Eyes Wide Open: John Szarkowski – An influential photography curator and writer discusses some of the medium’s key figures and exhibitions
By Mark Durden, Art in America, May, 2006
Mark Durden: Could you say something about how you saw your role at MOMA when you were appointed as Edward Steichen’s successor in 1962? You came to the post as a successful practitioner. Is it appropriate to see your role as continuing the concerns of Beaumont Newhall? I was thinking here of the importance of “straight” photography. Your appointment indicated a radical shift from the concerns of Steichen.
John Szarkowski: Newhall and Steichen and I were different people, with different talents, characters, limitations, histories, problems and axes to grind. We held the same job at very different times, which means that it was not really the same job. Nevertheless, I think that we held similar basic ideas about a curator’s responsibilities. I’m sure that we all felt that it was our job to try to recognize what was good–what was most vital–in photography’s past and present, and to bring that work, at its best and as clearly as we could, to its potential audience. Since we were different people working in different times we interpreted that charge in somewhat different ways, but surely we all regarded ourselves as critics and teachers, not as census takers
Perhaps Newhall and Steichen, consciously or otherwise, felt more compelled than I to be advocates for photography, whereas I – largely because of their work – could assume a more analytic, less apostolic attitude. Their curatorial styles were, of course, quite different: Newhall’s was quite straitlaced, while Steichen was often being a showman and an artist at the same time that he was being a curator. His big didactic shows–especially “The Family of Man”–were basically Steichen’s own works of art, rather than exhibitions of art works in the traditional sense. He was under no illusion about the quality of the individual parts from which he wove these tapestries.
But it should be understood that the museum’s priority in the field of photography was first of all due to the work of Alfred Barr, who asked Newhall – then 27 years old, an amateur of photography, and the museum’s librarian – what photography exhibition he, Newhall, thought the museum should do in the spring of 1936. Newhall thought a minute and said perhaps a history show should come first, and Barr said all right, why don’t you do that.
The year after Newhall’s epoch-making history show of 1937, “Photography, 1839-1937,” the museum mounted the perhaps equally significant “American Photographs,” an exhibition of work by Walker Evans, accompanied by a beautifully made publication of the same name. I am aware of no earlier monograph on a photographer as an artist by any art museum anywhere, and the book remains possibly the most influential photography book to date. And yet it seems to have been done wholly without the involvement of Newhall. It was apparently the work of Lincoln Kirstein, who might well also have paid for it. Kirstein was not a member of the staff, but of a very energetic and engaged committee of young, rich and knowledgeable amateurs who were frequently well ahead of the older generation (often their parents, aunts or uncles) who served on the museum’s board. During its first decade and more, the museum was rich in cabals, splinter groups and ad hoc committees, which Barr generally made skillful use of, and controlled, precariously, by the strength of his intellect and moral energy.
The purpose of this apparent digression is to point out that no curator is as independent as he or she might feel when the work is going well. The job at hand is itself a product of what has been done so far–and not done–and of a body of understanding and good will that defines what an institution is willing to consider. I have great respect for the achievements of both Newhall and Steichen at the museum, but obviously those achievements were conditioned not only by their talents and ambitions, but by the nature of the museum in which they found themselves.
MD: Who were the influential writers on photography at that time?
JS: Serious writing on photography in 1962 was extremely rare, perhaps even more rare than it is today. Even pretentious but unserious writing on photography, which we now have in such abundance, was rare then.
I will speak here only of writing in English, since that was all I read. Most of the best writing on photography that was available in 1962 had been written by photographers, but most of that was available only to those with access to first-rate libraries, and some knowledge of how to use them. The best early writing in English on Eugene Atget, for example, was written by Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Ansel Adams, but only that of Abbott was reasonably widely available in book form. Thirty years after he had written on Atget, Evans wrote, briefly but perfectly, on Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus, and died with a perfect critical average.
