Book Review: Photography Until Now by John Szarkowski

Curator and critic John Szarkowski boasts a larger-than-life reputation in the photography world. The former Museum of Modern Art photography director and author of the classic text The Photographer’s Eye, Szarkowski helped shape the way that photography was both perceived and utilized via groundbreaking exhibitions such as New Documents in 1967 and, two decades later, at the tail end of the 80s, Photography Until Now.

Photography Until Now traces a path through the first 150 years of photography. The book, which blends history and criticism in insightful ways, is a sort of companion piece to Beaumont Newhall’s landmark 1937 MoMA exhibition and accompanying book The History of Photography.

To that end, the first third of Szarkowski’s book covers roughly the same territory as Newhall’s. In a straightforward, unpretentious style, Szarkowski walks the reader through the early photographic processes developed by Niepce, Daguerre, Fox Talbot, et al.

Szarkowski centers his discussion of the early 20th Century largely around the work of Alfred Stieglitz. He chronicles Stieglitz’s partnership with Edward Steichen on Camera Work, the relatively brief rise and fall of pictorialism, and the emergence of concerned photography.

From there, Szarkowski traces the development of photojournalistic ethics, the evolution of the photobook, and the rise of the collectors’ market, among other wide-ranging topics. He anchors his discussion of newspaper photojournalism with a brief, lucid profile of Weegee. His exploration of the early history of the photobook results in an inspired meditation on Walker Evans and the groundbreaking publication of Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, one of the first books that, he writes, “demonstrated that the relationship between words and pictures is complementary rather than supplementary.”

Further demonstrating this relationship, Photography Until Now is balanced with high quality reproductions of photos from the exhibition, comprised of well-known iconic images juxtaposed with lesser known “deep cuts” across all genres. They are presented in chronological order, to help give a sense of the evolution of the medium. In summing up where photography was heading, just a few years removed from a new century, Szarkowski presciently ends with Eudora Welty’s words about William Eggleston’s photographs: “Familiarity will be what overwhelms us.”

(Originally reviewed for the Halide Project.)

Photography Until Now by John Szarkowski. Museum of Modern Art/Bullfinch Press, 1989. 343 pages. Hardcover.

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