July 10, 2007

John Szarkowski

Virtually all the photography blogs I read, have paused to note the passing of legendary curator John Szarkowski who played a major role in establishing a place for photography in the art world. I reread The Photographer's Eye last night (you can find the opening essay on the web as both pdf and html...) and was struck by this paragraph...

But it was not only the way that photography described things that was new; it was also the things it chose to describe. Photographers shot "…objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes… without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic?" Painting was difficult, expensive, and precious, and it recorded what was known to be important. Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people. And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.
By the end of the century, for the first time in history, even the poor man knew what his ancestors had looked like.

This same paragraph could be applied today to digital image making versus film photography as film becomes increasingly "difficult, expensive, and precious" when compared to "easy, cheap, and ubiquitous" digital images...

Earlier on in the essay Szarkowski noted

The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process—a process based not on synthesis but on selection. The difference was a basic one. Paintings were made—constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes—but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken.

This also made me think of digital imagery and the ease in which is manipulated of synthesized... I wonder what Szarkowski would have made of today's digital image making that is rapidly turning film photographers into curious and arty anachronisms. Would it matter to him or would he dismiss the entire digital vs film debate that rages so fervently amongst photographers today as irrelevant? He seemed to value image itself as opposed to the mechanics of making it so my guess is he wouldn't have paid the debate much heed. His view was always expansive:

The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear and consecutive but centrifugal. Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.

posted at 02:27 PM by raul

Filed under: photography

TAGS: curators (1) digital (1) film (7) history (5) i shoot film (1) moma (2) photography (58)


07/11/07 09:17 PM

despite being familiar with the practice, i haven't read much about photography theory. thanks for the little dose.

07/17/07 08:03 PM

I loved Szarkowski and while it's sad that it takes his death to bring me right back to college photo history classes, I'm glad to have reason to reread so many of his thoughts. Thanks for these great quotes. I thought the NYTimes obituary was excellent too.

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