Tod Papageorge's photographic eye is as fierce as his reputation as the head of Yale University's graduate photography department. He is widely regarded as the bridge between Henri Cartier Bresson's school of the 'decisive moment' and the American school of photographic realism exemplified by Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank, both of whom are close friends.
His current exhibition at the Xippas Gallery in Athens, Greece, features photographs taken at New York's Central Park and Athens' Acropolis, and was the inaugural show for the Athens Photo Festival. He also gave a lecture on his craft and a history of his career including insights into the world of New York street photography in the 60s and 70s, sharing images he took of friends, Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand. Indeed, Papageorge has a lot of love and a lot to say for his favourite medium as Stephanie Bailey discovered:
You are called the link between Henri Cartier Bresson's school of the 'decisive moment' and the American school of street photography exemplified by Garry Winogrand, your friend. How would you describe the difference between the so-called 'European' school and the American school? Isn't all photography, in a way, a decisive moment?
Sure. And every photograph is a still life. As for the difference between the European and American forms of “street photography,” I think the easiest way to think about it is to consider how the pictures look—in other words, to consider their pictorial form. Bresson’s pictures—especially those made after WW II--generally invoke the sweeping sculptural form of European painting. Robert Frank once remarked about them—and not very positively—that they were always trying to be beautiful. On the other hand, American photography tends to look to the history and practice of photography itself, including vernacular and even commercial photography, for ‘formal’ inspiration. Think of Walker Evans’s storefronts, some of which could have been made by a particularly fastidious real estate photographer.
I once wrote that Garry Winogrand’s photographs did not succeed through “significant form”—a phrase you can find in philosophy of aesthetics textbooks—but though “signifying form”; in other words, a pictorial form just robust enough to carry his pictures’s meanings. Beauty, or design, had nothing to do with what he was interested in. Winogrand said often that “there’s no way a photograph has to look.” In other words, he believed that it could look any way, with the understanding that the less it looked like the kinds of pictures artists make, the greater chance it might have to look like an interesting photograph.
From your experiences in New York, what did you learn from your contemporaries and surroundings?
Of course, I was very fortunate to come to New York at just the moment when American photography was reaching a new stage in its evolution, and to meet and know people like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and John Szarkowski. To my mind, it would have been like a young Greek dramatist coming into Athens in the mid-fifth century B. C. and seeing the plays of Sophocles and Aesculus performed for the first time. Of course, you can never really know how important any given historical moment is if you’re living through it, but it was absolutely clear to me back then that photography was a great creative medium, as misunderstood as it was, that a few of the people I knew were great artists by any measure, and that, in the Museum of Modern Art, and the exhibitions that John Szarkowski installed there, we photographers had access to a school filled with the finest works of the medium, and a professor who turned out the be the strongest writer about photography in the history of the medium. So I knew there was magic in the circumstance, though, as I said, I may not have really appreciated how much there was.
I also knew that the times were electric, though that had as much to do with the agony of the Vietnam War as with anything my group of friends and I were doing out in the streets with our cameras. So, yes, it WAS a different time, particularly different from today. But no, my friends and I didn’t feel we were making waves—not when the abstract expressionist and pop art movements were in such ascendancy in the art world. We did KNOW, however, as surely as we knew the sun would come up in the morning, that we were doing something infinitely challenging, complex and rewarding. As Winogrand would say back then, “photography is fit work for a grown man.”
Central Park ©Tod Papageorge
How is this translated into your 'Eden' photos of Central Park?
In 1968, I saw an exhibition at MoMA of the photographs of Brassai, which made a tremendous impression on me. I understood that a good deal of the power of those pictures was coming from their sensuous descriptiveness, a feeling that was inseparable from the medium-format camera Brassai employed. Five years later, I bought a comparable camera, one that produces a 6 X 9 cm. negative, four times larger than the 35mm negative I was used to. It was clumsy to use and not very well designed, but I was hooked by it.
All of the photographs in my exhibition were made with one or another of these cameras (the next version was much better than the one I had started with). The description of skin, and of light, is, I think you’d agree if you see the prints in the show, compelling. At least that’s what I wanted to capture by taking this camera into Central Park, and up on the Acropolis.
You are known to work only in black white. Are there any circumstances where colour is acceptable in your eyes?
