Addressing an audience at the Victoria and Albert museum recently, Tod Papageorge recalled the moment in 1962 when he decided to become a photographer. He was studying poetry at the University of New Hampshire when he came across two pictures from what he described as “a totally radical body of photographic work, one of the great artistic achievements of the twentieth century – that includes all media”
He referred of course to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment. “I literally decided overnight to become a photographer – that’s how powerful these pictures were, how overwhelming”. “This”, he thought, “is a new kind of poetry, this is a poetry without words, this is a poetry that will allow me to avoid the agonising difficulty of trying to put words together.”
“Little did I think or realise that the demands of this medium would be at least as onerous, as powerful, as that of writing poems.”
Though his prestige as a photographer has never matched that of his two earliest peers – Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz – Papageorge received two Guggenheim Fellowships in the 1970’s, and since 1979 has held the Walker Evans Professorship at Yale.
Passing through Eden is his most sustained and comprehensive project to date – a photographic study conducted over a quarter century period (from 1966-1992) of the habitués of New York’s Central Park. A selection of photographs from the work is on show at the Michael Hoppen Gallery (until April 12); and more than one hundred images from the series are compiled in the Steidl publication of the same name.
The Park has no doubt changed over the decades, but not as much as the fashions. Big hair, big lapels, tie-dying, Lycra, trench coats, headbands, rollerblades – come and go. All the while New Yorkers use the space to flirt and caress, or to grab lunch and fall sleep, or – more often – to hang out and kill time.
Papageorge’s achievement is to make of this shifting playground – of fleeting gestures and glances – pictures that impose coherence on the free flowing park life in which he immersed himself. His is the ability to isolate the momentary and the transient to reveal the extraordinary and the overlooked
At the V&A Papageorge spoke of the intense, nervous concentration he experienced while photographing an adult combing a child’s hair – waiting for the precise and briefest instant when the comb would be most clearly positioned against the boy’s head. The same exactitude and awareness determine the success of a photograph from 1991 in which woman glances momentarily at a bouncing ball. But despite the pictures’ dependence on the acutest attention to precision and timing “the end result”, he observed, “looks totally natural…and yet that’s not it at all”.
He had begun walking the streets with a Leica and 50mm lens (“the gospel according to Henri”) but by the early 1970’s Papageorge was working with a 6 x 9 Fujica equipped with a flash – resulting in negatives richer in mid-tones, subtler and more descriptive than any he had been able to make previously. The change in format was, he maintained, a response to an exhibition of prints by Brassai that he had visited in 1968.
That said, Papageorge’s shift to medium format work and the “enormously frustrating” Fujica can be mapped onto a more widespread contemporary retreat from traditionally defined 35mm street photography. (Meyerowitz, remember, would work eventually in colour with a large format plate camera). Similarly, his use of the Park as subject – with its potential for seclusion and repose – represented a move away from such stridently public spaces as the open road (of Robert Frank) or the crowded sidewalk (of Garry Winogrand). Passing through Eden can be read as the product of a fascinating period of transition in which the techniques of street photography could be applied to the picturing of privacy, stillness…and maybe even poetry.
Exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, London SW3 until April 12.
Passing Through Eden: Photographs of Central Park (Steidl. £32)