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When John Szarkowski, whom Steichen himself had proposed as his successor, became MoMA's photography curator in 1962, he had no intention of following in his mentor's footsteps. As in Newhall's day, photographs were once again hanging quietly in passepartouts and frames on white walls. Yet Szarkowski's agenda was nonetheless markedly different from Newhall's culinary approach, and far more radical. In numerous catalogue essays and influential books such as The Photographer's Eye (1965), he tried to establish a fundamental photographic aesthetic using the formal properties of the camera image: "Whatever else a photograph may be about, it is inevitably about photography, the container and the vehicle of all its meanings," as Szarkowski stated both tautologically and programmatically in his William Eggleston's Guide, 1976. From that point on, this program could be used to view every photograph in art critical terms, independently of its context of origin and purpose. All portfolios and collections archived by the MoMA that had originally served documentary or illustrative purposes entirely profane in nature could now be effortlessly carried over into the art context.

Harald Edgerton: Milkdrop, 1976
Harald Eggerton, Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin

The majority of the photographs shown at Kicken stem from exhibitions under John Szarkowski's curatorship, who remained head of MoMA's photography collection until 1991. During this time, photography finally succeeded in entering art history as a major field of modern fine arts. From the mid-seventies onward, professorships were set up at colleges for the history of photography, photographic collections were founded at museums, and photo galleries came into existence, all of which testified to the medium's triumph, not to mention the six-figure prices that old and contemporary prints alike have been fetching at auctions since the nineteen-nineties.

Two years ago, the MoMA itself earned tens of millions when it sold around 1,000 duplicates it possessed by the French photographer Eugène Atget . Peter Galassi, head curator of MoMA's photography collection since 1992, needed the money urgently. The price the museum paid in 1995 for the purchase of the complete series of Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills was evidently so high that the museum prefers to keep the precise sum secret to this day. Thus, the rising prices have hit home, and the museum has to generate more money than was ever before conceivable in order to maintain its collection at the level that has made the museum's work outstanding for the past 65 years.

Dieter Appelt: Der Fleck auf dem Spiegel, den der Atemhauch schafft
(The Mark on the Mirror Breathing Makes), 1977
Dieter Appelt, Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin

With photography's triumph as art, questions about the ways in which it is used have taken on new relevance. Pierre Bourdieu's pioneering investigations in this area heralded a Renaissance in the sociology of art. The Warburg Haus in Hamburg, which was established as a research center for political iconography under the direction of the art historian Martin Warnke, also focuses on the circumstances of its implementation. In the meantime, photography's incorporation into art history has drawn film and video along in its train, posing new questions in media science. The current argument over whether art history shouldn't be called image history proves that even John Szarkowski's position doesn't go far enough today. No interpretation of an image can get along without the context of its creation and use. Only the comparatively conservative art market still adheres to Newhall's position of the fine print, while Edward Steichen's position remains the more consequential one, demonstrating what the special medium of photography is capable of today: merging into the media industry in the function of propaganda.

Brigitte Werneburg is an art editor at the taz

Translation: Andrea Scrima

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