(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2005)
I interviewed John Szarkowski two years before he died. The man was brilliant and open, discussing his 29-year career at MoMA and his own photography. We met in his classic-six apartment on Fifth Avenue.
From 1962 to 1991, photographer John Szarkowski ran the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In his three-decade tenure, he mentored and promoted the work of such controversial photographers as Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, and staged provocative exhibits, including “The Photographer’s Eye” in 1964. Along with prominent curators at other museums, Szarkowski helped elevate photography to a museum-quality art form in its own right.
In 1962, Szarkowski had been on the cusp of a brilliant career as a photographer, but set this aside to work at MoMA. When he retired from the museum at 65, he resumed his photography career. Szarkowski has just published “John Szarkowski: Photographs” (Bulfinch, $60), which pulls together his photography from the 1940s to the 1960s, and from the 1990s to present. There are the breathtaking photos of 1950s farms and farmers in Minnesota, the glorious urban architecture of Louis Sullivan and the lush and glorious images of Szarkowski’s barn and apple trees from his farm in upstate New York. Woven in between the photographs are witty letters by Szarkowski to friends, detailing the course of his career and his views on photography. The new book is linked to a retrospective of Szarkowski’s work, which is presently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and will move to MoMA in February 2006.
Szarkowski, 79, was born in Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is the author of four books of his own photography, including “The Idea of Louis Sullivan” and “The Face of Minnesota,” and has written and edited numerous classics on photography. Szarkowski lives in upstate New York and New York City, where he spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley.
Q. Your own book covers 54 years of your work. Do you see it as a retrospective?
A. It is an odd retrospective, because it has an early period, a late period, and no middle. I now have so many good ideas for my middle period. Somebody pointed out to me that Marcel Duchamp said that every story has a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.
Q. With so many images from your photography career, did you have trouble putting the book together?
A. No. Sandra Phillips and I, the curator of the exhibition, put it together. We had a couple of arguments, but I am older than her. People think that choosing photographs is a matter of taste or opinion. Not really. The ones that remain interesting are the ones that have some kind of life in them, a vitality that you haven’t seem before, that you can steal from to make more pictures. Even photos with no anecdote can still be alive. My early pictures, like the (Midwestern) grain elevators, had white rectangles here and black rectangles, and were clearly modern and formal. But in photographs of the Marengo River Valley (in Wisconsin), I discovered that a photo could be absolutely clear with no straight lines.
Q. What interests you in putting together photography books?
A. I’ve always been profoundly interested in photographic books because it seems there is a potential in the book for a kind of complexity and richness that might compare to the complexity and richness that might be achieved in a painting or musical composition. Though an individual photograph could be absolutely breathtaking, beautiful and wonderful, it can’t be as complex or as rich, or deal with more complicated issues than a book of photographs can.
Q. In the 1950s, you extensively photographed the architecture of Louis Sullivan. What is powerful about your Garrick Theater photograph, taken in Chicago in 1954?
A. It was a terrific juxtaposition, on one hand, of a very vital, trashy vulgarity, and on the other hand, there was an ancient tradition with busts of Mozart, Schubert and Wagner above the marquee, presiding over this enormous free-for-all of attention-getting noise.
Q. How did you wind up taking at 29-year hiatus from your own photography?
A. I am not saying it was easy. In 1962, I had come to a point in my career where I thought that I could really make a living doing long-term projects on subjects that interested me, instead of pictures that other people wanted me to do. I never dreamed that the job would take 29 years. I thought, if I didn’t get canned first, I conceivably would do it for six years, the length of a senatorial term.
Q. Why did you make the decision not to make and promote your own photographs while at MoMA?
A. To avoid any conflict of interest. If you have a public life as a practicing artist, it makes the curator’s job all the more difficult. I don’t mean to make it sound completely altruistic. The fact is I did very little work in private, very little work that amounted to anything, maybe one or two pictures in a 29-year period. Running a program like MoMA was extremely demanding on the level of mental energy. To be a photographer, you have to use that same mental energy. You don’t forget how to ride a bicycle, but you don’t do it with the same fluency. To be a photographer, you have to concentrate, you should do it everyday. It is a similar thing to being an athlete on his game. You just can’t pull it in and out. You can try it, but it doesn’t work.
Q. What was the philosophy behind putting your exhibits together?
A. I was not showing photographers because they belonged to some group or subscribed to some interesting theory, idea or political stance, or a concept of what photography should look like. I was showing them because they were interesting photographers. People objected to Arbus on something along moral grounds, that she was hanging around with the wrong crowd, and showing things about people that she shouldn’t be revealing. People thought Garry Winogrand was incompetent. He was extremely intelligent and ambitious, not for himself, but for what he could do with photography, like a juggler, getting more items into each frame.
Q. You’ve been lionized with a select group of other American curators for elevating photography to the level of fine art. How do you view your career at MoMA?
A. I did what anybody who wasn’t a dumbbell would have done. I am perfectly content with what I did at the museum. I don’t thrash around saying “Oh, that show was a mistake.” I can’t think of anyone I hadn’t shown or any exhibition that I hadn’t tried that I regret not doing.