I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
It is a shame that Tod Papageorge’s black-and-white photographs are not better known. While many lesser figures have enjoyed sold-out shows during the ongoing boom, Papageorge has been absent from New York galleries for more than 20 years (though his work can be found in numerous surveys and histories of contemporary American photography). A pivotal figure in making a street-savvy, elegant, hyperkinetic, 35 mm style the dominant aesthetic among a generation of American artists during the ‘70s, Papageorge at the same time established himself as an articulate and occasionally biting critic of others’ work. Later, as professor at the Yale School of Art, where he has directed the graduate program in photography since 1979, he became a force in the lives of countless students, many of whom have gone on to become eminent artists and teachers themselves, among them Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Abelardo Morell, Gregory Crewdson, An-My Lê, Anna Gaskell, and Katy Grannan.
And yet, despite his significance in the history of recent American photography, Papageorge has not seen a book of his own photographs published until now. Passing through Eden, his Fellini-esque interpretation of New York’s Central Park and its denizens from the mid-’60s through 1992, when he left the city, will appear from Steidl next spring. And next fall, Aperture will publish American Sports, 1970 , a book of often scabrous pictures made on a Guggenheim grant when Papageorge traveled cross-country to record a series of major national sporting events at the height of the Vietnam War. In addition, he will have his first solo show in New York since 1985 next April at the Pace/MacGill Gallery.
To observe Papageorge’s return to the public stage, we met for drinks at the Oyster Bar in New York to conduct this interview.
Richard B. Woodward My first question, one that many photography people are curious about: what took you so long to publish a book?
Tod Papageorge The easy answer is that nobody asked me. In the past, people have suggested monographs, but I was never interested. Several years ago, though, I put together a book of photographs that I’d made in Paris. And I tried different publishers, all unsuccessfully. Obviously, persistence—or the lack of it—in the face of rejection becomes at some point a question of psychology. And since it’s my psychology in question here, I reserve the right not to study it too deeply.
RW When did you first try to put the Central Park pictures together as a book?
TP In the mid-’80s there was an attempt to do a book of the work and I put together a maquette for it. Aperture was interested, but the project fell apart because there wasn’t any money. I have to say, though, that that version would not have been nearly as strong as this current one.
RW How does this second version differ?
TP There were new pictures to consider, and my attitude toward my work in general is different now. What you have to realize is that up to a certain point—and this is very important to understanding American photography in the ’70s and early ’80s— there were no consistently available venues for serious photography, at least in New York, outside of the Museum of Modern Art.
RW There was Light Gallery.
TP Yeah, Light. And I had the advantage of that connection. But the possibilities at that time were few, leaving MoMA the lodestar that many photographers looked to. You did a pile of work, took it in to the Department of Photography there on any Thursday—when portfolios were reviewed—and if one or two pictures were approved by the staff and John Szarkowski [MoMA’s Director of Photography from 1962 to 1991], they went into the collection and you got maybe $35 for each print. As I tended to look at it then, those pictures that didn’t make the cut existed physically, but not exactly spiritually.
I’ve always been a very harsh editor of my work—and everyone else’s, for that matter. So most of what I did ended up stored in yellow Kodak boxes—like the work of nearly everyone else I knew.
But a few years ago, when I started to put these books together, I saw that there were more strong pictures from the ’70s and following than I had understood. Once I had a machine, meaning the computer, things suddenly changed. None of the maquettes I’ve prepared—there are now four of them, and counting—would’ve existed in any kind of believable physical form without the computer.
To have a mechanism to view, store, arrange and connect any number of images into book form was for me a very different experience from printing in the darkroom and then pinning pictures to a wall that was always too small for the number of photographs I wanted to look at. This digital experience isn’t anything like a gallery or museum experience; it’s more like reading a book.
RW You mention, semi-hyperbolically, that unless John Szarkowski approved of a picture it went back into storage. Did his opinion count not only above everyone else’s but excluding anyone else’s?
TP The real point is that there was no place else, that’s all.
RW You mean there weren’t places that counted, in your opinion. There were certainly galleries that showed photography.
TP And, certainly, Szarkowski’s understanding was more important to me than that of anybody in a gallery. But, to get back to your first question, what happened to my career was that Daniel Wolf closed [where Papageorge had shows in 1981 and 1985] and nobody called. And I wasn’t going to go around and ask people to show my work. That’s where the psychology figures in. My reputation was always that of an arrogant son-of-a-bitch, so I imagine that a not-so-disinterested observer might assume that that was part of my problem. I don’t really believe that, especially the characterization. But I was teaching at Yale by then, so it’s not as if I was desperate for money; it’s not that I was rich, but I was able to survive and continue to work.
