October 14, 2005

Former MOMA Curator Muses on Photography

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Yesterday evening, coming in from the rain, and up the elevator in crowded shifts to the sixth floor of the Johnson Museum, devoted admirers and curious students packed together to hear photographer legend, historian and theorist, John Szarkowski speak on his beloved subject. His lecture, “Being a Photographer,” was given its title one morning before he had time for his first cup of coffee.

Accompanying the talk was a slide show of pictures taken by himself and other photographers such as Edward Weston – “for those who’d rather look at pictures than listen to me lecture,” he jokingly explained.

In an age when anyone with a fancy camera phone may consider himself a “photographer,” Szarkowski offers the perspective of someone who has devoted his life to the field. After publishing two highly regarded books of photography in his early years – “The Idea of Louis Sullivan” and “The Face of Minnesota” – he worked nearly three decades, from 1962 to 1991, as curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, during which time he gained acclaim for organizing more than 100 groundbreaking photography exhibitions that challenged and shaped American views on photography as an art form.

Nancy Green, a senior curator at the Johnson Museum, quoted U.S. News & World Report in her introduction: “‘Szarkowski’s thinking, whether Americans know it or not, has become our thinking about photography.'”

Szarkowski apologized for what he thought could be a misleading title for the lecture.

“I realize, in print, it looks like I might tell you how to be a photographer,” he said. He clarified that, instead, “Being a Photographer” is a mode of existence – “-the constant state of confusion, instability, identity crisis, social marginality and financial insecurity” – a remark that was met by hearty chuckles in the audience.

Though clearly hesitant to give a glib definition of what constitutes photography, he offered an initial “working definition”: “photography is a method of finding or seeking order, some redeeming quality, in universal chaos … without actually lying.”

More chuckles followed. But as a deep-thinking theorist, he quickly followed up with caveats and revisions to this first attempt.

He placed focus on the taking of pure, unadulterated photographs. It is “catching something in a net with one pass,” Szarkowski explained. With regards to other photographer-artists, he said, “I am not a purist or a moralist or a policeman.”

Specifically, he humorously presented his disclaimer against graphic designers: “I have never once assaulted a graphic designer, though they think of photos as raw material from which they might make something interesting.”

To compensate for a lecture based on abstract theories and impressions, he offered a bit of practical advice to those in the audience who were “hoping to hear something you can really take to work”.

“It has gradually come to me that certain basic principles hold true [throughout different modes and historic periods of photography] … It never hurts to include a ladder,” he joked. He demonstrated his point with the next few slides.

Since retiring from the MOMA, Szarkowski has returned to his first love, actually taking photographs. He contemplated, from the vantage point of decades of experience, the true aspirations of artists in photography. Though throughout the lecture he frequently displayed concern for photography to reflect social utility, meaning and responsibility, he ultimately circled back to the importance of just letting truth reveal itself.

“Good art,” he said, “is not necessarily ‘good for us.'”

“Any artist, push come to shove, would rather ‘get it right’ than make something ‘useful,'” he said. The idea, he continued, is that artists generally hope their work will be appreciated by the “consumer,” but a picture cannot be a packaged, framed effort, or else it is reduced from art to “illustration”.

After listening to Szarkowski, Nancy McAfee ’63, who worked with him when he was guest curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, remarked that “he’s earned the right to ramble and muse about photography, and that’s exactly what he did.” She said she especially enjoyed his insightful remarks as he focused on certain photographs, narrowing in on exactly what is was about the composition that pleased him and caught his attention.

Others in attendance expressed their own forms of appreciation. Dave Todd ’06, photography, said he enjoyed the lecture, especially the “practical advice.” He said, “Now I’m going to make a photograph with a ladder in it. There’s no question.”

The lecture was the second annual Findlay Family Lecture, sponsored by the Findlay Family Foundation.

Archived article by Suzy Gustafson
Sun Contributor