John Szarkowski: The perfect photo
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John Szarkowski: The perfect photo


Best known as a photographer and the 29-year director of MoMA’s Department of Photography (1962–1991), John Szarkowski’s long career has lesser known origins in these parts. Born in Ashland, Wisconsin, and educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his first job out of college was managing the Walker’s photo studio. And his first show as a solo artist, a series of self portraits, took place at the Walker in 1949. (His MoMA exhibition Mirrors & Windows: American Photography Since 1960 was exhibited here in 1979.) Retired from administrative duties, Szarkowski is focusing on his photography (he has a solo show at Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica through January) and apparently has more time to talk. In a new LAWeekly interview, he discusses the history of photography and, mentioning a “perfect picture” by Sheron Rupp in the Getty’s show Where We Live (on view until February 25), what he thinks makes an exceptional image:

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.

Above: St. Albans, Vermont, one of Sherron Rupp’s photos in the exhibition Where We Live.

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