Issue #130  7/18/2007
John Szarkowski Passes Away Due to Stroke's Complications

Renowned curator and photographer John Szarkowski passed away on Saturday, July 7th in Pittsfield, MA from complications due to a stroke. He was 81. He was born December 18, 1925, in Ashland, WI.

Szarkowski was director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) for nearly three decades. It could be argued that he was one of the most influential photography curators of his generation, if not THE most influential. His writings and exhibitions were groundbreaking, and he was often credited with putting photography on a level more closely aligned with the other arts. Two of his books written as a curator were especially significant: "The Photographer's Eye," (1964) and "Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art" (1973). They remain classic works that should be in every photography and art library.

Sarkowski's gallery representative and friend Peter MacGill told me: "He taught us how to think about and look at photographs. He was bigger than life. John had an unparalleled intellect packaged in an unbelievably kind Midwestern body. He was exceedingly smart, but also wonderfully accessible and very funny."

He was often overlooked as a photographer (or should we say, his curatorial work overshadowed his photography?), but that was his first love and occupation. Szarkowski started to take photographs when he was only 11 years old. By the time Edward Steichen had invited him to take over for him at MoMA in 1962, Szarkowski had published two books of his own photographs, "The Idea of Louis Sullivan" (1956) and "The Face of Minnesota" (1958), and had just earned a Guggenheim Fellowship for a photography project. In recent years he had returned to his own photography work.

Speaking about how they worked together on presenting Szarkowski's images, MacGill said, "It was very humbling to have the trust of the man who had changed the world of photography so completely. What had we done? When the elevator doors opened up and John got off, everyone became happy and excited. We worked for him, but he taught us."

"His photography constantly surprises you when you look at it. It is extraordinary to see the variety of things he photographed and how they all worked in the service of mankind."

In 1963 Szarkowski met and married his wife Jill Anson, an architect, who died at the end of last year on December 31st. Friends say the loss clearly impacted Szarkowski, who suffered a stroke on March 2nd of this year--barely two months after the death of his wife (see Issue 120, 3/6/2007 for more details). He is survived by two daughters, Natasha Szarkowski-Brown and Nina Anson Szarkowski-Jones, both of New York, and two grandchildren.

I myself did not know John as well as many others in this field, but I was able to view his retrospective exhibition of his own photographs, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and toured museums around the country. Fittingly it ended at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2006, which is where I finally saw it.

As MacGill noted, "I don't think John was ever happier than when his retrospective opened at the museum in New York. John's life was divided into three chapters and his adopted home of New York City really only knew about chapter two, his life as a curator. His show allowed people to see and understand the first and third chapters which involved making photographs."

The images and prints had a stunning classic quality to them, yet maintained an off-center quirkiness that put them in a category of their own. The quiet, self-effacing, but determined quality of the photographs had to have come from the photographer's own center of being, and made me wish that I had known him better.