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Shadows and Light: Infusing the Inanimate With Life


February 3, 2006
Photography Review | John Szarkowski

Shadows and Light: Infusing the Inanimate With Life

John Szarkowski became part of the history of 20th-century photography by helping to define it, through his writing and a series of groundbreaking exhibitions that he organized during his 29-year tenure as director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. The photographs he shot for much of his life don't have the same historical weight, partly because they haven't been exhibited much. But they have a similar decisive clarity and suggest a man who, whatever his involvement with the medium, has always been something of a natural.


The point is made by a small, beautiful retrospective of Mr. Szarkowski's work that has come to the Modern. It was organized by Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and was overseen here by Peter Galassi, Mr. Szarkowski's successor as head of the photography department. The show's 75 photographs come in two distinct batches: pre-Modern and post-Modern, you could say. There are photographs that Mr. Szarkowski took in the upper Midwest from 1943, when he was 18 and studying art history at the University of Wisconsin, to 1962, when he ascended to the Modern. (He was sometimes called the Pope of Photography.) And then there are photographs that were made since 1991, the year he left the Modern; most show his apple farm in upstate New York, but some depict more distant places, like the Sonoran Desert in the Southwest. (The most recent upstate pictures can be seen in an exhibition at the Pace/MacGill Gallery, his fourth there since 1995.)

At the Modern, Mr. Szarkowski shaped the understanding of photography as a modern art, and in particular highlighted the importance of street photography and of Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans and William Eggleston. He stressed the medium's formal and technical traits over its social concerns and defined it classically, in terms of smallish well-made black-and-white prints.

He appreciated the combination of speed, chance, control, realism and passivity that the camera afforded an artist. His fluid, optimistic writing — at its best in "Looking at Photographs" and "The Photographer's Eye" — emphasized the inherent beauty of photographs and made them, and by extension life, seem rich yet knowable. In the 1980's, when photo-based art exploded all around him, his point of view could seem narrow, but it laid a foundation that was both built on and fought against.

Mr. Szarkowski's photographs reiterate his voice and taste in beautiful, knowable images. The early ones are consistently charged with admiration for other photographers, attentive to the picture-taking craft and less interested in human life than in the marks it leaves on the world. (The show's single portrait shows a young Robert Penn Warren, squinting haughtily into the lens as if mildly offended.)

Several of the best are richly tonal images from Mr. Szarkowski's first book, "The Idea of Louis Sullivan" (1956). They seem like superb extrapolations from Paul Strand's famous image of Wall Street by way of Atget's photographs of Paris. They define architecture as a living thing, subtly responsive to natural light and a grand, mutable stage for human interaction. People rush past or stand with their backs to the ornate reliefs of Sullivan's buildings — the Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago or its old stock exchange — while Mr. Szarkowski's camera captures them in all their exuberant, patient detail.

In one image, the Italianate second-story loggia of Sullivan's Garrick Theater asserts itself over encroaching storefronts and marquees. In "The Loop From the West," the skyward thrust of buildings is countered by the low swayback curve of an old bridge — an iron dragon slinking past.

The photographs taken on the plains of Minnesota and Wisconsin are lighter in tone and often elegantly playful. The clapboard surfaces of a boarded-up schoolhouse recall Evans, but with a subtle liveliness: delicate stalk of dry grass in front of the building's stoop suggest thin slanting lines of splattering rain. A photograph taken from a grain elevator follows the vector of a single railroad track rushing toward a flat horizon. It might qualify as Precisionism run slightly amok; the track runs between a white farmhouse and a long, low shed that looks like a neatly overturned boxcar.

Children playing in the street of a freshly built housing development in the 1950's have some of the dancing, unconscious energy of those in Helen Levitt's photographs of New York in the 1940's, except the space is unbounded and slightly lunar, redolent of Middle America's postwar building boom.

Mr. Szarkowski's photographs since 1991 are in many ways less personal, but they fuse his interests in a Mozartian lightness and also evoke Mr. Friedlander's finely textured landscapes. The best are the images of the apple trees and outbuildings on his farm. The camera explicates different breeds of apple trees: Winesap, Baldwin, Cox Pippin. We see them bare and dusted with snow, in first bloom or heavy with fruit, always with their strange akimbo branches. Some of the images in the show at Pace home in on the grafting process that creates many of the elbows.

In both shows, people are completely absent from these images, but humans and nature — the world and the loving attention to it — are implicitly joined.

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