Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Szarkowski's paradox

Once in a while a Daedelus Books catalog shows up in the mail and I have a fun time perusing the photobook remainders. Right now Frank Gohlke's Mt. St. Helens and Andre Kertesz' Early Work can both be had pretty cheaply. The Gohlke book is great and will appeal especially to photographers in the Northwest. I haven't seen the Kertesz book but for $5 how can you go wrong with early Kertesz?

The listing that jumped out at me from the most recent catalog was John Szarkowski's Photographs, a comprehensive retrospective of the late MOMA curator's personal work. When it was released just a few years ago I figured it would be shortly out of print. But here it is three years later selling for less than $20. You can never tell.

Spitzenberg, 2001 by John Szarkowski

Not to overstate things but Szarkowski is about as central to current photographic thought as the four apostles are to Christianity. By singlehandedly championing Friedlander, Winogrand, Eggleston, and Shore (among many others) he basically created the taste of an entire generation of art photography to follow. Who knows? If it weren't for him color might never have caught fire. The snapshot might still be relegated to family albums, safely quarantined from museums.

John Szarkowski

The irony is that Szarkowski's photographs —the ones which make up the bulk of his remaindered book which I don't plan to buy— look nothing like the work he helped establish. Instead it seems trapped in the pre-Szarkowski era. His photography is of the Weston school, large format b/w previsualized on a tripod with a heavy emphasis on natural forms. Trees, shadows, and rustic homes shown in infinite detail, the same junk we've all seen a million times. Although there are many current practitioners of this aesthetic I can't help consider it a little dated, and judging by the sales of his book I don't think I'm alone. Szarkowski himself must have sensed its tiredness, and that probably motivated him to expand photography's reach.

yellow Pine in Birches, 1954 by John Szarkowski

Yet even as his curatorial work was helping this style into obsolescence, his own photography never varied from it. To me this seems like the central paradox of his life. How was he able to see the work of others with such a fresh eye, and yet not have the same vision when viewing his own work? That question should be a spur to all photographers to look carefully at their own work and try to see it as others might.

3 comments:

bryanF said...

"Instead it seems trapped in the pre-Szarkowski era. His photography is of the Weston school, large format b/w previsualized on a tripod with a heavy emphasis on natural forms. Trees, shadows, and rustic homes shown in infinite detail, the same junk we've all seen a million times."

hmmmm. i never grow tired of looking at Atget or Robert Adams. Medium and Large format, black and white landscapes are certainly not in vogue, but I think it would be pre-mature of photographers to abandon this aesthetic all together. These days, isn't really how you conceive a project and put the puzzle together? For me that's the key to any contemporary work, much more than a choice of aesthetics.

I love the Yellow Pine in Birches.

Interesting post. Thanks!

Blake Andrews said...

I used the word "junk" to be deliberately provocative, but you're right that not everything in that style is junk. I guess I am just tired of seeing the same photo over and over, peeling paint on a barn or a dramatic coastline, e.g., and so I took a cheap shot at the whole aesthetic. I think what makes the photography of Atget and Adams interesting is that they are each following their own path. They have voices which do not seem to copy forerunners. Szarkowski's work seems more derivative to me.

Ben said...

I love that book and thought that the early images were ahead of their time. I wondered why he did not continue to be a photographer rather than become a curator. (Probably to make a living.)

The subject is important, but not as important as how it's seen...and all art is derivative.