When John Szarkowski died on Saturday, July 7, America lost one of the true giants of 20th century photography. He was 81 years old.
When Szarkowski took on the job as photography curator for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan in 1962, he was more than an academic or an executive; Szarkowski was a working and talented photographer himself, with an expert eye for composition and a true love of the form, and without whom the world may have never taken modern documentary photography seriously.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, in his New York Times obituary for Szarkowski on July 10, put it eloquently when he wrote, “The exhibitions he mounted and the books he wrote quite simply gave documentary photography a place in the world of art.”
Szarkowski, a Wisconsin native, never lost site of where he came from, keeping his humble Midwestern manners all the way to end. Even as he was able to redefine modern photography, he never made his audience feel as if they were being spoken down to. Szarkowski loved to teach and viewed his job as a curator as a means to give clear voice to the qualities that make great photographs great. This common sense, accessible approach showed Szarkowski to be not just a great curator and an influential force in American art, it also shows his talent as an artist.