Tuesday, July 10, 2007

John Szarkowski story number #1

As promised, I share the first of two personal stories about John Szarkowski. As Jen Bekman has pointed out, his death as reverberated across the blog-o-sphere. I read a great email anecdote today courtesy of Karl Baden, which I wish was online. Wait, it a comment on Alec Soth's blog along with several other great ones too. I might not have as much history behind me or as powerful a pen, such as seen in this great post by Mark Feeney, but I do hope you enjoy it.

What I liked about Karl's remembrance of Szarkowski was that it was personal. He told the story of when he dropped off his portfolio at MoMA and was called back to chat. At first he thought Szarkowski wasn't talking about his images; then he walked out with a check. There is no denying that he and others such as Edward Steichen and Beaumont Newhall had a profound effect on the creation of a canon--both good and bad--that has become the history of photography we know today. He was instrumental in promoting photography as a fine art, a fact that seems lost on younger students born in the late 1980s after the battle had been essentially won, and had a poet's pen. There will be many dissertations on the effect of Szarkowski on photography and photohistory, but there is something about meeting such greats in person no matter what has been said about them in your graduate art history seminar.

During College Art Association (CAA) in Boston a year or so ago, we attended a special session about and with John Szarkowski. Peter Galassi and a few others were also on the panel. When John got up, he shook it all up by saying "I am going to talk about what you do, while showing you images I made." Then he proceeded to critique the art teaching establishment by saying that they are coddling students and graduating too many MFAs. He was especially critical of the practice of encouraging students who are not good, but are told that they are and not dissuaded so as to keep money in the coffers. This is especially prescient given the recent Art in America 'Art School Symposium' that I am still reading. If this collection of essays is any measure, Szarkwoski was not the only one thinking about these issues and even in in his 80s, knew how and when to talk about things that need to be addressed.

After the lecture, there was a special reception and we were all invited to stay. Everyone made a beeline for the food and drink, but oddly, no one approached Szarkowski to chat or shake his hand. Was everyone in shock from the talk, or simply too scared to talk to or meet him? Our crew headed on over and Lisa Kessler and Terri Smith struck up a conversation with him (the latter more of a full-blown Leo than myself). Lisa actually found his misplaced slides and was immediately hailed as his savior. We bantered about and he was incredibly funny (not to mention fond of the ladies) and above all, human. I share these 2 photos taken by Bruce with you. You can tell how much fun we had with Mr. Szarkowski from the photos. I think he had fun with us too.

Next up: Bruce's story about having dinner with John Szarkwoski after his talk at Colorado College with Robert Adams, Stuart Klipper, Frank Golhke. Hint -it was a heated discussion about panoramas.

TOP: Szarkwoski and Terri; BOTTOM: Lisa and Szarkowski


PC said...

I met him in 1974, when he gave the commencement speech at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which I was attending. The theme of the talk, if I remember right, was how hard it was to be a good artist and that we should all think twice about it. He also seemed very fond of my girlfriend. Sounds like the same man you met!


pitchertaker said...

In some way, I feel those of us who are more vested and linked to Szarkwoski's influences (students of Lee, Friedlander, Winogrand, Arbus, etc.) have seen the passing of an era, our ear.


LKB said...

Thanks for your comment. Even for me, a generation hence, I feel I have a different relationship to him and his ideas than students today. I did one of my grad papers on the plethora of 150th anniversary photobooks, his included. In 1995, 1989 wasn't in the far distance past and photohistorians had just begun to look at historiography of their own medium and discipline. So much has changed even since then. - LKB