In 1956 Beaumont Newhall produced a little book, On Photography: A Source Book of Photo History in Facsimile [Watkins Glenn, N.Y., Century House], which reprinted a score or more of articles chosen from throughout the history of the medium. To those lucky few photographers into whose hands this little book fell, it was a glimpse into a foreign world–a world in which the history of photography was richer and more contentious than it was in Newhall’s own History. Nevertheless, the importance of Newhall’s 1949 The History of Photography cannot be overestimated. The book was genealogically the third edition of the catalogue that Newhall had produced for his 1937 history show at MOMA, but the 1949 book contains, for the first time, a reasonably coherent and persuasive narrative that tells the story of photography not as a series of technical inventions, but as a picture-making tradition. The introduction of photography into the curricula of American colleges and universities would have been very difficult without some intellectually respectable history text, which Newhall supplied. Peter Pollack in 1958 followed Newhall’s basic story line, as did Helmut and Alison Gersheim in 1969, and Naomi Rosenblum (and others) later, in spite of the structural problems that should have been long since obvious even to very comfortable minds.
John Szarkowski, New York City
Most photographers of even modest ambition wrote at least once in their lives about their own work. They wrote their credos–brief declarations of their honorable intentions–when they had their first exhibitions, and then retired from writing. Most of these cris de coeur were unmistakably sincere, and a few were cogent. Almost all have been lost to public view except for those gathered together by Nathan Lyons in his book Photographers on Photography (1966).
In a few cases photographers’ writings on their own work became highly influential. Among younger working photographers, Cartier-Bresson’s introductory essay in The Decisive Moment (1952) had constituted something close to an article of faith, until the authority of that text was undermined to some degree by Robert Frank’s Statement of 1958, which made it clear that working for magazines was not an option for photographers who had achieved adulthood. Edward Weston had stopped writing his Daybooks a generation earlier, but the first volume in book form was not published until 1961, and it became a very popular inspirational text, not only for its frequently penetrating thought on the art of photography, but for its suggestion that creative photography and sexual adventure were almost inevitable bedfellows.
In case someone might think that writing is the primary conduit of influence on photographers, it should be pointed out that the photographs of Cartier-Bresson, Frank and Weston were an incomparably greater influence than their writings. There were other very significant figures, such as Alexei Brodovich, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, who wrote nothing, but was of great influence because of what he published and how good he made it look on the page.
Although Newhall was deeply committed to the work of several important living photographers, he unfortunately seldom wrote about their work. Perhaps there was an implicit division of labor between Newhall and his wife Nancy Parker Newhall, an understanding that he would stick to historical subjects and she to the living, where a certain inclination toward unconsidered enthusiasm, plus an occasional tendency toward purple prose, were surely less of a liability than they would have been with historical subjects. Her short but pioneering books on Paul Strand and Edward Weston [1945 and 1946, respectively, both Museum of Modern Art] were the first monographs on either photographer by any museum. Later she made common cause with Ausel Adams, both to advance and celebrate Adams’s work, and perhaps by inference to establish the inferiority of work that did not meet the standards set by Stieglitz, Weston, Strand and Adams.
Writing on photography was at that time generally considered something for the hobby page of popular periodicals. Consider the essay that James Agee wrote for a book of photographs by Helen Levitt. The piece, titled “A Way of Seeing,” was written, I’d guess, in the early ’50s, but the book could not find a publisher, even with Agee’s essay, until long after his death. [Titled identically to Agee’s article, the volume was finally published in 1965 by The Viking Press, New York.] Surely this essay is one of the very best things ever written on photography, but even now it is unknown by young photographers.
As far as the papers and magazines are concerned, I think that perhaps less was expected then of journalist-critics. Journalists were supposed to provide accurate reportage and relevant but provisional commentary, but they did not have to pretend, once a week, to know and to understand everything about everything. Such expectations are disastrous for the writers’ own intellectual lives, and a deep disservice both to the subjects whom they write about and to their readers. It is difficult to believe that the papers do not understand this; perhaps they regard their art critics merely as a part of the entertainment business.
