I’m kidding. But today Joel Meyerowitz added something really worthwhile to the Papageorge/Szarkowski conversation. Read what he said here.
July 15, 2007
July 13, 2007
Untitled (from a notebook dated 1978)
By Tod Papageorge
Mid-spring, mid-morning – into the park
and downtown through the shimmering air,
each flush and pulse of light flashing quicksilver
through a net of dust, leaf and pollen.
Step by step, a camera hanging from my neck
beats my heart.
Green like the incontrovertible season,
I move through the high, untended, tow-tipped grass,
supplicant, trainee, hunter, mule,
out here to photograph,
to call this intoxication to account
and press these lawns and palings
July 12, 2007
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
July 11, 2007
A couple people have questioned my motivation for devoting so much time on this blog to Tod Papageorge. As I hopefully made clear in my first post, I’m not in awe of the Yale mystique. I don’t have aspirations for teaching there. I’ve been asked to visit, but declined (unlike every other school, they don’t pay travel expenses). Nor was I in awe of Papageorge. I’d only seen a handful of his beach pictures and didn’t think much of them.
The reason for all of my attention to Passing Through Eden is simple – I think it is a great book. But more to the point, it is the kind of book I aspire to make.
I once wrote (here) that I see most photographic practice falling on a spectrum with the two poles being Science and Poetry. Having posted a poem every Friday for the last 44 weeks, you might guess which side of the spectrum I find myself on.
My primary goal as a photographer is to make a great book within the tradition of literary photo books (The Americans, Treadwell). So when I encounter a new book that achieves that status, I want to know more.
Not long ago I read a fantastic book by J.M. Coetzee. Every so often I’d stop reading to take a look at his author picture. For better or worse, when you love a book, you want to know more about the author. In the case of Tod Papageorge, my knowledge of him and his work was very shallow. I wanted a better picture.
After all of the analysis and wordplay, I was doubtful that Papageorge would submit to further scrutiny. But he answered my request for an interview quickly and, as you will read soon, with great intelligence. Stay tuned. The Papagorgy isn’t over yet.
I’m sorry Mr. Papageorge.
In an issue of Aperture devoted to “The Snapshot”, Tod Papageorge presented eight pictures from his Guggenheim Fellowship of 1970-71. Some of these pictures will be included in Papageorge’s forthcoming book: American Sports, 1970. Or How We Spend the War in Vietnam. The magazine also features a terrific untitled essay by Papageoge. Below are a few selections (or you can read the full text here).
“What serious photographers share is guild-deep and much stronger than those differences of subject matter reviewers commonly lunch on. For example, Robert Frank and Atget, however separate their route and ambitions, stare faultlessly: the verb is one; the shared motive, seeing; and the distance between the two photographers no greater than adjectives can measure.
Cameras are like dogs, but dumb, and toward quarry, even more faithful. They point, -they render, and defy the photographer who hopes. 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. By a passionate extension of this, its most profound meanings have to do with immanence, the indwelling grace of what Zen calls our ten thousand facts. This is not transport, or celestial transcendence, but that more footed joy and grief found near any clear sighting of the word.”
“From wherever it begins, a photograph ends as a cupped abstraction: the thing capsized, stripped, and projected as an image. If made well, it will give its own shape of delight and, at the same time, be tempered as conclusively as steel. The game is the old one of form set against the specific charge and demand of content. Photographers do not expect others to understand this, but for them the process they use is prodigal, addictive, and maddening.”
July 10, 2007
July 9, 2007
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
It is hard to separate Papageorge from Winogrand. Beyond the three funky syllables, there is the history. Not only did Papageorge write the introduction to Winogrand’s book Public Relations, he even mentions Winogrand in his own book, Passing Through Eden:
I’d moved to New York in late 1965 from having lived and photographed nearly a year in Spain and Paris, where I carried a Leica everywhere with me hoping to seize the kinds of pictures I admired in the early work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. My only distinguishing quality was my belief, fiercy held, that photography was, or could be, no less than the visual equivalent of the great poetry I’d studied a few years before in college…
Unfortunately, I had as little idea of how to go about making photographs touched with poetry as I did to write poems that were. But I was determined to lean and, after meeting the photographer, Garry Winogrand, and showing him some of my pictures, received my first lesson in the form of a question (Winogrand’s usual style): “Have you thought about trying a wide-angle lens?”
