Belated thanks to John Szarkowski: Reflections on the joy of teaching

From my journal (1970), put into a tribute book made for me last year by my family and friends.
From my journal (1970), put into a tribute book made for me last year by my family and friends.

A few weeks ago I published a post entitled Remembering Edward Steichen. My recollections were mainly about the important role of encouragement (his) on the one hand, and the folly of rigid ideas about art (mine) on the other! I received a lot of nice feedback and am grateful it was published in The Eye of Photography recently. Among the responses I got was this email from a former student, Judith Marti, who I haven’t heard from in about 45 years!

John Szarkowski, 1975, © Richard Avedon, courtesty Richard Avedon Foundation
John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art New York from 1962-1991; © Richard Avedon, 1975 courtesty Richard Avedon Foundation

Dear Harold,

Your blog brought memories and a coincidence. It was 1967 and I had just moved to New York City from Poughkeepsie with an interest in photography. I wanted to learn but where and with whom? I don’t know what prompted me to seek out such an important figure as John Szarkowski who was then photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art. But he was gracious and kind and spent a lot of time asking me about what drew me to photography. I didn’t know street photography but knew that it was the world around me that I wanted to capture.

Without any hesitation he said there was only one expert in that field who I should seek out—and it was you! Your workshop was great—from you I learned not just to look but to see, a lesson that served me well in the field I finally ended up in, anthropology. The connection to your blog? John Szarkowski was picked by Edward Steichen to be his successor at the Museum of Modern Art.

Judith’s email enlightened me on several fronts. I never got to know John Szarkowski. When he took over as the head of photography department at MOMA I was teaching in Philadelphia at the Annenberg School of Communication and later the Philadelphia Museum School. I had begun teaching in New York in the 50’s and it had quickly developed in to a passion that would bring me great joy for the rest of my life. Over the years I would teach at seven colleges and universities, but mostly I taught workshops from my studio.

1970, The Bond Street Workshop, photographer unknown
1971, The Bond Street Workshop, © Gil Shrank

Though I may have wished that my photography had been more prominent on Szarkowski’s radar screen, his admiration for me as a teacher means as much to me.

The fact that I never knew this — but now do — is yet another reason to re-examine old assumptions I may have carried with me in my life…an exercise I do more and more often these days!

Teaching at Windham College, 1975
Teaching at Windham College, 1975, photographer unknown.

It’s also heartening to learn that Szarkowski himself carried on Steichen’s tradition of providing access to and encouraging young photographers (as Steichen himself had received from Stieglitz).

I have written a number of times about the role of encouragement in the creative journey. I still carry memories from my early childhood experiences related to education. As a boy, I had been accepted to the High School of Music and Art in New York, which was a pretty big deal then (and probably still is!) I eventually dropped out when I realized that I would be forced to take subjects that I had no interest in and were seemingly irrelevant to my gifts. I realized that my needs as a learner, explorer, creator, could not be met in the institutional setting. When I started teaching, I carried a deep commitment to encouraging, appreciating and seeing the creative individuality of each and every student and sharing in their excitement.

Thoughts on teaching put in book form
From my journal (1965) and put in my tribute book, 2014

So hearing from a student who studied with me nearly 50 years ago is perhaps the best gift I can receive at this point in my life. Teaching is where I found my voice. Teaching is where I discovered my own thoughts and passions. As I said in the quote below:

My source of inspiration has always been my students.

A page from the Tribute book made for me in 2014
From my journal (1975) put in to my tribute book

Windham College catalogue,1977
Windham College catalogue,1977
Judith is not the first former student to re-connect with me because of my blog posts. Whenever I do hear from people who have studied with me it brings my heart great delight. So, if you’re one of them, please drop me a line, leave a comment here or send me some of your work so I can see what you’ve been up to. I’d love to know how you are doing!

At the wedding of Judith and Oscar Marti  11/2/ 1969 at the United Nations Chapel. © Kurt Grishman.  Judith is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California Northridge.
At the wedding of Judith and Oscar Marti 11/2/ 1969 at the United Nations Chapel. © Kurt Grishman. Judith is Professor emeritus, Department of Anthropology, California State University Northridge.