When John Szarkowski began as director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1962, photography was considered a utilitarian median, a means to document what existed. He elevated the photograph as a legitimate form of art.
“Szarkowski’s thinking, whether Americans know it or not, has become our thinking about photography,” wrote US News & World Report in 1990:
And it all started here. In Ashland.
Szarkowski was born Thaddeus John Szarkowski on Dec. 18, 1925, in Ashland, Wisconsin. Growing up, he biked all of Ashland County, fished the local streams, built balsa wood airplanes, and tied his own flies. At eleven, he got a brownie camera and began taking pictures, soon afterward doing his own processing. In high school, he photographed deer in the snow on Madeline Island and played clarinet in the band.
He attended the University of Wisconsin, interrupted his studies to serve in the Army during World War II, then returned to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1947, with a major in art history. His sister Georgiana attended Northland College, graduating in 1941. He began his career as a staff photographer at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and in 1954, he received his first Guggenheim Fellowship—to photograph what remained of the architecture of Louis Sullivan. This allowed him to live and work in Chicago, where he wrote The Idea of Louis Sullivan.
Next in 1957 came his book, The Face of Minnesota, a pictorial representation of Minnesota’s one hundred years of statehood.
In 1958, he returned to Ashland, where he taught American Literature at Northland College, filling in for English Professor Lydia Peterson, says Northland College historian Don Chase ‘62, who sat in on that class as a student.
In 1962, when Szarkowski was offered the position of director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, he had just received his second Guggenheim Fellowship to work on a landscape photography project.
In a letter to Edward Steichen, then curator of the department, he accepted the job, registering with his signature dry wit: ‘Last week I finally got back home for a few days, where I could think about the future and look at Lake Superior at the same time. No matter how hard I looked, the Lake gave no indication of concern at the possibility of my departing from its shores, and I finally decided that if it can get along without me, I can get along without it.’”
He curated and directed photography for the next three decades and was the author and contributor of books that continue to be required reading in art history courses, including, The Photographer’s Eye and Looking at Photographs.
In 1990, Szarkowski returned to Northland College to receive a doctor of humane letters.
Szarkowski died July 7, 2007. He was 81 years old.
PHOTO: Northland College students interview John Szarkowski (holding cigarette), for the Northland College radio program at the Ashland WATW radio station. Left to right: Mike Erspamer ’63, John Szarkowski, Carol Cordy Holmes ’63, Roberta Malcheski Olson ’62, Dick Chula, and Ethan Erdman ’63.
NOTE: If you have more memories of John Szarkowski in Ashland or at Northland College, please contact us.