o Opening Day (Boston vs. New York), Yankee Stadium, New York, April 7, 1970 . © Tod Papageorge, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
Opening Day (Boston vs. New York), Yankee Stadium, New York, April 7, 1970
Copyright Tod Papageorge, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Mark Durden: The 2007 publication of your photographs, American Sports 1970, or How We Spent the War in Vietnam, of course comes over 35 years too late. But it is also timely. It is historical but it also serves to speak about the present. It makes us think about the social and political situation in the US at the time of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Can you say something about the original context for the making of the photographs and how you see their relevance now?

Tod Papageorge: The original context, of course, was the Vietnam War, a storm cloud that, through the last years of the 60s, overarched our daily lives here in America with a terrible weight. Then, as if that malignant presence wasn’t enough, a month or so after I received the Guggenheim Fellowship in April 1970 that allowed me to do this work (my proposal was to photograph “spectator sports in America”), several students were shot and killed by the National Guard during an anti-war protest at Kent State University. What had been general and unbearable became specific and agonizing. At least that’s how I felt as I set out on this project, a feeling I carried with me through the eight months that I worked on it and through Nixon’s presidency and the rest of the war.

What I told myself I was doing was making a group portrait of America—a portrait that clearly couldn’t be extricated from my sense that I was moving through an inferno I had little hope of escaping. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but that’s how I felt then, a young man of 29, on the road, armed with a small camera.

But while there’s an obvious parallel between that war and Bush’s wars today, and one I meant to draw with this book, it’s difficult for me to identify any existential connection between the hysterical state of things back then and the narcotised country I find myself living in today, one that barely managed to rouse itself from its sleep to vote for the superior Barack Obama rather than the stumbling, bumbling John McCain. We truly live in Plato’s cave now in America, a reflected world of screens and monitors and second- or third-hand experience. At least the crowds filling my pictures from 1970 were out in the world, and, in their fashion, savoring it.

MD: How would you say your photography fits with the subjective documentary photography of John Szarkowski’s New Documents, which was distinct from the polemical and sloganeering documentary that he believed to be no longer relevant?

TP: New Documents was an effective title for that exhibition, but none of the photographers included in it—Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander—nor any other photographers I knew at that time, would have used the word “documentary” to describe what they were doing in their work. If nothing else, Robert Frank’s The Americans had taken care of that by defining an aesthetic that depended on poetic transformation, rather than an (apparently) literal fealty to a series of facts.

As for me, my initial introduction to serious photography occurred in 1962, when I discovered a couple of early pictures of Cartier-Bresson’s while taking a college course in basic photography. They convinced me, literally on the spot, to be a photographer—and not because I had an itch to document this or that aspect of the world. I saw these pictures as poetry, Cartier-Bresson as a prodigious poet, and photography as a way to possibly do something roughly in the same camp.

MD: In American Sports you set your photographs of the mass of crowds attending sports grounds against the mass of American troops who lost their lives during 1970; the number who were killed is included at the book’s close, 4,221, paired with a photograph showing the bowed figure of a late middle-aged male passing before a war memorial in Indianapolis on a wet day. To what extent is this book an indictment of American culture and behaviour at such times? With people absorbed and distracted by the spectacle of the games, I get the sense of a misdirected energy, a desperate escapism and forgetting of the political turmoil of the times.

TP: Certainly, the pictures in the book are critical, even to the point of being, as you put it, a kind of indictment. In fact, in my original maquette, I opened the book with a short series of definitions of the word “sport”. One referred to games, of course; another to gambling; one to sex; and one to the biological definition of the word, to wit, “a spontaneous mutation”—a fair description, I felt, of some part of the warmongerering country I was photographing.

MD: At the same time, I look to the gathering of crowds, of children, men and women, but predominantly men, as a register of the events taking place in Vietnam. While some of the young males’ energy and behaviour seems displaced, inappropriate, with other crowds, the naval officers on page 7, for example, their anxious looks seem to suggest their thoughts are with their absent fellows.

TP: I read them simply as representatives of the war machine, slightly comical and perhaps anxious, as you suggest, but no more concerned with their absent colleagues than the baseball fans around them.

