There are few people alive today with more stories to tell about American photography than John Szarkowski, and probably none capable of telling them with quite the same charm. Born in Ashland, Wisconsin, in 1925, Szarkowski took up photography himself at a young age, secured two Guggenheim fellowships and published two books of his own before being tapped by Edward Steichen to take over the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962. His tenure at the museum lasted nearly 30 years and spanned a decisive period — perhaps the decisive period — in the institutionalization of the medium, a process in which Szarkowski himself played no small part. As U.S. News and World Report proclaimed in 1990, “Szarkowski’s thinking, whether Americans know it or not, has become our thinking about photography.”
These days, he’s turned his attention back to his own work, a small survey of which can be seen at Peter Fetterman Gallery through the end of January. In town for the opening of that show and for a lecture at the Getty — whose current exhibition of photographs from the Berman Collection bears the stamp of Szarkowski’s advocacy of the American vernacular tradition — he met us for coffee on the sleek patio of the Luxe Hotel, looking anomalously dapper in a Northeasterner’s tweed blazer.
We began by asking how he’d seen the landscape of photography change in the 45 years since he began at MoMA.
JOHN SZARKOWSKI: Well, at that time, for one thing, most young photographers still thought that the potential was in the magazines, or journalism.
L.A. WEEKLY:Because there really wasn’t anything else, was there?
Well, there was old-fashioned commercial photography, where you were working directly for the manufacturer or maybe the manufacturer’s magazine or doing nuts-and-bolts photographs. There were still photographers who lived mostly on portraiture but also did the local scenery. And there were the insurance photographs, you know: the car wrapped around the telephone pole. That was kind of fun. But for more ambitious and younger photographers, the opportunities seemed still to be in the magazines. The more intelligent ones were already beginning to get disillusioned with that.
Photographic education in colleges was still quite marginal. A couple of places, like Iowa and Minnesota, started programs around 1950 maybe, still under the influence of the GI Bill, where, you know, you could study flag twirling if you wanted to. So that was beginning to be a factor, and the people who came out of those places were basically pretty incompetent. [Laughs.] You wouldn’t put those words in my mouth, would you? You look like trustworthy people, trustworthy idealistic journalists, not — never mind. What I mean to say is, about the only thing they could hope to do, in most cases, was to be artists. Because if you’re an artist, you can do anything you want and say, “That’s what I meant!”
Lee Witkin’s gallery started around ’68 or ’69. That was the first gallery to sell photographs in New York — or, I suppose, anywhere else — that survived. And that was absolutely the beginning. Witkin probably made most of his money selling books, at least in the beginning. You could still buy Muybridge colotypes, the motion studies, via bookstores for $5. [Edward] Curtis gravures, the small size, $15. Famous dead photographers, even vintage prints, rarely cost more than $100. Living photographers, 25 bucks. Maybe 50.
So that’s the big change. Now you go to schools like Yale and — [the students] would deny it, but they’re lying — their real ambition is to be stars in the gallery system. And I wouldn’t want those young people to know this, but there is actually a substantial market for new people doing something that might look flashy for a moment, because of the fact that there are, you know, a million new billionaires in this country, and they or their wives want to be on the boards of museums. And you can’t collect Jasper Johns anymore. I mean, forget collecting Matisse or Picasso. You can’t collect Rauschenberg or those people — all the good stuff is already in captivity! So you’ve got to find a new guy.
So that’s the big change: In 1962, there were a lot of civilized and cultured people who would accept the notion of photography being a kind of an art. But it was not part of the art market, not at all.
One of the interesting things about the new Getty show [“Where We Live: Photographs of America from the Berman Collection”] is the fact that there are so many of these photographers and so many photographs in this mode and they’re all covering similar, if not the same, ground.
Do you know the book William Eggleston’s Guide? I think that was an enormously influential book. Very, very talented photographer. Very original photographer. And it demonstrated to a lot of young photographers not only that you could photograph in color but that you could photograph the humble vernacular of your own life. And this show was certainly influenced by Eggleston. Also by early Stephen Shore. Then, after that, people like Joel Sternfeld — very talented photographer. And it’s true — what you say is absolutely true, but it’s not really surprising. I mean, if you go into a museum that you’ve never been in before, it’s easy to say, oh, Italy, 1460 — of course, it all looks the same on one level. On the other hand, some of those people are better than others.
There’s a woman in [the Getty] show who I think is really good. [Looking through catalog.] Sharon Rupp. Don’t ask me why that’s such a good picture, it’s just a perfect picture.
Why is that such a good picture? It’s a stupid question, but it actually is the question, isn’t it?
In a bad photograph, a lot of the time, the frame isn’t altogether understood — there are big areas of unexplained chemicals. It’s especially difficult as the picture gets bigger. If it’s small, a little piece of black can look like a dark place, right? But as it gets bigger, eventually it just turns into a black shape. And you look at the surface of the picture and it reminds you of the chemical factories on Lake Erie, creating pollution problems by making synthetic materials out of soybeans and petroleum derivatives. And you don’t want that. The basic material of photographs is not intrinsically beautiful. It’s not like ivory or tapestry or bronze or oil on canvas. You’re not supposed to look at the thing, you’re supposed to look through it. It’s a window. And everything behind it has got to be organized as a space full of stuff, even if it’s only air.
Some photographers think the idea is enough. I told a good story in my Getty talk, a beautiful story, to the point: Ducasse says to his friend Mallarmé — I think this is a true story — he says, “You know, I’ve got a lot of good ideas for poems, but the poems are never very good.” Mallarmé says, “Of course, you don’t make poems out of ideas, you make poems out of words.” Really good, huh? Really true. So, photographers who aren’t so good think that you make photographs out of ideas. And they generally get only about halfway to the photograph and think that they’re done.
A related question came up after seeing the Getty show, thinking about an Eggleston, which is often so sharp and so poignant, and a lot of those, which are very similar, but feel —
Yeah, flat. What is the difference?
A lot of it is just idea mongering. Well, I shouldn’t say a lot of it. The weaker stuff. You think, okay, that’s interesting, and it’s flat, and, of course, that brings us halfway to modern if it’s flat, because modern is flat, right? The whole tradition of modern painting has to do with flatness. So you march straight up to the building, and you get some letters that might be fairly interesting as letters, and maybe they say something that you think possibly has got a little bit of ironic valence. Or a photograph of a building that has been influenced by people whose taste is inferior to your own. You know, that kind of shooting-fish-in-a-barrel sort of thing. And without any affection, without any attempt to understand.
Probably the most misunderstood important photographer in American photography is [Walker] Evans. You know, people think he was photographing the Depression, people think he was photographing poor people or tried to promote social change. Walker was less interested in social change — except in his own individual case! [Laughs.] No, actually he didn’t think there was anything wrong with his social situation except that he was broke, he wanted more money. Socially, he considered himself absolutely top of the pack! But what he really was photographing was something else. Very seldom did he photograph anything that he didn’t think had some kind of quality. Even if it was the record of a failure, it was the record of a failure in which there was some kind of poignancy, some kind of memorable ambition. Some kind of artistic intention, even if naive or cut short. Noble failure was a constant interest of his. A piece of stamped tin ornament thrown away in the junk pile — it’s a record of an artistic ambition that was for some reason cut short, thwarted, died stillborn, of course naive, but nevertheless, on some level, moving. Hm? How’s that? That’s pretty good. You got your machine on?
JOHN SZARKOWSKI | Peter Fetterman Gallery, Bergamot Station A7, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through January 27 | (310) 453-6463 or www.peterfetterman.com