I am glad you are alive and looking

Photographers Looking at Photographs: 75 Pictures from the Pilara Foundation (San Francisco: Pier 24 Photography), 2019
180 pages | 113 images | 13 x 11.25 in. | Hardcover | 978-1-59711-006-8

During my first years working at Pier 24 Photography, I anxiously anticipated drafting each exhibition introduction. I would write tentatively, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of every word, laboriously reworking each sentence. Eventually I’d circulate the text to my colleagues, and finally to Andy Pilara, for review. Andy would take home a printed copy, returning with comments a day or two later. He always had one irresolvable piece of feedback: “Any way we can make this sound a little bit more like Szarkowski?”

John Szarkowski’s easy and approachable yet painstakingly thoughtful style would be impossible to imitate. It graced the pages of countless monographs, exhibition catalogues, and journals during his tenure as director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And before that as well; his successor, Peter Galassi, notes, “The clarity and transparency of John’s writing predated his arrival at MoMA. Just read The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956), or especially The Face of Minnesota (1958).”[1] Szarkowski was an accomplished photographer himself before his tenure at MoMA, and these two books, published in the years leading up to his appointment in 1962 at the age of just thirty-seven, combine his pictures and his writings. He intended to stay at MoMA no more than six years, then return to his artistic practice. Instead, he remained at the helm for nearly three decades, retiring in 1991 after curating more than 160 exhibitions and publishing extensively on the medium.[2] “John did more than any other person, be they artist or curator, to advance the general understanding of the medium of photography,” wrote Stephen Shore in his obituary for the late, great photographer, curator, and writer.[3]

[On left]: Lee Friedlander, Arizona, 1992. [On Right]: Lee Friedlander, Texas, 1997. Photographs: © Lee Friedlander. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Szarkowski’s curatorial approach diverged from that of his predecessors at MoMA, Beaumont Newhall and Edward Steichen. He once speculated in an interview, “Perhaps Newhall and Steichen, consciously or otherwise, felt more compelled than I to be advocates for photography, whereas I—largely because of their work—could assume a more analytic, less apostolic attitude.”[4] The Photographer’s Eye (1966) was his early treatise on the medium’s distinctive attributes. It was “foundational to creating the language for looking at and talking about photographs in a way that was not completely content driven—that is, outside what the photograph was of, its nominal subject,” reflects Dawoud Bey. “It created the syntax for considering the formal, conceptual, and material properties through which one could begin to engage with the medium in a more subjective and complex way. For all practical purposes, John Szarkowski created that language.”[5] He was indeed “the man who taught America how to look at photographs.”[6]

In 1973 MoMA published Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, a book many consider an extension of the dialogue begun with The Photographer’s Eye. Here he set out a “broadly inclusive” selection of pictures from the museum’s collection, “attempt[ing] to describe photography from a somewhat more liberal and exploratory perspective” rather than highlighting obvious works from accepted masters.[7] The book is not a traditional history of the medium, where photographs are often strictly categorized by technological advancements, movements, or schools of thought. “I am not especially interested,” Szarkowski later acknowledged, “in anonymous photography, or pictorialist photography, or avant-garde photography, or straight, crooked, or any other subspecific category of photography; I am interested in the entire, indivisible, hairy beast—because in the real world, where photographs are made, these subspecies, or races, interbreed shamelessly and continuously.”[8] Arranged chronologically, Looking at Photographs surveys more than 120 years of the medium, from 1845 to 1968, democratically intermingling the well-known, the little-known, and the unknown. Gallerist Peter MacGill contends, “Never has there been a more perfect edit of photographs.”[9]

The brief texts in Looking at Photographs, all one page or less, inform in a distinctly lyrical and accessible manner. Szarkowski’s analyses do not preach or offer critical judgments, elevating one photographer or work over another, nor do they oversimplify. And they tend to be delightfully original in their scope and tenor. Curator Anne Tucker explains, “His texts do not set the pictures within art-historical periods or theoretical perspectives or deeply within the personal life of the photographer. If anything, he was more likely to cite artists from other media or historians or poets or his own humorous, acute, and eloquent observations, but always to the purpose of understanding what value this artist had achieved through what Szarkowski believed to be inherently photographic means.”[10] The diverse subjects referenced throughout the book attest to Szarkowski’s inquisitiveness about humanity and the ways seemingly disparate disciplines or ideas could be meaningfully brought to bear in considering a picture. But he also never ignored his own understanding of the print, and of photography as a process. Maria Morris Hambourg, a curator who worked closely with Szarkowski, once asked how he distilled his wide-ranging curiosity into those miraculous little texts. “Well,” he replied, “the problem you are trying to formulate is like a stone you carry in your pocket; after a while its rough edges wear off.” In other words, Hambourg continued, “the exquisite cadences and smooth execution were gradual refinements achieved through repeated cogitation over time.”[11] The simplicity of his analogy belies the prevailing belief by the photography community, past and present, that Szarkowski is one of the greatest writers about the medium, if not the greatest.

John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs, 8th ed. (New York: Museum of Modern ARt, 1973), 60–61.

Upon its release, Looking at Photographs was celebrated by colleagues, photographers, critics, and the public. One especially glowing letter from Hugh Edwards, photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, extolled, “Looking at Photographs is photography’s best portrait of itself. Each of the essays facing the chosen examples is like a reflection of the picture it accompanies and is free of preaching and didacticism. . . . Your lively personal remarks transcend the commonplace of elaboration and explanation. They are new, edifying, delightfully surprising, and always just.”[12] Similar praise poured in from Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, Richard Avedon, Wright Morris, and Irving Penn. Of all the letters I found filed away in MoMA’s archives, I was most touched by one from a fan whose enthusiastic note ended: “I am glad you are alive and looking.”[13]

Since its first release, Looking at Photographs has been reprinted nine times, with an estimated circulation of 120,000 copies. It was translated into Brazilian Portuguese and Russian in conjunction with a traveling exhibition Szarkowski later curated based on the book; a Chinese translation is currently in progress.[14] Given the many significant developments in the medium since Szarkowski wrote it, what accounts for the volume’s continued relevance?


“He treated photographs like anything else individuals might create to incite the imagination. And that’s timeless.” —Anne Tucker[15]

“John wrote and thought in a way that connected photography to everyday life.” —Peter MacGill[16]

“I think his most remarkable quality was the fluidity of connection between his utterly visceral engagement with a picture, his range of emotional availability, his hard knowledge of the world and the history of pictures, and his capacity for abstract thought.” —Peter Galassi[17]

“John wrote from love of the medium and love of life and he wanted others to share in those delights. Looking at Photographs is inclusive and generous; it was his way of inviting all of us to sit beside him at the viewing table.”

—Maria Morris Hambourg[18]


I would be hard pressed to articulate what continues to draw us to Szarkowski’s book better than the colleagues and friends who worked closely alongside him over the years. His perspective on photography was distinctive, rooted in his experience as a practitioner, his robust intellectual curiosity, and his profound understanding of the visual world. Rather than attempting to duplicate Looking at Photographs, I decided to ask some photographers to use the Pilara Foundation Collection as a source of inspiration for looking wholeheartedly and thinking closely, just as Szarkowski did nearly fifty years ago.

[On left]: John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs, Portuguese translation (New York, Museum of Modern Art), 1973. [Middle]: John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs, 8th ed. (New York, Museum of Modern Art), 1973. [On right]: John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs, Russian translation (New York, Museum of Modern Art), 1973.

In his introduction to Looking at Photographs, Szarkowski writes, “The first and distinguishing function of an art museum is that of collecting and preserving works that are, in its judgement, particularly fine, or particularly instructive in reference to the evolution of art. If preserved, these works can be exhibited, reproduced, studied, interpreted, re-evaluated, enjoyed, and—perhaps most important—borrowed from, by younger artists.”[19] Photographers Looking at Photographs: 75 Pictures from the Pilara Foundation is framed as an homage to Szarkowski’s seminal book, but as experienced through the words of photographers from our collection, about our collection. We invited them to revisit Looking at Photographs, but to approach their writing in whatever way felt most personally relevant.

Their admiration for Szarkowski—the man and his written legacy—was immediately apparent. Joel Meyerowitz quickly replied to my invitation to contribute: “I live with a copy here in Italy, and it’s a book I have looked at over one hundred times and have read every essay many times. I can say that I learned more about photography from John and his shows and writings than from any other source, except for photography itself.”[20] Janet Delaney told me, “I grew up with this text and these photographs. I’ve read every page more than once and always marveled at the easy way Szarkowski entered into the time, the place, and the image.”[21]

The submitted short essays range from formal, technical assessments to imagined narratives. Many blend the informative and the anecdotal. Some photographers immediately knew what they wanted to write about, as if their thoughts on that picture had been percolating for some time. It was not too surprising when Mark Klett wanted to write on Eadweard Muybridge, Ed Templeton on Larry Clark, and Mikhael Subotzky on David Goldblatt, given the clear links I already perceived between their practices. Less expected was Owen Kydd’s selection of Rinko Kawauchi, Daniel Gordon’s of Edward Weston, or Vera Lutter’s of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Still others took their time reviewing the collection and ultimately picked an artist or work they were previously unfamiliar with, but that piqued their interest and sparked excitement at the prospect of investigating further. Through their writings, I see all the pictures with fresh eyes.

[On left]: Mikhael Subotzky, Bonnita Sings, Mallies Household, Rustdene Township, Beaufort West, 2006. © Mikhael Subotzky, courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. [On right]: David Goldblatt, A plot-holder, his wife and their eldest son at lunch, Wheatlands, Randfontein, 1962. © The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust.

Of his first impressions of Looking at Photographs, Peter Galassi recalls, “I have a vague memory of being disappointed that it wasn’t a systematic history of photography, failing to recognize that indeed the book is a very coherent history of photography.” Years later, following an internship under Szarkowski at MoMA and with his PhD nearly completed, Galassi ran into his mentor. “When I was studying for my oral exams I read Looking at Photographs again. The next time I saw John I said, ‘Hey, that book isn’t about photography. It’s about everything but photography.’ Without skipping a beat, John said, ‘What do you think photography is about?’”[22]

The texts that follow reflect perspectives as wide-ranging as the contributors’ approaches to their own photographic practices. But they share a clear passion to understand how photography intimately connects to our daily lives and our understanding of the world. I like to think that John Szarkowski would have appreciated our tribute to his great book.

Henry Wessel, [John Szarkowski in his office], 1970s. © Studio Henry Wessel.



[1] Peter Galassi, email to the author, August 25, 2019.

[2] Anne Tucker, “Lyons, Szarkowski, and the Perception of Photography,” American Art 21, no. 3 (2007): 25.

[3] Stephen Shore, “Memorial for John Szarkowski,” in Century Association Yearbook (TKcity: TKpublisher, 2008), TKpage.

[4] Mark Durden, “Eyes Wide Open: John Szarkowski,” Art in America 94, no. 5 (2006): 83.

[5] Dawoud Bey, email to the author, August 28, 2019.

[6] Sean O’Hagan, “Was John Szarkowski the Most Influential Person in 20th-Century Photography?,” The Guardian, July 20, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jul/20/john-szarkowski-photography-moma.

[7] John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 9.

[8] Durden, “Eyes Wide Open,” 85.

[9] Peter MacGill, telephone conversation with the author, August 7, 2019.

[10] Anne Tucker, “Lyons, Szarkowski, and the Perception of Photography,” American Art 21, no. 3 (2007): 28.

[11] Maria Morris Hambourg, telephone conversation with the author, August 29, 2019.

[12] Hugh Edwards, letter dated July 22, 1973, Department of Photography, “Looking at Photographs” Records, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

[13] Diana Seary, letter dated October 25, 1973, Department of Photography, “Looking at Photographs” Records, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.

[14] Email correspondence with Sophie Golub, department manager, publications, Museum of Modern Art, New York, August 21, 2019.

[15] Anne Tucker, telephone conversation with the author, August 28, 2019.

[16] Peter MacGill, telephone conversation with the author, August 7, 2019.

[17] Galassi, email, August 25, 2019.

[18] Hambourg, telephone conversation, August 29, 2019.

[19] Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs, 9.

[20] Joel Meyerowitz, email to the author, October 5, 2017.

[21] Janet Delaney, email to the author, October 12, 2017.

[22] Galassi, email, August 25, 2019.