2005 Notebook: Weak XX
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15 May 2005
No. 5,596 (cartoon)
You’re afraid of love.

I am not; I fought it and won.

16 May 2005
Masticating and Mensurating
I dropped by Jeanie’s architectural studio this afternoon with a couple of burritos for our lunch. It turned out that Jeanie wasn’t hungry, so I ate a burrito while she was busy finishing off a project for a client.

We talked about this, that, and the other thing, but not in any detail since she was occupied with completing a drawing. And then she said something in passing that left me thoroughly flummoxed.

“This is fun,” Jeannie said, “I like to watch you masticate while I mensurate.”

I knew all about masticating; I do it several times a day. Jeannie had to explain that mensuration is the act of measuring; I never knew that.

17 May 2005
Speed Bump on the Road to Enlightenment
Alex is having something of a crisis after years of pursuing spiritual growth.

“If there is no self,” Alex asked, “whose hemorrhoid is this?”

“I have no idea,” I replied, “I prefer avenues other than the road to enlightenment.”

Alex winced; I didn’t ask if it was because of what I said or because of biological considerations.

18 May 2005
Project Management Considerations
When Chloé asked about my project to scan all of my old negatives, I told her I hadn’t done anything in months. She seemed surprised, but that’s just because she doesn’t understand how to manage large projects. If she had the kind of experience I have, then she’d know that falling behind schedule immediately provides much more time to catch up later.

19 May 2005
Kisses Like Pork and Beans
I listened to a radio program profiling a musical ensemble, Nick Armstrong and the Thieves. I was really impressed when I heard the lyrics, “Every time I kiss you it tastes like pork and beans.”

That’s art! That’s love! Who says no one’s writing good songs any more?

Well, after a little search I discovered that Nick Armstrong, et al, didn’t pen those words, Jerry Leiber and Artie Butler did quite some time ago.

I know that people are still composing wonderful songs for this reason: I’m writing them.

20 May 2005
John Szarkowski: Photographer
I write for European Photography magazine, one of those those little projects I do to take a break from more self-indulgent pursuits. And, since the periodical only comes out twice a year, the work isn’t particularly onerous.

And so it is that today I shall write a review of a book instead of telling some half-baked lie about something that never happened. And so, it’s time to write about ...

John Szarkowski: Photographer

John Szarkowski makes very good photographs. They almost have to be good, by definition, for they look extraordinarily similar to—if not derivative of—the fine work of photographers he chose to exhibit and promote during his almost thirty-year reign as kingmaker at the Museum of Modern Art.

In John Szarkowski: Photographer, he presents seventy-five beautifully-reproduced photographs, made over almost sixty years, demonstrating that he’s a consummate technician with a good eye. The book’s design also deserves praise; it breaks the traditional monograph formula of an introduction followed by images and footnotes. Instead, Szarkowski’s photographs are interspersed with snippets of correspondence, with an essay by Sandra S. Phillips, the curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—along with a chronology, footnotes and acknowledgments—relegated to the final pages of the volume. This variation on the formulaic approach to monographs makes the publication all the more interesting and enjoyable.

Phillips’s essay provides a welcome perspective on Szarkowski’s life before his famous stint at the Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski was an accomplished artist well before his rise to international prominence as a curator, and Phillips suggests intriguing possibilities about who influenced Szarkowski, and vice versa. For example:

    Szarkowski has said that his Screen Door was possible after [Edward] Weston’s Church Door.

    He [Szarkowski] has been looking at [Charles] Sheeler and [Walker] Evans, and Evans was particularly useful. ... This is a piece of archeological preservation worthy of [Eugene] Atget.

    The effulgent decorative column on the Prudential bisects a hurrying pedestrian and an uncertain collage of shampoo advertising that anticipates Lee Friedlander’s work some years later.

    Surely he recognized in Robert Adams’s pictures of disfigured Colorado trailheads a fellow transcendentalist.

This volume raises more questions than it answers, which may or may or may not be a good thing. In the inevitably incestuous world of contemporary art, how much does it matter who conceived and who inherited an idea? That’s an intriguing question, and one that remains unanswered here.

As for Szarkowski’s time at the Museum of Modern Art, Phillips notes that Szarkowski stopped making his own photographs during that period, “for reasons of of energy and time and potential conflict. The ideas that he had developed as a photographer, however, certainly informed the shape and content of books and exhibitions he made in his role as a curator.”

Given Szarkowski’s legacy from his decades at the Museum of Modern Art, his personal work of very good but mostly unexceptional photographs will almost certainly be a footnote to his superior curatorial and editorial work in such publications as The Photographer’s Eye, Mirrors and Windows, and Looking at Photographs, as well as in the monographs of photographers he championed.

Szarkowski’s influence and reputation is certainly assured. It’s like Winston Churchill said, “History will bear me out, particularly as I shall write that history myself.” Szarkowski is a prominent coauthor of the history of photography, and—with a bit of help from his fellow curator Phillips—his place in it is all but guaranteed.

Szarkowski’s position in the photographic pantheon, however, is a tangential consideration to the book in question, and perhaps even to the photographs themselves. As Szarkowski observed in a letter, “Even when the public thinks they are appreciating an artist, they almost always get it all wrong ... I do not mean to blame the public; why should they know what it is that you are, or I am, trying to do? Especially since neither of us is sure, the uncertainty being part of the fun, when there is any fun.”

John Szarkowski: Photographs is a lovely volume, and a nice addition to anyone’s library.

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©2005 David Glenn Rinehart