Is Tod Papageorge an underrated photographer? It is hard for me to say. I’ve only seen a handful of his pictures. He’s never produced a book and hasn’t had a New York gallery show in twenty years. But he certainly has a reputation. Papageorge is one of the lynchpins of Yale/MOMA matrix. His name is all over the history books of photography. But where are the pictures? In the current issue of Bomb, Richard Woodward begins an interview with Papageorge by asking what took so long to publish a book.
The easy answer is that nobody asked me. In the past, people have suggested monographs, but I was never interested. Several years ago, though, I put together a book of photographs that I’d made in Paris. And I tried different publishers, all unsuccessfully. Obviously, persistence—or the lack of it—in the face of rejection becomes at some point a question of psychology. And since it’s my psychology in question here, I reserve the right not to study it too deeply.
Later in the interview, Papageorge discusses his absence from the gallery scene by again referring to psychology. Part of this psychology seems to include a near fixation on the opinion of John Szarkowski:
Woodard: You mention, semi-hyperbolically, that unless John Szarkowski approved of a picture it went back into storage. Did his opinion count not only above everyone else’s but excluding anyone else’s?
Papageorge: The real point is that there was no place else, that’s all.
Woodard: You mean there weren’t places that counted, in your opinion. There were certainly galleries that showed photography.
Papageorge: And, certainly, Szarkowski’s understanding was more important to me than that of anybody in a gallery. But, to get back to your first question, what happened to my career was that Daniel Wolf closed [where Papageorge had shows in 1981 and 1985] and nobody called. And I wasn’t going to go around and ask people to show my work. That’s where the psychology figures in. My reputation was always that of an arrogant son-of-a-bitch, so I imagine that a not-so-disinterested observer might assume that that was part of my problem. I don’t really believe that, especially the characterization. But I was teaching at Yale by then, so it’s not as if I was desperate for money; it’s not that I was rich, but I was able to survive and continue to work.
Whatever the reason, Papageorge’s absenteeism is a shame. Here in the hinterlands of Minnesota (Szarkowski left a long time ago) Papageorge is a name without a face. The good news is that this is all about to change. Next year Papageorge will be publishing two books and exhibiting at Pace/McGill. Is Papageorge underrated? We’ll soon find out.