Let us now praise John Szarkowski. The late photography curator was only a pass-through Minnesotan who lived here off and on in the late 1940s and '50s before decamping for New York's Museum of Modern Art, where he reigned benignly over the world of photography for 30 years until retiring in 1991.
But in 1958 to mark Minnesota's centennial, Szarkowski completed "The Face of Minnesota," a collection of photos and essays commissioned by the University of Minnesota Press and the state's Centennial Commission. The book was an improbable hit, rocketing onto the New York Times bestseller list and perching there for eight weeks.
Long out of print, it has been reissued by the University Press in a larger format on better paper and with much improved printing (320 pages, 175 photos, $50). It is a triumph. A triumph not only because it captures in pictures and words the look and tone of Minnesota at a particular moment in time -- the 1950s -- but because it probes so deeply into the sinew and fiber of the people, lays bare the rugged bounty of the landscape, and articulates the stoic dreams that mark us as Minnesotans. And he does all this with a keen eye, biblical cadence and dry wit that could have been a primer for Garrison Keillor, had he been born an agnostic intellectual rather than a shy Lutheran poet.
"This is the center of the continent; here is the gentle crest of land from which great rivers begin their flow. ..." Szarkowski begins. "This was a wild land, and the land held man in the cup of his hand; but now the land has been conquered. Now man can use the land as he will."
That is the Minnesota he photographs and writes about, the Minnesota of great rivers, wilderness, nurture and industry. His images, mostly black-and-white, are marked by a wonderful limpid clarity and silvery sheen, whether he's recording a storm gathering over a northern lake, a shimmering thicket of plum blossoms, a field of ripe wheat, fishermen hauling in a catch, ice skaters on a farm pond, the crowded stands at open-air football and baseball games, a man swinging a mallet in a slaughterhouse, human ants scurrying across the moonscapes of open-pit ore mines, gleaming plowshares in a dusty field, stickball on a Bloomington street, Antal Dorati conducting the Minneapolis Symphony, or prize cows and hogs proudly displayed at a county fair.
A philosopher with a wry touch, Szarkowski duly reports statistics about the state's vacation industry: The average fisherman "stays 9 1/2 days, spends $96.86, and catches walleyes (40 percent), northerns (41 percent), panfish (34 percent) or, on occasion, nothing (6 percent)."
But then he goes on to ask the never-asked questions, the ones that really matter: "1) Can you tell the difference now, at night, between the sound of a big bass jumping and the sound of a beaver diving? 2) What was the longest period during which you did not see a neon sign? 3) Did you see a loon, and hear it cry; and if so was it or was it not the saddest of all sounds that you have ever forgotten? 4) Why did you really come? What were you looking for?"
In the course of writing and photographing, Szarkowski peered into Minnesota's fishing shacks and post offices, strolled its main streets and canoed the Quetico-Superior wilderness. He was way ahead of his time in recognizing the state's growing ethnic diversity and fast-changing economy, photographing heart surgery, Hispanic Sunday-schoolers and the emergence of suburbia. He studied its geology, sifted its soil, mused on its glacial memory and the bitter history of its Indian inhabitants. He met the grain traders, politicians, doctors, grad students, farmers, musicians, printers, priests and cheerleaders. And somehow he found a place for them all in the book because they were, and are, the enduring face of Minnesota.
His book is 50 years old and as fresh and welcome as dawn.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431