July 9, 2007----John Szarkowski, a curator who almost single-handedly elevated photography’s status in the last half-century to that of a fine art, making his case in seminal writings and landmark exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, died in on Saturday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 81.
The cause of death was complications of a stroke, said Peter MacGill of Pace/MacGill Gallery and a spokesman for the family.
In the early 1960’s, when Mr. Szarkowski (pronounced Shar-COW-ski) began his curatorial career, photography was commonly perceived as a utilitarian medium, a means to document the world. Perhaps more than anyone, Mr. Szarkowski changed that perception.
For him, the photograph was a form of expression as potent and meaningful as any work of art, and as director of photography at the Modern for almost three decades, beginning in 1962, he was perhaps its most impassioned advocate. Two of his books, “The Photographer’s Eye,” (1964) and “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art” (1973), remain syllabus staples in art history programs.
Mr. Szarkowski was first to confer importance on the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in his influential exhibition “New Documents” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967. That show, considered radical at the time, identified a new direction in photography: pictures that seemed to have a casual, snapshot-like look and subject matter so apparently ordinary that it was hard to categorize.
In the wall text for the show, Mr. Szarkowski suggested that until then the aim of documentary photography had been to show what was wrong with the world, as a way to generate interest in rectifying it. But this show signaled a change.
“In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends,” he wrote. “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”
Critics were skeptical. “The observations of the photographers are noted as oddities in personality, situation, incident, movement, and the vagaries of chance,” Jacob Deschin wrote in a review of the show in The New York Times. Today, the work of Ms. Arbus, Mr. Friedlander and Mr. Winogrand is considered among the most decisive for the generations of photographers that followed them.
As a curator, Mr. Szarkowski loomed large, with a stentorian voice and a raconteurial style. But he was self-effacing about his role in mounting the “New Documents” show.
“I think anybody who had been moderately competent, reasonably alert to the vitality of what was actually going on in the medium would have done the same thing I did,” he said several years ago. “I mean, the idea that Winogrand or Friedlander or Diane were somehow inventions of mine, I would regard, you know, as denigrating to them.”
Another exhibition Mr. Szarkowski organized at the Modern, in 1976, introduced the work of William Eggleston, whose saturated color photographs of cars, signs and individuals ran counter to the black-and-white orthodoxy of fine-art photography at the time. The show, “William Eggleston’s Guide,” was widely considered the worst of the year in photography.
“Mr. Szarkowski throws all caution to the winds and speaks of Mr. Eggleston’s pictures as ‘perfect,’ ” Hilton Kramer wrote in The Times. “Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.” Mr. Eggleston would come to be considered a pioneer of color photography.
By championing the work of these artists early on, Mr. Szarkowski was helping to change the course of photography. Perhaps his most eloquent explanation of what photographers do appears in his introduction to the four-volume set “The Work of Atget,” published in conjunction with a series of exhibitions at MoMA from 1981 to 1985.
“One might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing,” Mr. Szarkowski wrote. “It must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others.”