The photographer (and Yale professor) John Pilson recently sent me a fascinating document – a review of Edward Weston’s 1946 MoMA Exhibition written by Clement Greenberg (click here for the PDF). At the conclusion of this fascinating text, Greenberg writes the following:
If one wants to see modern art photography at its best, let him look at the work of Walker Evans, whose photographs have not one half the physical finish of Weston’s. Evans is an artist above all because of his original grasp of the anecdote. He knows modern painting as well as Weston does, but he also knows modern literature. And in more than one way, photography is closer today to literature than it is to the other graphic arts. (It would be illumination, perhaps, to draw a parallel between photography and prose in their respective historical and aesthetic relations to painting and poetry.) The final moral is: let photography be “literary.”
Tod Papageorge most definitely agrees. It seems he had literary ambitions for the medium from the beginning:
Photography and poetry have been yoked together for me since I first picked up a camera in 1962. In fact, I became obsessed with photography virtually from that moment, an obsession ignited because I saw in it a way to make poetry – which I’d tried doggedly to write for the three previous years – without suffering the anguish of sitting in place and ceaselessly sifting words together (not imagining how much more pain being a photographer could extract). – from Papageorge’s essay, Words for Pictures, in his book Passing Through Eden.
Papageorge’s clearest articulation of this relationship between photography and poetry is made in his introduction to Garry Winogrand’s book, Public Relations (1977):
A photograph is just a picture – or, as Winogrand would have it, “the illusion of a literal description of a piece of time and space.” It is as wanton a fiction as any description; but it is also, of course, a particularly convincing one because it so specifically locates and describes what it shows. As a poet knows that the words he chooses for his poem will, by their particular combination, resonate with a power that is the gift of language itself, so a photographer has at his disposal a system of visual indication that, even without his conscious deliberation, will describe the world with a unique, mimetic energy.
Auduen’s observation that “it is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words,” could also be said of the photographer’s relation to the things of the physical world: that he cannot invent them. By being fictions and, at the same moment, returning their subjects to us with a compelling fidelity, both photographs and poems work with the same surprise. Atget’s beech trees will never shade us, any more than Frost’s birches will, but both have been given a “local habitation and a name,” both mediate between our experience and our sense of the-world-as-it-apparently-is, and both strike us an if they were simultaneously remembrances and revelations.
The genius of Passing Through Eden is its structure. It is the “particular combination” of pictures that makes them resonate. Many photographers forgo this ambition and assemble their pictures in categories and clumps (Friedlander is a good example). Others, like Arbus, stack all of their chips on the individual image. I suspect Winogrand didn’t care about any of this, he was too busy making pictures. What make Passing Through Eden great is that Papageorge did care:
Since I believe—and teach—that photography is, for some photographers anyway, a practice at least as close to writing as the other visual arts, I thought why not put my money where my mouth is and make something that exposes that belief by demonstrating it not only with pictures, but also in the literal way the sequencing of those pictures parallels and, to some degree, calls up the elemental narrative we all know. – Tod Papageorge, from an interview with Richard B. Woodward, 2006