RW The title of the Central Park book is Passing Through Eden. What meaning does that carry?
TP 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.
None of this, though, denies the likely possibility that, other than the readers of this interview, no one looking through the book will see these connections between Word—with a capital W—and image at all.
RW Well, readers of Ulysses didn’t need to understand that it was based on a scheme from The Odyssey to enjoy it.
TP That’s a good analogy, but much too grand.
RW I know nothing about your early education. You grew up in New Hampshire, and you got a BA in English from the University of New Hampshire. What was your early exposure to photography? Before Walker Evans, before Robert Frank?
TP I was writing poetry in college and was obsessed by it. My teacher was Tom Williams, who later on was awarded a National Book Award for fiction. But for some reason I really wanted to take a photography class and managed to get into one in my last semester. My father had been an amateur photographer when I was very young, and I think that made some sort of impression on me, but other than that I can’t explain why I was so anxious to take that class. In any event, about a month into it, I saw a photograph—just looking in the library, doing research—by Cartier-Bresson, and I was dumbfounded by it.
RW Which one?
TP The wall in Spain.
RW The children playing in the hole in the wall? Or the fat man walking by the wall?
TP The second one. And then I went through the entire library looking for any mention of Cartier-Bresson and found another picture and maybe one more and I said to myself, I’m going to be a photographer. That was it. Having no idea what that meant, having no idea about process, none at all. At the end of the semester, when I won the University’s poetry prize, I used the $15 that came with it to buy an out-of-print copy of Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment. A few months after that, I discovered Robert Frank. Along with Walker Evans, whose work was sort of a mystery to me. It took me a long time to really get Evans.
RW So you never had a corny phase.
RW Where you just loved, I don’t know, [Yousuf] Karsh or Life Magazine?
TP Oh, no. Even in college I had an odd ability to read a poem and understand it as a verbal and musical artifact, to know at some basic level how it was made. This understanding, and my respect for poets as traders in deeply serious matters, transferred directly to photography. I was dead serious, maybe too serious, from the beginning.
RW What poets were important to you at the time? Lowell?
TP Robert Lowell was my god. Absolute! But I thought I could see in photography a way of achieving his poetic intensity without the terrible struggle of slowly, agonizingly sifting words together.
RW Life Studies Lowell or pre—Life Studies Lowell?
TP No, Life Studies. Definitely not the more clotted earlier poems.
RW And Frost?
TP Yes. Frost is the great American poet of the twentieth century.
RW What year did you meet Garry Winogrand?
TP At the end of 1965. I had been out of school for three years: a year in San Francisco, one in Boston, and almost another in Europe. Then to New York to live, where I met Garry just as he was starting a little workshop class in his apartment. He invited me to join the class, and I said I had no money, and he said that’s fine. Joel Meyerowitz was part of it too, so it was quite intimidating to me, a kid from New England, to be suddenly moving in what I saw as fast New York company. I came in the first night with pictures I had made in Spain and France and printed in a small darkroom at the American Center in Paris. Garry looked at them and said, “These pictures are crying to be published.” You can imagine how that made me feel.
RW And from the beginning, a 35 mm aesthetic—
TP What else? It was 1965: that was the aesthetic.
RW Well, a lot of people are first impressed by black-and-white photographs by Ansel Adams or Weston or Strand.
TP That makes me think of the rough distinction that Robert Lowell made around that time between raw and cooked poetry: for me, Adams and the others were cooked photography—though I admired a few pictures of Paul Strand’s—and the New York City photographers I was meeting were the true, raw artists.
RW What was your photographic life like in those days?
TP I had a rent-controlled apartment on 96th Street. I was married. My wife and I lived on something like $3,000 a year. And I had a darkroom in my apartment.
RW Did you go out to photograph every day?
TP Yeah. It was the ideal life: I worked every day and never thought about the health insurance I didn’t have.
RW What was the routine like? Did you get up and then go meet up with Garry?
TP After a certain point it tended to go that way. Garry had a great need to be with his friends, more so than I did. I always felt a bit odd to be photographing at the same time as other people. But with him I didn’t find it that difficult or constricting. It was an education.
