I interviewed Tod Papageorge on July 11, 2007
Alec Soth: The day after I started writing about your work online, we all learned of the death of John Szarkowski. At first I felt awkward about continuing to dig into your work and life. But in a way Szarkowski’s death makes it all the more meaningful. Your generation is so closely identified with Szarkowski. Can you talk about how he shaped you specifically?
Tod Papageorge: It’s difficult to untangle the past, of course. The easiest thing would be to suggest that John showed me, and other photographers, a kind of way to go, but, in fact, we were already going there, pushing and jamming each other, riding out, most immediately, the possibilities that Robert Frank’s great book had pointed to. What John really did was give the greatest imaginable sanction to all of this by throwing the weight of the most powerful art institution in the world—and his inimitable eloquence—behind us, and then expanding our sense of the possible through the remarkable shows that he put together.
Individually, his gift was to understand at some incalculable level what each of us was trying to do: just imagine, for example, this guy from the Minnesota woods tracking into Manhattan and being faced with the work, and person, of Garry Winogrand. And then through some emotional/intellectual identification—how? with what magic?—recognizing the radical brilliance and promise of Winogrand’s pictures. It’s still astonishing to me—and the list grows from there. In my particular case, the fact that he could look at a portfolio of my photographs and unfailingly pick out what I thought was, or might be, the most interesting or challenging, etc. of the group, thus allowing me to gather my underdeveloped thoughts to a greater focus, was a tremendous help, but this is what he did for everyone I knew who was bringing work into MoMA.
The fact, too, that he invited me to curate an exhibition, complete with catalog and essay, at MoMA was a tremendous affirmation for me. And I don’t doubt that that essay was instrumental in establishing me at Yale.
I think that slightly younger photographers such as Stephen Shore or (who I imagine was your teacher) Joel Sternfeld, would have a different take regarding the arc of John’s influence, in that they were just that much more distant from Frank, and therefore that much more open to the possibilities of the view camera, and then color, that John began to explore more regularly in his exhibitions of the early 70s.
AS: Recently Szarkowski began receiving attention for his photography. What is your opinion of this work?
TP: “The Idea of Louis Sullivan” is, I think, a great book, wielding text and pictures extraordinary well. Because it has cities, and shadows, all through it, it also strikes an entirely different set of chords than, say “The Face of Minnesota,” or John’s landscape work in general, does. In any case, because I’m blackhearted to some degree, I respond to that darkness more than I do the beauty of John’s landscapes, as gorgeous and full-hearted as they are.
AS: One of the things I recently learned about Szarkowski was his fascination with apples. Somehow this further enlarged my picture of the man. It sounds corny, but I’m wondering if you have any hobbies?
TP: Reading and listening to music: Mozart is my god, Haydn his tribune, Bach the god THEY worship, and Beethoven their sullen charge.
AS: Do you still read and write poetry?
TP: I’ll occasionally look at poets I already know, and try to read “The Oddessy” every year. But I don’t write any kind of poetry now.
AS: You’ve said that you see photography as ‘at least as close to writing as the other visual arts.’ Are you talking about a specific kind of writing (poetry, journalism, fiction)?
TP: Poetry, because it and photography can both be similarly condensed.
AS: Photography that aspires toward a literary experience seems to benefit from been seen in a literary context – namely, the book. I often say that there are ‘wall photographers’ and ‘book photographers.’ I’ve only seen one of your photographs in the flesh. It was lovely, but I’m still certain that you are a book photographer. Would you agree?
TP: Yes, I love the book—but you should have seen my recent exhibition in NY while you were there: the prints glowed (not through MY efforts, of course, but those of my printer, Sergio Purtell). After all, why bother to use a 6 x 9 cm. camera if you’re not going to make beautiful prints w/it?
AS: Which photographic books stand out for you as an example of literary photography?
TP: There are only a few, but, of course, they are also the usual suspects: “American Photographs,” “The Americans,” and, combining pictures and text, John’s “Idea of Louis Sullivan and Strand’s “Time in New England,” a great book.
As you’ve indicated here in this blog, I’ve tried to do something that I think is new in “Passing Through Eden,” and that is to follow an established narrative through the long opening of the book, and then trace out the residual ‘literary’ energies of that narrative through the rest of it.
AS: Just out of curiosity, what do you think of Bruce Davidson’s Central Park book?
TP: I think it reflects a commercial enterprise. (And I admire the recent Steidl book of his early work in the British Isles.)
AS: Unlike a novel, a series of photographs rarely tells a complete story. There isn’t the engine of narrative suspense pushing you from beginning to middle to end. I’m wondering if this was a frustration as you began assembling your Central Park pictures.
TP: No. As a reader of pictures, one wants the experience to be open-ended, I think, even in the face of some kind of narrative impulse.
AS: When was the editing complete? Did you make changes at the last minute?
TP: After months of ceaseless noodling with it on my part, Michael Mack, my editor on the book, and I got together (he was in from England) and finished it up. I’d pretty much completed the ‘Biblical’ section to our mutual satisfaction, and from there it was a case of clarifying a few knotty groups of pictures later in the book. It was a great, and invaluable, few hours.
AS: Now that it is in print, do you have any regrets?
TP: I WOULD change a few things in the sequence if I could, and also the small mistakes of copy editing in the text.
Central Park, 1989, by Tod Papageorge (click to enlarge)
AS: There is one specific image I wanted to ask you about. The man with the eye chart (p.20) is unbelievable. Do you remember taking the picture? Do you know what was going on?
TP: It is what you see. Who knows? It’s New York, after all. I have no idea why he had the chart there.