MD: When did you first encounter John A. Kouwenhoven’s Made In America? What was its importance in helping shape your response to photography? I’m thinking of his idea of the vernacular and how you adapt this to your discussion of photography, especially with regard to the work of Walker Evans.
JS: John Kouwenhoven’s great book was published in 1948, and I read it shortly afterwards, when I was staff photographer at the Walker Art Center, an institution that took good design very seriously, even as it affected the most ordinary objects. The book was enormously important to me because it showed how the categories of official and vernacular art were only provisionally discrete, that they were mutually permeable; that high art and serious craft profitably influenced each other not through the mechanism of copying but by the absorption of organizing principles. Evans made it clear that he found in commercial postcards, in newsreels, in the work of real estate and insurance photographers, clues pointing toward a style that would serve his interests better than the lush textures and elegant patterns of the high art photographers. Edward Weston confessed by the early ’30s that he finally found the courage to adopt certain technical aspects that he found beautiful in the fundamentally tedious work of commercial photographers.
MD: In “The Photographer’s Eye” catalogue (1966) you acknowledge Kouwenhoven but speak of the interrelation between the fine-art and functional photographic traditions. My understanding of Kouwenhoven’s thesis is that he equates a fine-art tradition with a European esthetic tradition, from which he is keen to differentiate American arts and design.
JS: I’m afraid that you are misreading Kouwenhoven’s meaning, or rather, reading only the top layer of it. In America, the cultivated tradition came from Europe–where else?–but once it took root here the same kind of reciprocal challenge, argument and interchange between the refined and the new took place in any print shop or pottery. The basic opposition in Kouwenhoven’s argument is not between the European and the American, but between the refined and the new.
MD: In relation to the importance you give to the specific qualities of a medium, did you see your approach to photography as close to Clement Greenberg’s modernist account of painting? Were you in agreement with Greenberg’s writings on photography? I was thinking of his distinction between Edward Weston and Walker Evans. How Weston was too arty for him. Yet at the same time, Greenberg would have nothing to do with such “low” cultural forms as amateur photographs, in which you are interested.
JS: I can’t remember when I first read Greenberg. In general I thought he was excellent on what he liked, and bad on what he didn’t. I think there was a tendency among the best New York intellectuals in those days to feel that a problem should be definitively solved in six pages, so that one could proceed to other interesting questions–the True Marxian Error, or the secret of urban planning. On Evans, Greenberg is correct in insisting on the importance of the literary (allusive) content of the work, but seems not quite to have understood how important it was to Evans to get the picture precisely right in plastic terms–that is, to make it beautiful.
MD: Throughout your writings on photography you have a fascination with anonymous and amateur photography. What is so important about these low and popular uses of the medium? Did the vernacular forms indicate a purity lacking in more self-conscious artistic uses of the medium? Did it help shape and define your esthetic against more fine-art uses of the medium?
JS: I am afraid that you have misunderstood my views. I am not especially interested in anonymous photography, or pictorialist photography, or avant-garde photography, or in straight, crooked or any other subspecific category of photography; I am interested in the entire, indivisible, hairy beast–because in the real world, where photographs are made, these subspecies, or races, interbreed shamelessly and continually. Those who would like to build a wall between poetic photography and prosaic photography will be no more successful now than Stieglitz was at the beginning of the last century, before he realized that he had been fighting the wrong war, on the wrong field.
It is, of course, true that an enormously larger number of photographs have been made by dumb amateurs, commercial drudges, half-sober news photographers, celebrity merchants, real-estate salesmen, etc., than by photographers with clear and clean artistic intentions–which suggests that the former groups have likely made a great many pictures that might appeal to those of us interested in what photographs can look like, and in how they may contain and convey meaning.
It is important to remember that an anonymous photographer is simply a photographer whose name we have lost, perhaps temporarily. When we recover it, and find out the name of his town and his wife (or her husband), we can begin writing dissertations about him or her, but the work has not changed.
