look of photographs.
In 2005, Mr. Szarkowski was given a retrospective exhibition of his own photographs, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, touring museums around the country and ending at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006. His photographs of buildings, street scenes, backyards and nature possess the straightforward descriptive clarity he so often championed in the work of others, and, in their simplicity, a purity that borders on the poetic.
From his own early photographs, which might serve as a template for his later curatorial choices, it is easy to see why Mr. Szarkowski had such visual affinity for the work of Friedlander and Winogrand.
When asked by a reporter how it felt to exhibit his own photographs finally, knowing they would be measured against his curatorial legacy, he became circumspect. As an artist, “you look at other people’s work and figure out how it can be useful to you,” he said.
“I’m content that a lot of these pictures are going to be interesting for other photographers of talent and ambition,” he said. “And that’s all you want.”