Szarkowski on Curators

John Szarkowski wrote the afterword to his friend’s 1970 book, Lee Friedlander, Self Portrait. As a photographer and lover of photographers and lover of the landscape — a midwesterner with a down-home practical intelligence and an exquisite communcator — Szarkowski didn’t have much time for the over-intellectualization of photography.






“The program might have proceeded smoothly toward its goal if Friedlander had not been invited, but he was. He was also, if my memory serves me correctly, the first speaker on the program. I use the word speaker in the nominal sense, for he began by saying that he had nothing to say about his pictures, but had brought three Carousel trays of slides — three hundred and sixty pictures — to show, and would be happy to try to answer any questions the audience might have. The pictures were carefully and intelligently chosen, and arranged chronologically, and the slides were beautifully made, so that it would have been possible to lean back and take pleasure in the view that an important twentieth-century artist had formed to describe the evolution of his own career. But this would have been rewarding only to those who believe that pictures have a life, and a life history, of their own. To those (perhaps half of those assembled) who believed that it was the function of pictures to provide ancillary proof to truths that might be formulated by wise blind men, it was deeply disturbing to be asked to sit and watch pictures without dialogue of sub-titles for ten minutes, then fifteen minutes, without having been given a text that one could agree with, or disagree with, or agree with in part, with wise, witty, delightful exceptions, citing St Augustine or Groucho Marx or Walter Benjamin or Jacques Derrida or others who, however innocent of any complicity with or even knowledge of the sins or the provisional triumphs of photography, were called upon to bear witness to its ultimate possibilities. Friedlander (perhaps innocently, or perhaps with some higher Metternichian sophistication) had momentarily foiled the philosophers and the politicians and the social scientists by giving them nothing but pictures, which was not quite the grist their mills needed.”

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