John Szarkowski, the great hidden influence on photography.

Bringing out the dead.
July 10 2007 3:32 PM

John Szarkowski

The great hidden influence on photography.

(Continued from Page 1)

Above all, he had, like one of his heroes, Walker Evans, that special American combination of democratic sensibility and a kind of natural aristocratic bearing. He believed that the best pictures were unpretentious and open-minded, but he also believed that some people were simply, even objectively, much better at taking them than everyone else (though this included some amateurs, and even some anonymous photographers), and he was perfectly dismissive of anyone who didn't meet his standards.

He had his blind spots, or perhaps he simply had his moment. In the years just before Szarkowski retired, the best of photography underwent yet another deep change, becoming integrated into the broader concerns of art in general, influenced by conceptualism, performance, painting. It is only slightly overstating matters to say that there's really no such thing as photography anymore. It simply doesn't exist, except as one of many ways to make something that counts as art; and as a result, there's hardly any need for departments of contemporary photography in museums at all. Szarkowski had little sympathy for the artists who broke down those barriers. The pioneers of the '60s, like Dan Graham, John Baldessari, and Ed Ruscha, and their successors—Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and so on—did not believe in photography as a distinct medium requiring special skills, and, with the possible exception of Cindy Sherman, Szarkowski did not believe in them.

Advertisement

If nothing else, it was an unfortunate lapse, but a great curator, like a great critic, has a limited shelf life, and that's as it should be. Any aesthetic passion worth holding will eventually be superseded by history, though its effects may be felt forever. Szarkowski, as I say, had his moment—a very long moment, in fact, and more importantly, it was definitely his. He managed it far better than most curators could have, and photography owes him an inestimable debt.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.