MD: The photographs you took for American Sports precede your involvement with Garry Winogrand and MoMA in putting together his show, Public Relations, 1977. In your essay for the catalogue of the show, you say something very interesting and relevant to your photographs. While Winogrand would say his project had little to do with the war, his pictures showed how “we behaved under pressure.” Could you say something about the relationship between American Sports and Public Relations? Published long after Public Relations, we view your photographs after Winogrand’s, but in many senses the Winogrand show extends the concerns addressed in your photographs of American Sports, as you were working on it after you’d taken the photographs for your project.

TP: Public Relations was exhibited at MoMA in 1977, although I believe Garry started the project with a Guggenheim Fellowship that he received in 1969, the year before I made the photographs for American Sports. I don’t remember seeing any of that work before I left on my trip, but the conversations we were having about photography at that time led me to decide that the most challenging way of approaching my project would be to use a 28mm wide-angle lens for the work. What better way to sweep as much as possible into my pictures, even as doing so would radically reduce the possibility of making those pictures cohere? In other words, as fired up as I was by the political reality of that moment, I was also making what for me was an extreme, and purely aesthetic, decision: to try to produce the densest photographs I could, but to make them as clear and “perfect” as possible. I expected to fail, but felt the “experiment” and attempt was more than worth that likely failure.

Josef Koudelka is a friend of mine, and, looking back, I find it interesting that, unknown to each other, we were both using similar wide-angle lenses (his a 25-mm) at roughly the same time. Of course, Robert Frank and, as I mentioned, Winogrand had employed this kind of lens before then, as had William Klein, but none of them, it seems to me, as exclusively as Josef and I did during this brief period.

 

But, to get back to your question: Garry did see a big stack of rough prints from this project, but it’s hard for me to imagine that they meant anything to him in relation to what became Public Relations. He was sure of what he was doing and wanted to do.

MD: In your essay on Winogrand, which is still for me the best thing ever written on him, you talk about how many commentators have commonly assumed that photographers should have the same “wary, respectful relationship to what they describe in their pictures as moral philosophers presumably have to what they think and write about.” You challenge this. Photography might picture the world but it does not follow that it has a moral responsibility to it. This was in 1977, the same year that Susan Sontag’s essays on photography were published in  book form. I mention Sontag because, of course, she’s preoccupied with photography and ethics and damns Diane Arbus because she does not seem to have a moral responsibility to the world she pictures. For Sontag, it’s fine for a writer like Jean Genet to say what he wants because that’s fiction. But in her view, the photographer has a moral responsibility towards their subjects. Much of the opposition towards street photographers and Winogrand seems to come from this approach. Can you say something about this?

TP: It’s always been puzzling to me that capacious minds like Sontag’s, to say nothing of those of almost every art historian, look at a photograph and see not a picture, but the literal world held in their palm. With that, they’re revealing themselves to be no more sophisticated than the proverbial tribesman who believes that a photograph made of him steals a piece of his soul. There seems to be no cure for this universal form of innocence, or ignorance, but it is, to put it mildly, frustrating to spend years working as a photographer and writer about photography and realise that this misunderstanding is as prevalent today as it was the day I first saw those Cartier-Bresson photographs—and recognised them as picture-poems.

You mention Genet and writing, a good parallel. Let’s say that the young Sontag reads the front page of the Times, and then turns to Our Lady of the Flowers, both experiences generated by black marks on a page, yet utterly different in their intention and, presumably, effect. Is it so difficult for her not to see, then, that the photographs on that front page are similarly different from the Diane Arbus portraits she’s thinking of writing about?

Although I have no way of substantiating this, I suspect that cultures throughout history have responded to the visual productions of their particular epochs as if they were somehow “true” in much the way that Susan Sontag and so many others respond to photographs. And it’s not as if “realistic” works of art are the only ones that passed this threshold of belief: as I see it, art in general stood in for reality in many people’s minds in much the way that photographs do today, at least up until, or perhaps even through, the Renaissance. Given that visual art through these centuries concerned itself overwhelmingly with religious iconography, it’s easy to understand how the conjunction of pictures with moral teaching came to be so established (like the homiletic tradition in writing); indeed, [this] became the raison d’etre for the very existence of much of the great tradition of western painting. If I’m correct about this (and I can’t imagine that I’m completely wrong), Sontag (and legions of French critics and their progeny) was tarring photography with a tired brush, based on a much older relationship that obtained between pictures and moral lessons, and the unexamined belief that the pictures themselves were in some way at least related to the literal truth.