Part of the problem is doubtless our difficulty in accepting the fact that luck is a great and powerful force in photography; we tend to be interested only in intention, because it makes the enterprise feel more important. I think it would be just as important-and less boring–if we accepted the fact that luck is everywhere active, if not determinant, and that the world would be pretty gray without it.
MD: I get the sense from your writings of a clear group of key figures whose work you are especially intrigued by: Brady, O’Sullivan, Atget, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston. A simplicity and directness of the use of the camera could be said to characterize all their work: a respect for actuality, no embellishment. This certainly identifies a realist use of the medium, which could be seen to open up a much more complex and rich understanding of photography than the limiting implications of terms like formalism, which tend to get used pejoratively to label your writings and contribution to the history of photography.
JS: When critics don’t know what to say about a good photographer who uses the camera simply and directly they say that the photographer uses the camera simply and directly. In fact, most ordinary and bad photographers also use the camera simply and directly. Even the most ambitious photographers–whether or not they are good artists–use the camera simply and directly. Robert Mapplethorpe used the camera simply and directly, but he was, alas, not really an interesting photographer. The whole company of Arbus imitators, in the years after her death, thought they could do what she had done by using the camera simply and directly. Unfortunately they were simple and direct people, whereas she was complex and patient.
It is true that I am very much interested in the photographers you list. (Brady perhaps deserves an asterisk; he stands to photography a little as James I does to the English Bible. The people who worked for him were on average very good, and O’Sullivan and Barnard, for example, were extraordinary.) Nevertheless, I am not interested in these people because they used the camera simply and directly. Why, unless they were trying to earn their MFA degree under a very obtuse professor, would they use it any other way? I am interested in them because of the playful eccentricity of their work or its gravity and justice, or the disinterested precision of their eyes, and the acuity of their minds and the depth of their passion, or the sweetness of their sympathy for the wonders and terrors of the world. One might say that I am interested in them as artists.
The fact that I have exhibited and written on some photographers and not on others is to some degree a matter of historical accident, and of competition. When I came to the museum I wanted to do shows on Paul Strand and Gene Smith, neither of which I got to do. Michael Hoffmann got Strand’s commitment and did an immense show at Philadelphia (1971), which I thought quite bad. I doubt that the fault was basically Hoffmann’s, except to the degree that he allowed Strand to have his way. My negotiations with Smith went on most of one summer, mostly late at night in various Mexican restaurants. Often I thought we had reached an agreement, but on the next day that would prove an illusion. Finally it became clear that Smith simply was incapable of making any commitments in advance, and our conversations stopped. Some years later he did the show that he wanted to do at the International Center of Photography in New York. It was, in my view, much too big, unfocused, filled with last-minute inspirations, revisions, improvisations and approximations. I did not regret that it was not shown at MOMA.
In other ways also, the shows and books that a curator does are to some degree the product of chance. If I had been unsuccessful in acquiring Berenice Abbott’s Atget collection for the museum, we would have been unable to study it as intensively as we did, and a great deal of time, money and gallery space would presumably have been available for other projects. If Nancy Newhall were still alive I would not have had the chance to do “Ansel Adams at One Hundred.” If I had known Brassai a little better a little earlier, it might have been I who was asked to write the essay for the museum’s 1968 monograph, rather than Lawrence Durrell, whose piece did not, I think, amount to much. I have often lectured on Edward Weston, whose work was the first that I loved deeply and spontaneously, but the opportunity to write in depth on him never arose. I do greatly admire the list that you offer, but I also greatly admire Harry Callahan and Alfred Stieglitz and Irving Penn and Ansel Adams and Bob Adams and Dorothea Lange and Wright Morris and others on whom I have also written, as well as many others on whom I have not.
Of all the people on your list, surely none was less simple and direct, as a person, than Evans. He was complex, sophisticated, secretive, unpredictable and capable of deviousness, none of which affected his superior manners or his loyalty as a friend–although that loyalty was expressed according to a code that remained resolutely secret.
