In a recent post I noted that most of my photographic education has come from American publications. As a consequence, I’m neck deep in the Walker Evans tradition. Sometimes this is frustrating. I get tired of the whole Yale-MoMa mind meld. Of course Eggleston didn’t invent color photography (see the recent Colour Before Color show). And if I hear one more student talking about their Yale application I’m going to puke.
For years I’ve been bewildered by one of the deacons of this church: Tod Papageorge. As often as I’ve heard his name bandied about, until recently I’d seen very few of his pictures. The only work I remember was from the book American Images: New Work by Twenty Contemporary Photographers. Judging from the handful of pictures in the book, it looked like Papageorge was just doing a medium format take on Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful. Same boobs, higher resolution.
I once mentioned that every photographer is at the mercy of “the sentence” – the shorthand blurb that everyone uses to sum up an artist. Nowadays the sentence to describe Papageorge is “He’s the guy that runs the Yale photography program.” But I think it used to be: “He’s the guy who hung around Winogrand.”
I don’t want to like Tod Papageorge. I don’t care that he runs Yale or that he was drinking buddies with Szarkowski. And from some of the things you read, he doesn’t sound like such a great guy. “He was a bastard, and he did not like my work in any way,” said Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
When I heard Papageorge was publishing his first book, I started sharpening my daggers. So it is with great frustration that I’m admitting I have a new sentence for Papageorge: “He’s the guy who published his first book, a classic called Passing Through Eden, when he was 67.”
Passing Through Eden erased all of my preconceptions. While there is no denying that this book evokes the usual suspects (Winogrand, Szarkowski, Friedlander) it overcomes all with its sure brilliance. Perfect pictures, perfect sequencing and fine printing to boot – Passing through Eden is, regrettably, a masterpiece.
To come to terms with all of this, I’m declaring this ‘Tod Papageorge Week’ on this blog.