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In World War II Szarkowski served in the U.S. Army, after which he graduated in Art History from the University of Wisconsin. He then began his career as a curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. At this time he was also a practicing art photographer, resulting over the years in a number of solo exhibitions and two books. In the late 1950s & early 60s, Szarkowski received two Guggenheim fellowships. In 1962 he was personally picked by Edward Steichen to be Steichen's successor at the Museum of Modern Art. When he arrived in New York, not a single gallery in the city showed photography.
In 1974 Szarkowski published Looking at Photographs; a practical set of examples on how to write about photographs. The book is still required reading for students of art photography. He has also published numerous books on individual photographers.
He taught at Harvard, Cornell University and New York University, and continues to lecture and teach. In 1990, U.S. News & World Report said: "Szarkowski's thinking, whether Americans know it or not, has become our thinking about photography".
In 1991 Szarkowski retired from his post at the New York Museum of Modern Art, during which he had developed a reputation for being somewhat autocratic, and became the Museum's Photography Director Emeritus. He was succeeded as MOMA Director of Photography by Malcolm Daniel . In retirement Szarkowski returned to making his own photographic work, mostly attempting to picture a spirit of place in the American landscape. In 2005 he had several major solo exhibitions in the USA.
- Looking at Photographs (1974, 1999) (Criticism)
- The Photographer's Eye (1966) (Criticism)
- John Szarkowski: Photographs (2005). (Own photography)
- Mr. Bristol's Barn (1997). (Own photography)
- The Face of Minnesota (1958). (Own photography)
- The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956). (Own photography)
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