How direct and simple, then, is the 1924 image of stamped tin artifacts, the first picture in Part II of “American Photographs”? What is the meaning of this carefully depicted trash pile? Or more accurately, what was it that made it for Evans a sight worthy of contemplation, worth remembering with precision, that made it a subject rather than (like most trash piles) a non-subject? Is it simply a little joke, later to become a standard sophomoric conceit, about the naive pretentiousness of American culture, that which seemed to suggest one could adopt Greek virtue by stamping pilasters into tin; or is it an elegy to the early death of such high (if naive) ambitions, or is it merely an observation on the speed with which the modern world discards its fashions, or might it be in some small part a record of a piece of work that he found, in that light, a beautiful drawing?
Perhaps the point is this: one does not choose to write about photographers who illustrate one’s point of view. The process is almost the reverse: one’s point of view is formed by the work one chooses to write about, because it is challenging, mysterious, worthy of study, fun. One does not choose new friends because they exemplify virtues that one most admires; one chooses them because they are interestingly different than the friends one already has.
I suppose that the people who accuse me of formalism are about half right. I am interested in photography as a picture-making system, and that is a formal issue, but in the photography that I most admire the structure has become so deeply embedded in the picture that it is not possible to consider the two things separately.
MD: I was intrigued by your essay on Irving Penn (1984). What seems to interest you is how he goes against the glamour of fashion photography, with his use of functional and plain backdrops and strategic uses of “realist” details. Could you say something about his importance to you?
JS: Penn has been professionally part of the world of fashion for more than half a century, by which time one might say that it is part of his quotidian life. I would not say that he “goes against” glamour, but that he continually reinvents it. Glamour and familiarity are incompatible; glamour requires some element of strangeness or mystery, or even of danger, which is why ball masks and fans are glamorous. (I think a great man might in fact be a hero to his valet, but he could not be glamorous.) Penn introduced a new strangeness to glamour even in the character of his drawings–of the nervous, ambiguous quality of his line, which is often broken and angular where one would expect it to be smooth and languid. One would hardly have thought that a cigarette butt could be glamorous, but Penn’s are positively regal. Penn also introduced an unfamiliar hint of decadence into fashion photography, but he did it in a subtle, sophisticated way, with untraceable poison in an eyedropper, not with a battle-ax, as did (for example) Guy Bourdin.
MD: With Eggleston and Winogrand, especially, there seems to be an incorporation of the amateur photograph into the way they take their pictures. With Evans there is a respect for the amateur or jobbing professional photographer, but, at a distance, his pictures do not formally take on the implications of these low vernacular photographs, maintaining instead a classical austerity. As you have observed, the vernacular is adapted by Eggleston, incorporated into the form of his pictures. I was wondering what you thought of the current revival of interest in the work of Eggleston and Winogrand and how it seems to be celebrated partly in conjunction with the work of a whole group of artists much more overtly playing with a snapshot aesthetic–Nan Goldin, for example, and Richard Billingham or Wolfgang Tillmans. Are these latter photographers furthering the formal evolution of photography?
JS: I am stunned by the idea of a revival of interest in Winogrand and Eggleston. Who had lost interest in these remarkable artists? Well, one might say that the critics had, because of their notoriously short attention span. But in fact very few critics paid serious attention to Winogrand or Eggleston 20 years ago; those few who did remained interested.
There has been a good deal of confusion about the terms amateur photography, snapshot photography, vernacular photography, and doubtless others, used interchangeably to indicate pictures more or less dissimilar from, say, those that Edward Steichen characteristically made in his studio with his 8 by 10. Perhaps some tentative distinctions might be useful.