Papageorge clearly idolized Winogrand. He seems to have also had a hard time getting out from his shadow. Winogrand’s influence can surely be seen in Passing Through Eden:
There is also no denying the parallels with Lee Friedlander:
Central Park, 1989 by Tod Papageorge
But what separates Papageorge from the rest is his literary ambition. Winogrand’s pictures are all about process. “I photograph to see what something will look like photographed,” he famously said. And while nobody would deny the lyric quality of many of Friedlander’s pictures, he never shows them outside the context of their category (trees, self-portraits, nudes, etc). With Passing Through Eden, it is like Papageorge took Friedlander’s deck in one hand, Winogrand’s in the other, and performed a masterly shuffle.
But, of course, Papageorge’s shuffle isn’t random. He describes the book’s architecture in an interview with Richard B. Woodward:
The sequencing of the book, or at least the first half of it, is quite literally based on the first six chapters of Genesis. The world, or Eden, or Central Park, is created in the first half-dozen pictures, one for each day of the Creation: Adam appears as a pile of molten dust, then as his radiant self; Eve arrives opposite a picture of bleached branches that, to me, suggests her emergence from Adam’s rib; and on it goes through the snake, the apple, Adam and Eve’s shame, the Expulsion, Cain and Abel, Enoch, and, lost in themselves and the park grass, a few of the generations that follow them. After that, and unlike what in the Bible becomes an indictment of Man so profound that it requires the correction of the Flood, follows what I think of as a long chapter of takes from the human comedy, Manhattan-park-style.
While I guess this sounds crazy at best and, at worst, a crude use of my photographs—after all, the last reason these pictures were made was to illustrate something—the fact is that attempting to weave these disparate images into some twentieth-century New York City version of the First Story gave me a form that I felt could provide a much more flexible armature for the shape of the book (and the large number of pictures I wanted to include in it) than the usual photographic monograph. I also wanted to make a book that could be understood in as many ways as possible, even if it risked the possibility that a reader more interested in decoding the sequence of Biblical references could well miss the ambition informing the pictures, and what I hope is the poetry animating them. And, 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.
In the introduction to his series of California Beach pictures, Tod Papageorge writes:
We all carry a picture of Hollywood around in our minds, picked up from the movies and the shreds of scandals we’ve heard about. And if we’re men and under forty, even the best of us treasures an image of the California surfer girl. What I wanted to do on this project was examine those preconceptions and describe what two semi-myths – Hollywood and the life of southern California beaches – really looked like.
In his review of a Papageorge’s exhibition in 1981, Andy Grundberg wrote about his depiction of women:
Papageorge’s photography is pervaded by sensuality. One finds it here not only on the beaches, where skin is displayed with seeming nonchalance, but also on the Acropolis, where young American tourists stand idly in tight cut-off jeans, or behind the refreshment table of a woman’s road race. Unfortunately, Papageorge is too self-conscious to let his penchant for sexual suggestiveness run riot, so he often undercuts it with the inclusion of a foolish gesture or an incongruous detail.
This self-consciousness, ultimately, is Papageorge’s biggest enemy, for it accounts for the principle shortcomings of these pictures. One is that the formal strategies he employs seem arbitrary. When he tilts the frame, we are inescapably reminded of Winogrand. This works when Papgeorge’s camera is looking up a woman’s skirt, since it references us to Winogrand’s consummately sexist book ”Women Are Beautiful,” but otherwise it looks willful, educated and arch.
Papageorge’s recent publication, Passing Through Eden, certainly includes pictures of scantily clad gals. I believe some of the pictures were included in the exhibition that Grundberg refers to. But in this context, his depiction of sexuality steers clear of sexism. With his brilliant sequencing and overall themes of sensuality and temptation, Papageorge’s girlie pictures aren’t just honest – they are essential. They are also balanced by some beefcake: