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John Szarkowski









Photo from The Guardian.

John Szarkowski has been called, “the most influential person in Twentieth Century photography.” He and Ernest Oberholtzer were friends. 

Szarkowski created his own unique photographic statements of place and time, many of which are exhibited at the Pace/McGill Gallery in New York. He was also Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991.  Three months after Szarkowski’s death, The Guardian declared, “Everyone who cares about photography is in his debt.” 

“When Szarkowski took over at Moma, there was not a single commercial gallery exhibiting photography in New York, and the form had still not been accepted by most curators or critics.  Szarkowski changed all that.”  [Guardian]  At the Museum of Modern Art, Szarkowski hosted 160 exhibits including some very challenging shows, and he opened the doors to new and sometimes controversial work and photographers. 

Szarkowski’s The Face of Minnesota (1958) was originally commissioned to commemorate the state’s centennial; it was then re-published for the sesquicentennial in 2008.  U of M Press calls it “an eloquent tribute to the people and places of the North Star state.”  See Barbara Breckenridge’s story for Mallard Island’s connection to this man and this book.

  – Introduction by the Editor

An Interesting Visitor
by Barbara Ann Breckenridge

In the second week of September, 1955, I was completing three months as the summer cook on Mallard Island, cooking for Ober, Frances Andrews, and whoever else happened to be there.  I heard that another guest was expected and, since it was my last week of cooking on the island, I was accustomed to various people showing up at any time; it just meant adding another place at the table.  I wasn’t too surprised when a tall, thin young man appeared one afternoon.  He commenced to pull a beautiful eggplant out of each jacket pocket, which was great except that I had no idea how to cook an eggplant.  I had just turned 19 and was basically a meat and potatoes cook.  Not wanting to display my ignorance, I thanked him for them and headed for the cookbooks.  I found only one recipe, a fussy stuffed eggplant dish that took a lot of time and was not what Ober was expecting.  But everyone graciously ate it without showing their disappointment that it wasn’t simply sliced and fried.

At dinner, our guest was introduced as John Szarkowski, a photographer.  He was there to go on a canoe trip with Ober, who explained that they met on a train.  In 1951 they were both traveling south from Minneapolis on the Rock Island Zephyr when they were asked to share a table in the dining car.  Their conversation continued all evening and ended with Ober inviting Szarkowski to visit his island. This was a common occurrence for Ober—he never drove, usually traveled by train, and invited many casual acquaintances from trains to visit his island.  He told me that sometimes people would show up years later saying he’d invited them and he would have no idea who they were.  Being the gentleman he was, he always welcomed them as guests.

I didn’t see much of Szarkowski as he and Ober were busily planning the canoe trip.  But in 1958 the University of Minnesota Press published a commemorative book about Minnesota for the state centennial.  I realized when I saw the book that the photographs and text were by John Szarkowski, the young man I had met on Mallard Island.  Several pictures were taken on Rainy Lake and even on Mallard Island, including one of my favorite pictures of Ober.  I assume many of them were taken that fall of 1955.

Through the years, I have been alert for his name (certainly not a common one) and I’ve acquired several other books of his beautiful photography. Of course, John Szarkowski went on to a very distinguished career, teaching photography at several universities and serving as curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art.  Through the years, I followed his career through newspaper articles, and I’ve collected some of his books. I enjoy his photography and descriptive text and find myself going back to his books frequently to look for particular pictures or descriptions.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Barbara Breckenridge lives in Marshall, Minnesota, and has been a friend of the Oberholtzer Foundation for many years.  Barb has volunteered as a scribe in our board of directors’ meetings on several occasions and her letters, written as a Mallard Island cook in 1955, are a permanent part of the lore of the island. 

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