John Szarkowski

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Thaddeus John Szarkowski (December 18, 1925 – July 7, 2007)[1] was a photographer, curator, historian, and critic.[2] From 1962 to 1991 Szarkowski was the Director of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).[3]

Early life and career[edit]

He was born and grew up in the small northern Wisconsin city of Ashland, and became interested in photography at age eleven. In World War II Szarkowski served in the U.S. Army, after which he graduated in 1947 in Art History from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He then began his career as a museum photographer at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

At this time he was also a practicing art photographer; he had his first solo show at the Walker Art Center in 1949, the first of a number of solo exhibitions. In 1954 Szarkowski received the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships, resulting in the book The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956). Between 1958 and 1962, he returned to rural Wisconsin. There, he undertook a second Guggenheim fellowship in 1961, researching into ideas about wilderness and the relationship between people and the land.

Museum of Modern Art[edit]

On July 1, 1962 Szarkowski was appointed the Director of the Department of Photography of The Museum of Modern Art.[4] He was picked by Edward Steichen to be Steichen's successor.

In 1973 Szarkowski published Looking at Photographs a practical set of examples on how to write about photographs.[3] The book is still required reading for students of photography, and argues for the importance of looking carefully and bringing to bear every bit of intelligence and understanding possessed by the viewer. Szarkowski has also published numerous books on individual photographers, including, with Maria Morris Hamburg, the definitive four-volume work on the photography of Atget.

He wrote Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 (1978) describing photography which dichotomized two strategies of pictoral expression. The 'Mirror' strategy focuses on self-expressive photography and the 'Window' element in which photographers like Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Henry Wessel, and Garry Winogrand leave their comfort zone to explore.

He taught at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and New York University, and continued to lecture and teach. In 1990, U.S. News & World Report said: "Szarkowski's thinking, whether Americans know it or not, has become our thinking about photography".[5]

In 1991 Szarkowski retired from his post at the MoMA, during which he had developed a reputation for being somewhat autocratic,[citation needed] and became the Museum's Photography Director Emeritus. He was succeeded by Peter Galassi, the The Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art.[6][7]

Exhibitions curated by Szarkowski[edit]

  • 1963: The Photographer and the American Landscape. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[8]
  • 1964: Andre Kertesz. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[9] Retrospective exhibition.
  • 1964: The Photographer's Eye. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[10]
  • 1965: The Photo Essay. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[11]
  • 1966: Dorthea Lange. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[12] Retrospective exhibition.
  • 1967: Once Invisible. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[13]
  • 1967: New Documents. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[14]
  • 1968: Henri Cartier Bresson. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[15] Retrospective exhibition.
  • 1968: Brassai. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[16] Retrospective exhibition.
  • 1969: Bill Brandt.Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[17] Retrospective exhibition.
  • 1969: Eugene Atget. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[18] Retrospective exhibition.
  • 1969: Garry Winorgrand: The Animals. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[19]
  • 1970: New Acquisitions. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[20]
  • 1970: Bruce Davidson: East 100th Street. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[21]
  • 1971: Photographs by Walker Evans. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.[22] Retrospective exhibition.
  • 1995: Ansel Adams at 100. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA. Curated with Sandra S. Phillips.


In retirement, Szarkowski served on the boards of several of the mutual funds sold by Dreyfus Corporation. Szarkowski returned to making his own photographic work, mostly attempting to picture a spirit of place in the American landscape. In 2005 he had several major solo exhibitions across the USA. The first retrospective of his work was exhibited at MOMA in early 2006.[23]

Szarkowski died from complications of a stroke on July 7, 2007 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, aged 81.[24]


In conjunction with exhibitions curated by Szarkowski[edit]

Photographic theory by Szarkowski[edit]

Writing contributions by Szarkowski[edit]

Containing Szarkowski's photographic works[edit]

Documentaries about Szarkowski[edit]

  • John Szarkowski: A Life in Photography (Checkerboard, 1998). 48-minute documentary on his life and work.
  • Speaking of Art: John Szarkowski on John Szarkowski (Checkerboard, 2005). 60-minute film of a lecture in which he talks about his own photography.

Exhibitions of Szarkowski's photographs[edit]


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  2. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (20 July 2010). "Was John Szarkowski the most influential person in 20th-century photography?". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Schudel, Matt (July 13, 2007). "John Szarkowski, 81; Cast New Light on Photography". The Washington Post. 
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  5. ^ Horn, Miriam (February 12, 1990). "American Vision: The eye of John Szarkowski". U.S. News & World Report. 
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  23. ^ "John Szarkowski: Photographs February 1–May 15, 2006". Museum of Modern Art. 
  24. ^ Gefter, Philip (July 9, 2007). "John Szarkowski, Curator of Photography, Dies at 81". The New York Times. 
  25. ^ "John Szarkowski: Photographs To Open At SFMOMA". San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 
  26. ^ "John Szarkowski: Photographs". Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 8 February 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Philip Gefter. "The Photographer's Curator Curates His Own," The New York Times, (January 30, 2005)
  • Andy Grundberg. "An Interview with John Szarkowski". Afterimage, Volume 12 No. 3 (October 1984), pages 12–13.
  • "An interview with John Szarkowski". Modern Painters (Spring 2004).
  • Hilton Als. "Looking at Pictures". Grand Street, No. 59, page 102.
  • Mark Haworth-Booth. "An Interview with John Szarkowski". History of Photography, Vol. 15, No. 4 (1991), pages 302–306.

External links[edit]

  • LA Weekly interview with Szarkowski from December 2006. "Talking Pictures" by Holly Myers and Tom Christie.