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John Szarkowski; curator elevated art of photography

After retiring as director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski returned to taking and presenting his own photographs. After retiring as director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski returned to taking and presenting his own photographs. (file 1997/new york times)

LOS ANGELES -- John Szarkowski, the longtime director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a dominant figure in the establishment of photography as an art form, has died. He was 81.

Mr. Szarkowski, who began his career as a photographer and returned to his camera in recent years, died Saturday in Pittsfield, Mass., said Peter MacGill of the Pace/MacGill gallery in New York. Mr. Szarkowski died of complications from a stroke he suffered in March.

"His influence on post-war American photography has been so profound as to be incalculable," critic Andy Grundberg wrote in the New York Times in 1990, the year before Mr. Szarkowski retired.

Other curators acknowledge talented photographers by giving them a museum exhibit. "Szarkowski made discoveries," said Grundberg, administrative chairman of photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "When he showed the photographs of Diane Arbus, that was a discovery."

Mr. Szarkowski included Arbus in "New Documents," an exhibit of 1967 that also featured Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. All three photographers shared a common influence, documentary photography.

None of their names was well known at the time but all of them came to be considered among the leading talents of their generation.

"John was very interested in trying to understand photography as a whole, the concrete and the ephemeral aspects," said Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. "And he had a first-class mind."

In the 1970s, Mr. Szarkowski's controversial show of William Eggleston's work was the museum's first major exhibit of color photographs.

Eggleston's images of landscapes, suburbs, and the people who inhabit them were "perfectly boring," Hilton Kramer wrote in a 1976 review for The New York Times. He added that Eggleston's style suggested snapshots, a growing trend in contemporary photography that "has all but derailed Mr. Szarkowski's taste."

Others saw the Eggleston exhibit as a breakthrough.

"That show announced color photography," Grundberg said.

It challenged the established idea that only black and white photography conveyed the technical skill and aesthetic depth required of an art photograph. It was one of many times when Mr. Szarkowski "stuck his neck out," Grundberg said.

Along with younger talents, Mr. Szarkowski championed the work of older masters including Ansel Adams and Walker Evans with major exhibitions of their work.

He also introduced audiences to European photographers, including Eugene Atget .

"John set the rules of connoisseurship," said Stephen White, a photography dealer and former gallery owner in Los Angeles. "He made the Museum of Modern Art a paradigm for the field. He set the standard on how to display photography, how to look at it, how to frame it."

Some people said that Mr. Szarkowski was a Formalist who liked photographs filled with straightforward information but wasn't much interested in manipulated images, radical abstractions, or avant-garde concepts.

As young photographers such as Cindy Sherman made references in their work to painting, sculpture, movie stills and posters, "John had no affection for it,' Grundberg said. "He totally missed that boat."

He also resisted the homosexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe despite what some critics saw as their historical significance.

Mr. Szarkowski's polished writing style and his ease as a lecturer attracted an ever widening audience of people curious to learn what makes certain photographs and photographers important.

Two major books he wrote during his early years at the Museum of Modern Art established his reputation.

"The Photographer's Eye," of 1966 included work by known talents, professional photographers, and amateurs.

A second book, "Looking at Photographs" of 1973, highlighted 100 photographs from the Museum of Modern Art collection through history.

Thaddeus John Szarkowski was born in Ashland, Wis., on Dec. 18, 1925. His father, a postal worker, gave him a camera when he was about 11.

Mr. Szarkowski printed his own pictures in the darkroom he built in the cellar of the house.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1948, he worked as a staff photographer at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

His book of 1958, "The Face of Minneapolis," shows views of community life, landscapes, and local people.

He left the Walker in 1950 and took a job as a photography instructor at the Albright Art School in Buffalo, N.Y., where he stayed until 1953.

He had become interested in the architecture of Louis Sullivan and was inspired by the Guaranty building, in Buffalo. His interest, aided by a Guggenheim grant, led to the book, "The Idea of Louis Sullivan," with photographs and text that was published 1956.

Through the early 1950s, Mr. Szarkowski had several exhibitions of his photographs, many of them images of nature or of buildings.

He was working on another book when he was invited to meet with administrators at the Museum of Modern Art. He thought the invitation might lead to an exhibit of his photographs, he later told Vanity Fair.

Instead, he moved into his office at the museum during the summer of 1962.

His predecessor was Edward Steichen, whose gauzy photographs Mr. Szarkowski had admired in his student years.

In 1963, Mr. Szarkowski met and married architect Jill Anson. The couple had three two girls and a boy.

Their son died in childhood. Anson died in December.

Mr. Szarkowski's last major show at the Museum of Modern Art was "Photography Until Now" in 1990. It covered the history of photography from the daguerreotypes of the mid-1800s to current works including "Tom Moran," a 1988 portrait of a man dying of AIDS by Nicholas Nixon.

Mr. Szarkowski became an emeritus curator for the Museum of Modern Art in 1991, worked on several exhibits for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and kept up his writing and his lecture schedule.

Perhaps more important to Mr. Szarkowski, he returned to taking photographs.

His pictures of the apple farm he owned in rural New York state were exhibited in a retrospective of his work, "John Szarkowski: Photographs," that opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005 and traveled to other cities.

Mr. Szarkowski leaves his two daughters, Natasha Szarkowski Brown and Nina Anson Szarkowski Jones, both of New York; and two grandchildren.

Correction: The obituary yesterday of photography curator John Szarkowski, from the Los Angeles Times, misidentified the title of one of his books. The correct title is "The Face of Minnesota."