Of course, semiotics teaches us, if we needed the reminder, that a photograph represents a physical trace of the world, and therefore exists in an ontological space quite different from that of any of the non-filmic arts. I don’t buy that argument: ontologically, a photograph is a unique kind of picture, but a picture nonetheless, one that has radically transformed the piece of the world it describes, whether for artistic or journalistic or any other ends, but (obviously) has not transported it out of its picture-state into some nebulous truth-state.

 

MD: In relation to this, I tend to see some of Winogrand’s and your photographs, those that make in Szarkowski’s words “jokes in questionable taste”, carrying affinities with the unconscious. The juxtapositions and relations that can occur in the camera’s freezing of a moment are not always polite. I’m interested in this vulgarity and bad taste that occurs quite a lot in street photography—Winogrand’s view of the three sunlit women and the wheel-chair bound male in the shade, who isn’t even able to steal a look, his head is bowed.

TP: Odd you should mention that particular photograph of Garry’s.  To me, it’s one of the most elegant pictures he ever made, a dance of women through a backlight that produces the series of sharply-etched diamond-shaped shadows proceeding them. Rather than a joke, I read it as a tragedy: the hapless man caught in his wheelchair unable to lift his head to see either the glories of the women or the ravishing light.

But to your larger point: who decided that art should be defined by taste?

MD: American Sports deals with crowds and entertainment. Your book of photographs of Central Park, Passing Through Eden, deals with the mix of people, caught at moments of leisure, play, away from the work place and the city, and spans a much longer period of time from the 1960s to the 1990s. Can you say something about how the two books and projects relate?

TP
: They relate by being made by the same photographer—at two very different moments in his career. They were also produced, predominately, by two different camera systems, 35mm and medium-format. In fact, I was inspired to make the park pictures—or to use medium-format cameras to produce them—after seeing Brassaï’s photographs in a great 1968 exhibition. It took me five more years to find a camera, and four years after that to use it exclusively (this brings us up to 1977, when I began the park project), rather than trading back and forth between it and my Leicas.

I like the fact that the work in Central Park was produced over a wide span of years, and the sports book in only eight months. That reflects a lot of things, most importantly, perhaps, the intensity I felt working on the sports photographs, as well as the very public nature of the project, where, on any given Saturday or Sunday, I had 70,000 or 80,000 raving subject-Americans to try to draw into cohering pictures. But the most important difference between the two projects was, again, the process imposed on my working method by the different cameras I was using. The medium-format work in the park was made much more deliberately and slowly, the “privileged” moments appeared more sporadically, and the project itself was completely open-ended, coming to a close only when I left New York in the early 90s.

MD: Again the focus seems to be on the behaviour of crowds, but in Passing Through Eden, people are more static, resting, sunning themselves. Many of the pictures are taken with a medium format camera. The park serves as a site of escapism and many pictures seem to be about escapism. As much as one senses social, economic and racial differences—I’m thinking especially of your photographs of people on park benches—the overall note is not one of a fractured portrait of humanity, but rather idyllic, bucolic.

TP: I agree that a dominant tone in these pictures is one of sensuous stasis, but it was very important to me, overall, to construct a world that at least suggested the variety of beauty, narrative shifts, humor, joy, and even despair that I identify in the artists I most deeply admire: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Mozart, to name three (not that I in any way am comparing myself to them). And, to make your point even more emphatic: these pictures are not in any shape, manner or form a disquisition on class difference. I’m an artist before anything else, not a pamphleteer (and that includes the work in American Sports).

MD: Focusing on this one location and for such a long period of time gives us a remarkably rich and multi-faceted portrait of America. It is an epic and quite distinctive work. How do you see it in relation to contemporary photography? It is very different from the stylised and embellished street photography by such photographers as your former student, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Instead, you maintain a continuity with the street photography tradition of the 1960s, the time when you actually started taking pictures in the park.

TP: The street tradition was my tradition. P-L came to Yale from another art school and, after, worked for a while in Hollywood. No surprise that you characterise his work as “stylised and embellished” (and it is very good while being so). Interestingly, Tim Davis, in his afterword to American Sports, proposes a line from my medium-format work to P-L (who was my student in 1979), and then on to Gregory Crewdson, another student a decade after that. I guess the only thing I’d insist on, however, is that I was the first photographer I knew (after maestro Brassaï) to pick up a 6×9 camera and work seriously with it, before it became relatively common to do so.

Tod Papageorge was speaking with Mark Durden.