I suggest that we could use the term snapshot to apply to the kind of photograph that is characteristically seen in family albums. These pictures are totemic, ceremonial, eidetic, and are generally most interested in whatever occupies the center of the image. There have been a number of books that illustrate the subject matter and the pictorial character of this subspecies of photography, including Douglas Nickel’s Snapshots [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998]. At least 90 percent of the pictures in Nickel’s book satisfy the definition above. Snapshots of the classic period are in black and white, and made in natural light. With color and flash-on-camera the form begins to lose its innocence. The cameras that made classic snapshots had viewfinders which were only marginally better than nothing, almost always they included a great deal less than the negative. (My 2C Autographic Kodak, ca. 1918, gives about 30 percent more–linear–on the negative than the viewfinder indicates.) Thus, if an uncropped contact print of such a picture has interesting edges, it is an accident. The photographer was interested only in the center, and his camera kept the picture’s edges a secret.
Obviously if we also include within the term snapshot the work of the child Jacques Lartigue, or Alfred Stieglitz with his Graflex (not to mention the work of very sophisticated contemporary photographers), then the word’s meaning has become so inclusive as to be useless for the purpose of making distinctions. Lartigue was from the beginning interested in the design of the entire picture, and if it was unsatisfactory he cropped it to make it better. Stieglitz’s marvelous Graflex showed him his picture precisely to its edges.
Another kind of vernacular photography is exemplified in the wonderful book that Larry Sultan and Mike Mandell did 20 years ago called Evidence, which showed us a hilariously devious selection of pictures made by competent professionals who knew what their picture would look like, and who didn’t have time to worry about what it meant. In my youth these were called nuts-and-bolts photographers. They normally had very good lenses and reasonably good techniques, and sometimes they were intelligent and had good eyes, in which case their work is simply wonderful to look at, for another photographer. The best of these photographers were naive only in the sense that they were not playing the same game that Stieglitz was playing.
The term “amateur” photographer should probably be dropped altogether, unless one is willing to explain which of its many meanings one is using. If one means those who are not professionals–meaning by professionals those who during most of their lives supported themselves through the practice of photography–then it would seem that most of photography’s heroes from the first half of the 20th century (to provide a little historical distance to the question) were amateurs. The conspicuous exceptions that occur to me would be Eugene Atget, Lewis Hine, Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams. Weston and Alvarez-Bravo also supported themselves, more or less, by photography, but not by doing the work that we know, or that they would of their own free will have shown us. Among the amateurs–those who supported themselves, most of the time, with income from other sources–we might tentatively (and alphabetically) put Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Lange, Moholy-Nagy, Sheeler, Stieglitz and Strand, for starters.
So, to get to your question: In my view, Evans, Winogrand and Eggleston were alert to all and any clues, hints and sources that crossed their path, whether encountered in the Louvre or the postcard stand, but I do not think that there is with any of them an attempt to adopt and adapt any vernacular style or method. Rather, it was a matter of allowing into the mix of picture-making potentials subject matter and techniques that had not been considered by the previous generations to be the proper concern of serious photography.
In the case of Evans, it seems to me adequately documented that the great example for him was Atget. Winogrand was already an interesting photographer when Dan Weiner told him that he should look at American Photographs. Afterward Winogrand said that it was the first time that he had understood that photography could deal with the concerns of intelligence.
Where Eggleston came from is a mystery to me, but it was not out of the head of Zeus. He was a serious art student before he became interested in photography. In summary, I don’t think that any of the three would have taken kindly to the suggestion that they were playing with, or otherwise engaged in, the snapshot aesthetic, whatever that might mean. As a matter of courtesy, let us extend the same exemption to the other photographers on your list.
MD: The sheer productivity of Eggleston and Winogrand raises disconcerting questions about esthetic judgment. The implications of their work don’t seem that far from the consciously anti-aesthetic gestures of Baldessari’s use of photography through appropriation of snapshots. Or would you say this is going too far?
