A Short Biography of John Szarkowski

John Szarkowski

John Szarkowski has been credited with changing the face of photography in the eyes of the American public. He was one of the first to prove that photography was as much of an art form as painting and sculpture and deserved the same recognition.

In the Beginning

Born Thaddeus John Szarkowski on Dec. 18, 1925, in Ashland Wisconsin, he was 11 when he first picked up a camera and recognized his love of photography. The love stayed with him and he pursued photography along with trout fishing and the clarinet, which were his true loves.

After graduating high school, Szarkowski attended the University of Wisconsin, but his studies were interrupted due to his call to serve in the Army during World War II. After completing his stint in the service, Szarkowski returned to college in 1947 to earn a bachelor’s degree. He majored in art history and played second-chair clarinet for the Madison Symphony Orchestra

His Career Begins

After graduation, Szarkowski began his career as a museum photographer at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He had been a practicing art photographer throughout school and was given his first solo show at the same museum in 1949. Szarkowski was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, which allowed him to pursue a variety of photographic subjects. 

The Museum of Modern Art

In 1962 then curator of the Museum of Modern Art, Edward Steichen, offered the position to Szarkowski, who gratefully accepted the offer. By the time Szarkowski arrived at the museum he was 37 and was already an accomplished photographer who had published two books of his own photographs. His books, “The Idea of Louis Sullivan” (1956) and “The Face of Minnesota” (1958) were extremely well received. Unheard of for a photography book, his second book “The Face of Minnesota,” landed on The New York Times best-seller list for several weeks.

When he took over, no New York galleries were exhibiting fine art photography. He wrote Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960. The concept of his book was to explain two styles of photography. The Mirror style focused on self-expressive photography and the Window style which involved photographers going outside the box and exploring new photographic styles and elements. 

In 1973 Szarkowski went on to publish another book, Looking at Photographs, which included examples of how to properly write about photography. To this day this book is still required reading for students of art photography.

Swarkowski spent almost three decades at the MOMA. During this time, he was responsible for bringing attention to some of the greatest photographers of our time. It was Szarkowski who first presented the brilliance of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in a joint exhibit which presented photographs from all three icons. At the time it was considered a groundbreaking exhibit, due to the content and appearance of the photographs. This was the first time photos were exhibited which mimicked snapshots in their casual style and appearance.  

In describing the photos in the exhibit, Szarkowski noted that until this show the purpose of photography had been to show what was wrong in the world. This particular show signaled a huge change in this approach. He stated “In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends,” he wrote. “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”

In the eyes of the media, Szarkowski’s choices were not always met with positive reviews. Another exhibition Szarkowski organized at the Museum, in 1976, introduced the work of William Eggleston, whose use of saturated color ran against the black-and-white fine-art photography of the time. The show, “William Eggleston’s Guide,” was widely considered the worst of the year in photography.

One of the reviews this show received was by Hilton Kramer in The Times he stated, “Mr. Szarkowski throws all caution to the winds and speaks of Mr. Eggleston’s pictures as ‘perfect,’ ” he wrote. “Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.” Once again Szarkowski was proven right when in years to come Eggleston would come to be considered a pioneer of color photography.

His Personal Side

A year after his arrival in New York to take the position with the MOMA, Szarkowski married Jill Anson, an architect and together they had two daughters, Natasha and Nina and a son who died at the age of 2. 

In 2005 Szarkowski was given a retrospective exhibition of his own photographs, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit traveled across the country and ended at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006. Some of his most well-respected photos are simple straightforward images of buildings, streets, and nature, qualities that he often touted in the work of others. 

When asked by a reporter how it felt to exhibit his own photographs he stated, “As an artist, you look at other people’s work and figure out how it can be useful to you,” he said. “I’m content that a lot of these pictures are going to be interesting for other photographers of talent and ambition,” he said. “And that’s all you want.”

Szarkowski taught at Yale, Harvard, Cornell, and NYU and continued to lecture and teach throughout his career. He retired from the Museum of Modern Art in 1991 and once again used his time to devote to his own photographic pursuits. 

Swarkowski died in 2007, at the age of 81, in Pittsfield Massachusetts, from complications stemming from a stroke.