No covers this time.

John Szarkowski, who died on the 7th of this month, had a long run and made, to say the least, a big impact on the world of Photography. If you want to read about his many accomplishments and enormous influence, there are plenty of places to do that. This is simply a brief memory of the first time I met him:

 

In the early 1980s, the Photography department at the Museum of Modern Art had what was essentially an open door policy for looking at work (for all I know, it may continue to this day). No appointment was necessary; you simply put your pictures in a box, brought them in by Wednesday afternoon and left them with the secretary at the front desk. On Thursday morning, the photography curators would gather and go through all the portfolios that had been dropped off. You'd then come by in the afternoon to pick up your stuff, and that was usually that. The best you'd get was a form letter, thanking you for giving the staff the opportunity, blah, blah blah...Of course, every once in a great while, someone would get lucky and sell the museum a print or two.

I first brought my own pictures there in 1983. When I came to pick them up, the secretary informed me that one of the curators wanted to speak to me. She walked back into a hallway while I stood at the desk, stunned. I heard someone say "John will talk to him", and about fifteen seconds later, John Szarkowski was offering me his hand,

"Bladen?", he said.
"It's Baden", I mumbled.
"Ah, Baden. I'm John Szarkowski."
"I know."
"You do? OK, well, let's go into my office."

We sat down across from each other and he, I think, began to tell me how much the department enjoyed looking at my work. I say 'I think', because I was terribly nervous and, even though I could hear his words, their meaning didn't register. He began to refer to specific images in my portfolio, but his descriptions sounded entirely unfamiliar. Before long, I was convinced that he had confused my work with someone else's.

"I think you've made a mistake," I finally blurted out, " I don't think you're talking about my pictures."

Szarkowski paused. "Well, maybe you're right. Why don't we bring them in and take a look?"

'Ain't this the story of my life,' I'm now thinking. 'The only reason I get an audience with this guy is because he thinks I'm someone else...'

So they bring in a Fiberbilt case full of photos and, lo and behold, they turn out to be mine.
I left the museum that day with one less photograph in my portfolio, and the promise of a check for $125. Not a lot of money for a photograph, even in 1983, but it gave me a sense of confidence that I have rarely, if ever, felt since.

The Idea of John Szarkowski, to appropriate a phrase, may have fallen out of grace in the past decade or two; his writings, according to several schools of thought, smack of an old-fashioned patriarchy. While this view is not entirely unjustified, I continue to believe that no one has written more clearly, more compellingly and more beautifully about photographs and photography. In The Photographer's Eye, Looking at Photographs and many of the other books in what is practically a bottomless bibliography, John Szarkowski had the ability to illuminate truth, seemingly effortlessly, with simplicity, elegance and clarity.

KB

 

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