"John Szarkowski: Photographs" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. February-May 15, 2005

Article excerpt

Attack, heightened nerves, a quivering alertness to patterns of relatedness, a tasteless (or taste-free) acquisitiveness ... these are what I like and value most in modern American photography. Image-makers like Walker Evans and Edward Weston were artists with a sliver of ice in their hearts, but their images are fat with feeling, in part because they were impatient with cultivated delay and selectivity. They had a big appetite for visual information, and we see that drivenness in the tremendously poised immediacy of their language. The same appetite and drive race through the work of jumpier, more eruptive photographers like Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, both unstoppable archivists of accident and happenstance. In such work discrimination seems beside the point.

The curator largely responsible for establishing these people as canonical presences is John Szarkowski, who during his 1962-1991 tenure as the director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (succeeding Edward Steichen) mounted important exhibitions of them and other important figures like Diane Arbus, William Klein, and William Eggleston. His curatorial taste and judgment helped to craft one official version of modern photographic history much the same way as MOMA's first Director, Alfred H. Barr, shaped the way many came to view the course of twentieth-century painting. But before Szarkowski took the job, he took pictures, and he started out as much more than just an aspiring Sunday photographer. By 1958 he had already published two stately, well-received photo essays, one on the architecture of Louis Sullivan, another on the life and culture of Minnesota which, strange to say, ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. He didn't entirely give up photography during his many years at the museum, but he produced virtually nothing for public view. Once retired, he picked up where he'd left off.

The retrospective exhibition of his early and recent work that was on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (and that will arrive at MOMA in February, 2006) is testimony to a steady, demure love of the medium, but it's also haunted by artists Szarkowski advocated as a curator, and their practices lie like a faint but discernible veil over much of his work. Szarkowski's method is to engage an influence and mediate it with his own temperament, so that whatever the subject, his pictures are by and large subdued and judicious. From Walker Evans he inherited a passion for American vernacular architecture--barns, silos, clapboard farmhouses, signage. In recent years he has taken many pictures of a barn on the upstate New York farm where he lives. One image makes the barn's glassily-lit, timber-and-board rafters look like homemade cathedral trusses. In one of the pictures from his Sullivan project, beneath the silky ornate balcony of Chicago's Garrick theater blasts a greasy spoon's rowdy neon sign, "Meet Me At THE HAM N' EGGER."

Szarkowski has never been much interested in the figure, and when he does take an interest, it's homely anecdote that engages him, not conflict or trouble. The Minnesota series includes a few shots of locals that, while the shadows of Paul Strand and Robert Frank fall lightly on them, lack the restless energy palpable in Strand's Italian pictures and Frank's grandly dark photo-essay on Welsh miners. What Szarkowski does bring to his task is the humaneness that made the monographs he wrote for MOMA so persuasive and companionable. A farm boy standing in front of a corn crib is a sweeter, unwrinkled, scaled-down version of the father beside him. The soft, round faces of children at a Feast of Saint Nicholas ceremony (St. …