It’s an open question, and an interesting one, who makes famous artists famous. Who decided that Michelangelo was more important than his contemporary Bandinelli; and when, and according to what criteria? And who decides among our contemporaries? How has the sculptor Richard Serra, to take one example, achieved the kind of renown he now enjoys, and why has the painter Robert Motherwell, to take another, experienced such a precipitous drop in reputation? Among the interests converging on contemporary art, there are collectors, critics, editors, and historians, curators, dealers, auction houses, and consultants, not to mention the general museum-going public. My own experience is that none of them matter very much. Artists’ reputations are primarily determined by other artists: Painters decide who belongs in painting’s canon, just as poets write poetry’s history, and an homage to one director by another is worth a dozen Academy Awards. The rest of us are just tagging along.
There are exceptions, of course—tastemakers of uncommon power. Still, even they tend to be amateurs or semi-pros at the art they’re evaluating: Giorgio Vasari, for example, or John Ruskin. And then there was John Szarkowski, who died last Saturday at the age of 81 and who probably had as much sway over the history of photography as anyone ever did. In recent years, anyway, Susan Sontag was photography’s most famous critic, and Sam Wagstaff was the greatest collector, but Szarkowski was the curator of record, and from his post at the Museum of Modern Art, where he reigned over the Department of Photography from 1962 to 1991, he oversaw—and to some extent engineered—a revolution in the medium. It is no accident that he was himself a photographer of some talent—though not, crucially, too much. He won two Guggenheims for his own photography before he began his curatorial career, but his work was never quite as accomplished as the work he loved. In fact, he was just what one wants from a man in his position: a practitioner just good enough to know who was great.
The list of artists Szarkowski found, encouraged, and promoted to prominence reads like a roll call of postwar photography: Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, William Eggleston. The list of artists he championed and sustained helped define the medium’s history: Walker Evans, for example, and Ansel Adams, and Eugene Atget. For a few decades there, Szarkowski had the field almost entirely to himself: There were few collectors of photographs and few galleries that showed them. Most museums were still figuring out what to do with them, and in any case MoMA was, in those days if perhaps no longer, more powerful, by an order of magnitude, than any other force in contemporary art. Szarkowski had been chosen by Edward Steichen to take over the department, and, partly through the strength of his convictions (he was, if the interviews he left behind are a fair indication, at once prickly and profoundly confident) and partly through the power of the institution behind him, he wielded a degree of influence that, I would venture to surmise, no individual has ever had over any single art. The result could easily have been much, much worse than it was.
Indeed, Szarkowski had extraordinarily good taste (by which I suppose I mean that his taste was quite similar to my own). To be sure, his interests were fantastically broad; in his 29 years at the museum, he oversaw some 160 shows. But he’s best known for a few principles and a few styles. To begin with, his aesthetic was—Atget notwithstanding—deeply bound up in America, as an idea, a landscape, a streetscape, and an image. He was one of the first to find and show what became the defining style of the ‘60s: an approach to picture-taking that was more spontaneous, more contingent, lighter of touch than the somewhat ponderous style that preceded it—the kind of photos first produced by Robert Frank (though, in an inexplicable lapse, Szarkowski never mounted a show of Frank’s work). He was keenly aware of the degree to which photographic styles change as the result of mechanical or technical innovations: halftone printing, high-speed film, less cumbersome cameras. Then again, he was, by reputation anyway, something of a formalist, and though the term is certainly vague, it suggests an attention to the ways the elements in photographs are structured, rather than their subject matter—though I suspect he would argue, and quite rightly, that there’s really no way to separate the two. Perhaps he put the matter best in an interview: “Photographs,” he said, “explain very little, even of small private issues. Photographs show what things look like, at a given moment from a certain vantage point, and sometimes this knowledge proposes the most interesting and cogent questions.”
Above all, he had, like one of his heroes, Walker Evans, that special American combination of democratic sensibility and a kind of natural aristocratic bearing. He believed that the best pictures were unpretentious and open-minded, but he also believed that some people were simply, even objectively, much better at taking them than everyone else (though this included some amateurs, and even some anonymous photographers), and he was perfectly dismissive of anyone who didn’t meet his standards.
He had his blind spots, or perhaps he simply had his moment. In the years just before Szarkowski retired, the best of photography underwent yet another deep change, becoming integrated into the broader concerns of art in general, influenced by conceptualism, performance, painting. It is only slightly overstating matters to say that there’s really no such thing as photography anymore. It simply doesn’t exist, except as one of many ways to make something that counts as art; and as a result, there’s hardly any need for departments of contemporary photography in museums at all. Szarkowski had little sympathy for the artists who broke down those barriers. The pioneers of the ‘60s, like Dan Graham, John Baldessari, and Ed Ruscha, and their successors—Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and so on—did not believe in photography as a distinct medium requiring special skills, and, with the possible exception of Cindy Sherman, Szarkowski did not believe in them.
If nothing else, it was an unfortunate lapse, but a great curator, like a great critic, has a limited shelf life, and that’s as it should be. Any aesthetic passion worth holding will eventually be superseded by history, though its effects may be felt forever. Szarkowski, as I say, had his moment—a very long moment, in fact, and more importantly, it was definitely his. He managed it far better than most curators could have, and photography owes him an inestimable debt.