But let me add something here apropos of some recent discussion in this blog:
I have no real argument against so-called set-up photography, at least as a process. The fact that I’ve had many successful students doing it in different ways I think makes my case. I also think that the reason they’ve felt free enough to work in this way at Yale is because I profoundly believe in—and teach—the proposition that photography is inherently a fiction-making process. Don’t speak to me of the document; I don’t really believe in it, particularly now. A picture’s not the world, but a new thing.
That said—too briefly—my argument against the set-up picture is that it leaves the matter of content to the IMAGINATION of the photographer, a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis. That’s all. Remember, T. S. Eliot made the clear, brutal distinction between the art that floods us with the “aura” of experience, and the art that ‘presents’ the experience itself. ANY artist, I feel, must contend seriously with the question of which side of that distinction he or she is going to bet on in their work. Obviously, I’m with Eliot—and Homer—in this, believing that the mind-constructed photograph almost necessarily leads to a form of illustration, the very epitome of aura-art.
All of which is to ask: what imagination, what choir of angels, what souped-up computer, could come up with that eye-chart and its desperate chartist?
AS: In 1974 you wrote, “Photography investigates no deeper relief than surfaces. It is superficial, in the first sense of the word; it studies the shape and skin of things, that which can be seen.” Do you still believe this to be true?
TP: How else can the photograph begin, but there? It’s this discursive descriptiveness that makes photography unique, and gives it whatever place it might have in art-heaven. We can follow all of this descriptiveness to emotionally moving places, of course, but we have to begin where and how the lens begins, literally tracing the lineaments of things.
AS: In the essay to Passing Through Eden you mention being particularly taken by a Brassai retrospective: “I felt the palpable presence of bodies and things.” You talk about how this led you toward using a medium format camera. But I’m also wondering if it led you to a particular subject matter. Brassai’s work had a lot to do with sexuality and temptation. During this time I understand you photographed at Studio 54. And certainly Passing Through Eden involves sexuality and temptation.
TP: In another essay somewhere, T. S. Eliot (and I haven’t had occasion to mention him like this, or nearly this often, in decades) coined the phrase “the disassociation of sensibility” to describe what he understood to be the separation, or even abyss, between feeling and intellect in John Doone’s poetry. What I felt I saw in Brassai’s photographs was a remarkable integration of those two things; in other words, a superb intellect (read his “Conversations with Picasso,” for example) unselfconsciously married to a profoundly sensuous apprehension of the world that expressed itself, in his photographs, as a perfect union of form and (dense literary) content. THAT’s what captivated me about his work, not sex per se, or sex perverse, but his great-hearted/great-minded reading of the physical world. I might add that, after seeing an exhibition of mine in Paris, his wife wrote to me to say that Brassai saw in me a “fils espiritual,” his spiritual son–a remark that I treasure.
AS: You like to photograph beautiful women.
TP: Well, why not? Although I can’t really say that I like to do it: I have to. If you accept the idea that photographers, or some of them, are actually artists, then you have to look at their work less as a document of something than as a personal vision of the world. And my imaginary world, informed by music and books, as well as photography, is one in which beauty and some notion of ravishment are central. What more eloquent ‘objective correlative’ (Eliot again) for me, a man, to express that than women?
I’ve always felt that an artist is some kind of holy fool who is willing to be misunderstood in service to the larger goal of fully investing him or herself in their work. In other words, the issue is much less woman, or attractive women, or (dread word) voyeurism, than shaping an artistic vision suggestive, in many different directions—not just women, of course—of how rich and extraordinary beautiful the world might be.
Central Park, 1987-88, by Tod Papageorge (click to enlarge)
AS: Talk about the upside down pictures. When did this idea come about? How was it received? Did you exhibit these pictures?
TP: Well, speaking of ravishment, there it is, encountered with a man, a woman, and two couples. And that’s exactly what I was trying to get to, an almost-angelic transcendence coming on the heels of everything else before returning to a relatively wrung-out world.
Additionally, I wanted these pictures to ‘teach’ readers of the book—if they hadn’t learned the lesson already—that, “yes, this whole book has been willed into shape, it’s a made thing, a self-conscious artistic object where a picture might even be reversed to make a poetic point crucial to the meaning of it.”
AS: How were these pictures received?
TP: Generally, people have been disconcerted by these pictures, but that’s just a first reaction. I hope that, in time, they’ll come to be seen as organic to the whole book.
AS: I believe that no matter who you are, most people are going to say one sentence about you. “He’s the guy who photographs Weimereimers.” I think your sentence used to be “He’s the guy who hung around Winogrand.” Now it is “He’s the guy who runs the Yale program.” Or maybe, “He’s the prick who runs the Yale program.” Do you agree? Do you care? What do you want to be your legacy?
TP: Well, of course I dislike the one-sentence sum-up, as anyone would, or should: it leaves too much out. Garry Winogrand and I were close friends, not a god and his hanger-on. Sure, I direct the Yale program, but what does that mean apart from whatever the person saying it thinks about the Yale program—which will be incomplete and uninformed if they haven’t been through it? So, no, while I ultimately don’t really care, I’d also point out the obvious—that “the sentence” is a pernicious and profitless way of looking at things.
As for a legacy, I hope it becomes clear with time that everything I did—in my work, my writing, and even my teaching—was done passionately, out of a love of photography, to the furthest degree I could accomplish it.
AS: I know that you have a new book coming out from Aperture. Are there another dozen books planned after that?
TP: I have a completed maquette of work I made in Paris over the years, mostly in the 90s; also a group of early pictures from New York. Then there are California pictures, and any number of other projects.
AS: Are you shooting new work?
TP: As for current work, given the exigencies of teaching, family, and life, I photograph for the most part during the summer, primarily at Lake George, Stieglitz’s old stomping ground. Want to lend me your view camera?
- permanent link to this interview here