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August 13th, 2010

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12:44 am - John Szarkowski
Mr. Bristol's Barn (with excerpts from Mr. Blinn's Diary)
John Szarkowski
Harry N. Abrams, New York

You might not know it, but John Szarkowski has influenced how you look at photographs. During the decades he was curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he brought to the foreground such photographers as Lee Friendlander, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, and many others.

After he retired, he returned to his own photography. His own work is nearly the opposite of the photographers above, about as far removed from the snapshot aesthetic, decisive moment, urban, 35mm street photography as it's possible to get.

Mr. Bristol's Barn was his first post-retirement publication. It features 33 duotone photographs of an old timber barn on the Connecticut farm he retired to. The barn was built about the time of the Civil War, and followed a construction style old even then. As Szarkowski says in his introduction:
The frame of a timber barn ... was made from the trunks of trees, fashioned to a degree of reulartity with ax and adze and two-handled drawknife, and fastened together by mortise and tenon and wooden pegs. There were no standardized parts, and every joint was a special case. The buildings were expensive in terms of the material they used, the time they took to build, and the cost of the skilled mecahnics who tailored them, but this was not understood until something cheaper was available.

Living with the barn for years, Szarkowski had plenty of time to study it, get to see it in many different types of light, all different seasons. These large format, long exposure, low contrast, wide tonal range photographs reveal every detail of the ancient wood. But the details aren't laid bare, as if on an examination table. They're brought forward to us, for study, with a fondness and affection. It's almost as if Szarkowski were standing next to us, and we could talk about the people who built the barn, who farmed the poor land (good for forests, too rocky and rolling for more than subsistence farming). The excerpts from Mr. Blin's diary add a voice as well. Mr. Blin and Mr. Bristol were neighbors, and may have been acquainted. The diary talks of the hard, never ending work, the distant Civil War, and going to church.

I come back to how different these photographs are than the work he promoted as curator at MOMA. I like these photographs, but find the work of the photographers in my first paragraph more challenging. I want to engage in their dialogue, whether I take pictures like them or not, whether their influence is directly visible in my photography or not.

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:August 16th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)

the location of Mr. Bristol's Barn

Szarkowski's farm and barn are in Columbia County in upstate New York, very near Massachusetts and a short drive to Connecticut. Marvelously, Szarkowski lived near the Columbia County farm of the writer Verlyn Klinkenborg. Columbia County participates in a linguistic tradition that insists that an old farm is never spoken of as the property of the current owner, and is always only described as "the old (insert name of deceased owner) place". Sad to write, Szarkowski joined that tradition too soon, three years ago this summer.
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Date:August 16th, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC)

Re: the location of Mr. Bristol's Barn

Thanks for the information!

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