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Szarkowski, John

    Full Name: Szarkowski, John

    Other Names:

    • Thaddeus John Szarkowski

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 18 December 1925

    Date Died: 07 July 2007

    Place Born: Ashland, WI, USA

    Place Died: Pittsfield, Berkshire, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): photographs


    Historian of Photography and photographer. Szarkowski’s father Julius, was an assistant postmaster in Ashland, WI; his mother was Rose Woychik (Szarkowski). The young Szarkowski began working with a camera at age eleven and by high school was an skilled photographer. He entered the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but when World War II was declared, was drafted into the military. He graduated in 1948 [New York Times says 1947] with a degree in art history where he secured a job as photographer for the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, MN. He taught photography in Buffalo, NY in 1950 before joining the University of Minnesota in 1951 as an instructor in photography. He left the museum for the first of his two Guggenheim grants in 1953. During these years he photographed architecture in Chicago, principally that of Louis Sullivan, whose work was underappreciated at the time. He published a book, The Idea of Louis Sullivan, in 1956. A second early book, The Face of Minnesota, 1958 received national exposure by the television personality Dave Garroway on his morning talk show, Today. The book became a New York Times best-seller for several weeks, one of the few photography books to do so. Szarkowski secured a second Guggenheim grant for 1962. Shortly thereafter he was offered a job, age thirty-seven, to succeed Edward J. Steichen as director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He married Jill Anson (1933-2007), an architect, in 1963 in New York. At MoMA, Szarkowski widened the breadth of photography exhibited launching exhibitions that secured the medium a place as art. Among them was his 1967 exhibition “New Documents,” which brought to international attention the work of three relatively unknown photographers, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus. His 1976 exhibition of William Eggleston heaped criticism on Szarkowski (from Ansel Adams, among others) because the photographer worked from 35 millimeters slides and in color, considered amateur and commercial formats. His show “Mirrors and Windows,” 1978, portrayed photography into two groups, documentary images and those primarily of interpretive sphere. Szarkowski became increasingly conservative in later years, disliking photography-based art and Post-Modernism. He mounted a final show, “Photography Until Now,” which examined how technological development changed the look of photographs. He retired in 1991 as director emeritus, succeeded by Peter Galassi. His photography was given a 2005/2006 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and MoMA. Szarkowski’s wife died in 2006 and he suffered a stroke and died the folowing year at age eighty-one. John Szarkowski “almost single-handedly elevated photography’s status…to that of a fine art.” (Gefter). He abandoned his predecessors’ approach–the lofty themes of art that Steichen has posited and the art-historical approach of Beaumont Newhall for a formalist view akin to Clement Greenberg (Grundberg). “He illustrated how the creative issues, such as subject selection, vantage, and frame, were similar whether the camera was wielded by a journeyman, a Sunday hobbyist, or an artist” (

    Selected Bibliography

    The Idea of Louis Sullivan. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1956; The Face of Minnesota. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1958; Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. New York: MoMA/ New York Graphic Society, 1973.; William Eggleston’s Guide. New York: Museum of Modern Art/MIT Press, 1976; The Work of Atget. 4 vols. New York: Museum of Modern Art/New York Graphic Society, 1981-1985; and Stieglitz, Alfred. Alfred Stieglitz at Lake George, 1995; New York: Museum of Modern Art/H.N. Abrams, 1995; Atget. New York: Museum of Modern Art/Calloway, 2000; and Phillips, Sandra S.John Szarkowski: Photographs. New York: Bulfinch Press, 2005; [exhibition catalogs] The Photographer & the American Landscape. New York: Museum of Modern Art/Doubleday, 1963; The Photographer’s Eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art/Doubleday, 1966; Walker Evans. New York: Museum of Modern Art/New York Graphic Society, 1971; Mirrors & Windows: American Photography Since 1960. New York: Museum of Modern Art/New York Graphic Society, 1978; Irving Penn. New York: Museum of Modern Art/New York Graphic Society Books, 1984; Photography Until Now. New York: Museum of Modern Art/Bulfinch Press, 1989; Ansel Adams at 100. Boston: Little, Brown/San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2001.


    Hambourg). But Szarkowski defined photography largely as what the indivdual photographer could create soley through the lense of the natural world.. Works of the photographer Cindy Sherman, for example, were only acquired by MoMA after his retirement. Hambourg, Maria Morris. “Master of the Medium: Maria Morris Hambourg on John Szarkowski (1925-2007).” Artforum International 46 no.2 (2007): 81ff.; [obituaries:] Gefter, Philp. “John Szarkowski, Curator of Photography, Dies at 81.” New York Times, July 9, 2007; Grundberg, Andy. “John Szarkowski 1925-2007.” Art in America 95 no. 8 (September 2007): 37


    "Szarkowski, John." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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