I’m more interested in photographers than photographs. In other words, I respond more to a photographer’s total oeuvre, and what it demonstrates about his mind and creative understanding, than I do to particular pictures. By this standard, it’s difficult for me to call any color photographer in the history of the medium great, although I admire, for example, the early work of Bill Eggleston and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. I want to forget the color when I look at a photograph, rather than being made unpleasantly aware of how it pulls at me for attention by being saturated or too full of contrast or jarring in its combination of hues.
It’s the operatic form of photography, you could say; in other words, more often than not, there’s an uneasy tension between its virtually unavoidable pictorial seizures and the poetic intimacy that I love about photography. But, just as many of the greatest works in music are operas (Mozart!), so are there many great color photographs. That success, however, is not built into the practice: the color photographer, like any artist, has to work against almost impossible odds to achieve something that’s finally persuasive, and, in my judgment, there are few such color photographers who’ve managed to do that through a life’s body of work.
Acropolis Athens, 1984 ©Tod Papageorge
What drew you to photography in the first place?
I don’t know. I was not very sophisticated when I started college, but, as soon as I began to read serious poetry, I realized that I had an innate sense of how poems were made, of how the poet had used sound and rhythm and form to create poetry. It’s difficult to explain, but I believe that this, and my deep response to music, were and continue to be implicated in the way I see the world and respond to it through a camera.
Did you have a need to observe?
I only learned to see what was in front of me after years of using a camera. It may be the most important habit that photography had ingrained in me.
Did you have a desire to express?
I had no such need as you see it described in movies, for example, where an artist, usually a writer or painter, rips up page after page of his manuscript, or his canvas, in creative frustration. It’s a question of temperament, I guess: for whatever reason, my destiny was to be some kind of artist—not necessarily a great one, but a person who understands the world through the forms, pleasures, and difficulties of making something.
Did you crave fame?
A man I met the other night asked me, “What’s it like to be famous?” I haven’t been so embarrassed in a long time. No, fame is not why artists make their work. True artists, anyway.
Were you looking for knowledge?
My first response is to say “no” to this question. What knowledge? But, as I mentioned earlier, photography taught me how to see (and I don’t mean “poetically”, but to literally see the world in front of me) and being able to see eventually taught me how to think. This seeing and thinking (which I relate to Homeric seeing and Socratic thinking) is something that Greeks no doubt learn as a matter of course; it’s embedded in the culture. But, as an American, I came to these understandings fairly late in my youth. So, ”yes” to knowledge. Something else? was it something you were drawn to as a child? My mother played the piano every day, and, whether because of her example or not, I was involved in every music group at the various schools I attended after the third or fourth grade. But I don’t think I ever visited a museum until I was in college, when I walked by the college museum every day.
In your eyes, why is photography such a powerful medium?
I can only speak for myself, of course. For me, photography is so powerful because, like poetry—JUST like poetry (or words)—it employs an ‘invisible’ form to express the most remarkable truths. Both photography and poetry refer directly to our common physical world, but, on occasion, are capable of escaping this painful literalness to say or show things that have never been captured before in such particular combinations. In any event, this is what thrills me about photography (and I realize that what I’ve just said is quite vague): the chance, against all odds, to use a ‘dumb’ machine to make meaning. And, like poetry, this meaning has little to do with the literal truth.
Acropolis Athens, 1984 ©Tod Papageorge
Has the world of digital photography cheapened the art form? After all, with digital cameras and Internet photo sharing sites, everyone can be a photographer, can they not?
Well, to continue with my theme, everyone has language, too, so, presumably, the world should be choked with poets. The real problem with the digital world is that any picture can be transformed into anything the photographer is capable of imagining. What a disaster! A clown can become an emperor, a teapot a galaxy. Who cares? The original tension that I just tried to describe, where the ideal reader of a photograph is caught between his or her natural desire to read the picture literally—as an automatic lens-tracing of the world—while perceiving that it also demands the kind of attention that one gives to reading a great poem—is, in digital photography, irrevocably broken. There’s no tension at all, just a pictorial record of what the photographer called to mind and manipulated into a typically unconvincing existence. It’s more like painting than poetry. But without painting’s oily surface, rich color, and true imaginative panache.
I dislike being perceived as such a throwback—“Oh, he dislikes color photography and hates digital photography”—but such is life. Things move on, of course, but not necessarily in the right direction.
See also: Tod Papageorge - Passing Through London, Guy Lane, Foto8, 27 March 2008
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