Lyle Rexer on the Influence of Photographer and Critic Max Kozloff

November 3, 2015

On Sunday, November 8 at the SVA Theatre, MFA Photography, Video and Related Media presents a symposium on the work of photographer and critic Max Kozloff. Presenters include Sandra Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, addressing Kozloff’s concentration on street photography; author and scholar Phillip Lopate discussing Kozloff’s observations on portraiture; photographer Duane Michals speaking on Kozloff the photographer; and curator, critic and Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr discussing Kozloff’s contributions to the field of art and photography criticism. SVA faculty member Lyle Rexer is moderating the event, and to mark the occasion offers the following reflection on the importance of Kozloff’s work.

max425O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn’d profession of writing,
where one needs one’s brains all the time.

At a stroke Ezra Pound expressed the writer’s curse and the reader’s benefit—intelligence squeezed and distilled. When Max Kozloff began writing about photography for Artforum (where he would serve as associate and executive editor), the medium was going though all kinds of changes, including its simultaneous canonization as an art form and its deconstruction by artists who didn’t give a fig for that acquired sacral status. There were very few writers who, unbeholden to a group of artists or a theoretical position, could take stock of the medium in its complexity. Not that there weren’t very good writers in the breathing world (outside the academy) thinking and arguing about photography (notably Alan Coleman), but the great need was and still is to understand photography in the context of other forms of image making and in its larger vernacular setting.

Max Kozloff did that as a matter of course, so that behind all of his criticism there is a mind thinking about everything that is not the ostensible subject, everything that is not obviously photography, from Cubism to game shows. He was already a perceptive and often very amusing guide to modern art, and like John Berger in England he brought a skeptical but receptive eye to photography, even as he became more and more immersed in it.

Max Kozloff is being honored with a discussion of his work at the School of Visual Arts (November 8) in which he is also a participant. The point is not to inter him while living but to try to understand the value of photography criticism at a time of equally seismic shifts in the photo world, including the rise of social media and the dispersion of critical voices.

Kozloff’s larger projects—New York: Capital of Photography and Theater of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900—are most likely the works that will be referenced for their historical and theoretical value. These are big-ticket items of a scale that working critics, absent institutional umbrellas, seem less and less likely to produce. Yet Kozloff’s voice and insights are sharpest in his reviews and essays, many of which were published in Artforum. Long after the particular photographers have ascended in the pantheon or dropped into obscurity, the opening they provided the writer to think out loud about essential aspects of the medium remain not just “consultable” but in many cases prescient.

This is especially true in photojournalism, where Kozloff followed the fault line between editorial and formal decision-making as it opened into a chasm, with personal ambition on one side and commercial context on the other. Kozloff asks not only What is it they show? but also Why do we look? The answers always lead to ruminations on larger issues of image-making and social construction, but they never lose sight of the particular reality of the photographs and the writer’s own fugitive responses to them. If Kozloff has one lesson for critics—other than that we should be thinking of everything all at once—it is that works of art are occasions, never pretexts.

For more information and to reserve a seat for the symposium, which is free and open to the public, click here.

Photo of Max Kozloff.

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