JS: If I understand your question, you are suggesting that fecund artists are likely to be inferior to artists who produce little. According to that test, Paul Dukas should be considered at least 100 times greater than Haydn. (I am assuming that Dukas wrote at least a few things other than the Apprentice, although I don’t know what.) I doubt that you would agree to so ludicrous a proposition, but I really don’t know what else you might mean. Surely the best artists, by and large, have been very productive; it is difficult to think of one who was stingy with his talent and energy. I don’t know whether or not Eggleston is a prodigious shooter; Winogrand certainly did expose a great deal of film, and until his very last years he had an astonishing percentage of successes, even by his own high standards. The proof sheet containing the famous picture of the crippled beggar at the American Legion Convention includes three or four other pictures–never printed by Winogrand–that most photographers would count among their prizes.
Baldessari is a good artist who uses photography in a way that effectively serves his artistic needs. I would guess that he does not care whether the photographs he uses were made by him or by someone else, since they are in either case instrumental to a meaning that is not contained by the photograph alone.
MD: In “Mirrors and Windows” (1978) you made the claim, in relation to photos from the Vietnam War, that photography’s failure to explain large public issues has become increasingly clear. Do you still hold this view?
JS: Yes, I still hold that view. Perhaps I should add that photographs explain very little, even of small private issues. Photographs show what things look like, at a given moment from a certain vantage point, and sometimes this knowledge proposes the most interesting and cogent questions.
MD: In many senses much of what has been defined as postmodern photography proceeded from an attempt to open up art to large public and social issues, to counter what was seen as the predominantly hermetic and esthetic orientation of modernist practices and discourses. To what extent did you see the work of artists like Victor Burgin, Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine as a specific challenge to all that you had been doing at MOMA?
JS: I think that Burgin and Kruger–especially Kruger–have effectively and sometimes imaginatively adopted the techniques and effects of commercial art and directed them toward political ends. The result does not often seem to me to transcend superior illustration; that is, the idea seems to have been basically complete before the art was started. Sherrie Levine is a very different case; we might think of her contribution as being to the art or science of marketing.
No, it really never occurred to me that the photographers that we exhibited constituted some kind of logically coherent or prescriptive program, and therefore it never occurred to me that the photographers that we did not show constituted an alternative coherent, prescriptive program. The first exhibition that I did at the museum was called “Five Unrelated Photographers,” the point being that they represented no position except their own individual positions. If you review our complete exhibition program during the years when I was at the museum I think you will agree that the photographers could not possibly have regarded themselves as players in some kind of philosophic or esthetic master plan. I suspect, however, that they regarded the others in the program as interesting photographers, worthy of their attention.
MD: How important is Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida to you? In some senses, Barthes, in seeking to define the ontology of photography, parallels concerns within your writings. While his interests are much more arbitrary and subjective, he does begin to establish that which is specific to the medium.
JS: I think that I must confess I can’t remember Camera Lucida very clearly, and I certainly could not write a satisfactory precis of it. This is not to say that I did not find it moderately interesting, in a personal, permissive sort of way, but I’m afraid that I finally decided that it was less concerned with amplifying the possible meanings of photographs than with constructing a verbal substitute for them.
MD: Where is the most interesting photography criticism at the moment?
JS: I suppose that you mean written criticism, but in fact the most useful criticism in any art is new work done with the same tools. Lincoln Kirstein was great on Walker Evans’s work, but late in his working life Edward Weston made a dozen pictures which are perhaps an even better criticism of it, and an homage as well. Today, Lee Friedlander is perhaps our best critic of Atget, and in fact of much else in the tradition that is worth serious thought.
As difficult as it is, we should perhaps abandon the words simple and direct, at least for a generation or so. Perhaps stop talking about style altogether, and try to understand the content of a photographer’s work. This change of view will at least produce new (and therefore more interesting) mistakes.
John Szarkowski was director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 1962 to 1991 (succeeding Edward Steichen). During his tenure he mounted major exhibitions of such important artists as Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, William Klein and William Eggleston. He is also a practicing photographer himself, and a traveling show of his work from both before and after his years at MOMA may currently be seen at that institution through May 15, 2006.
Mark Durden is the program leader in photography at the University of Derby, England. He is also part of the artist’s group Common Culture and has written extensively on contemporary art and photography.
(© Mark Durden, 2006. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)