RW Did you call each other the night before and say let’s meet at such-and-such café?
TP I probably got the phone call from Garry between eight or nine in the morning.
RW And you’d meet up at 11 or so and then you would shoot for a few hours?
TP Usually. Then hang out at the MoMA café.
RW How big a pack were you?
TP As I remember it, it was usually three: Garry and me and either Joel Meyerowitz or, later, Paul McDonough. But it wasn’t that we were together every day.
RW So Lee Friedlander wasn’t part of it?
TP No, no. Not at all. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lee take a picture! (laughter)
RW And how many years did this go on?
TP It went on, more and more sporadically, for a few years, and was finally dead when Garry left New York to teach in Chicago. I don’t want to make too big a thing out of it. Because, as I said, it wasn’t every day. And because I’d started thinking about other things, such as the Brassaï show that John did at MoMA in ’68. I thought a lot about medium-format cameras after that and, around 1972, decided to buy one. Much to Garry’s chagrin. He just didn’t understand it. Why would you want to use that camera? Just use slower film, if you want finer detail. Blah, blah, blah. I guess in one way I was claiming a certain level of independence by doing it, but my strongest reason was to try this new thing: it was something I had to do. But it was interesting that Garry reacted in such a strong way. Although I have to say that I finally find the subject boring.
RW Why is it boring? American street photography has this mythic quality. People never get tired of hearing the details of how it developed and what it was actually like.
TP It’s funny you say that. Eric Fischl recently came up and spoke at Yale and expressed those feelings. He’s close friends with Ralph Gibson, and Gibson has talked with him about that whole period—to the point that Fischl seemed to have a quite well-developed, but somewhat magical notion of how the daily routine worked, including details about when we would go where in order to have the light running in a certain direction.
RW So how did you meet Winogrand?
TP When I was first in New York, I used to talk with an intern in the Department of Photography at MoMA named Yu-Ben Yee. One day, he told me about an opening happening that night for a photographer named Joel Meyerowitz. It was at a downtown gallery, the Underground Gallery. He said I should go, so I did, and was introduced to Garry. I had just seen two of his photographs—probably that same day—from his zoo project at a MoMA Recent Acquisitions show and was blown away by them. I thought of myself then as being shy, but was so overwhelmed by the photographs that I told him, “I think those are the best pictures in American photography since Robert Frank.” He was disconcerted by that, embarrassed—at heart, Garry was a very modest man. I ran into him in the street a couple of weeks after that, and after we talked for a while he invited me to his house, and it went on from there.
RW How did your relationship develop with Robert Frank?
TP I first met Robert after a screening of Frederick Wiseman’s film Titicut Follies [a 1967 documentary on a hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, MA] at MoMA. I saw him walking out; I had heard him speak in San Francisco a couple of years before that, so I knew who he was. And, again betraying my idea of myself as a country bumpkin, I stopped and asked him what he thought of the film, mentioning how upset I was by it because I had worked for a year in a mental hospital in Massachusetts and thought Wiseman was quite unfair to the attendants in the film, who, in my experience, were placed in an almost impossible position by being forced to deal with violent, insane patients with no real training. Robert was interested in what I said and, either then or after I ran into him again, asked if I’d be willing to help him as a grip on a film he was making that turned out to be Me and My Brother—which, ironically, is an intricate cinematic portrait of Julius Orlovsky, Peter Orlovsky’s schizophrenic brother. So, I would see Robert and Mary [Frank] one day every couple of months. He was living on 86th Street then and I was on the other side of the park, 10 blocks north. Of course I idolized him and, for whatever reason, he liked me.
RW What was his relationship like with Garry?
TP I think it was wary. That’s too strong a word. It was hands-off.
RW Professional rivalry?
TP Maybe from Robert’s point of view a little bit. But he always spoke respectfully of Garry. I remember Robert once saying of Garry that he “went out into the world and showed it the way it is.” And he didn’t mean it condescendingly. The important thing to understand about Robert at that point is that he really didn’t care about photography. Garry, on the other hand, was editing and printing the great body of work that he’d produced on his first Guggenheim, which was published only a few years ago as 1964. So he was fevered with photography, justifiably so—which doesn’t change the fact that he venerated Robert, to the point that he couldn’t really talk to him, he was so full of respect, and understanding, for what Robert had done in The Americans. While one would imagine a possible connection between them, there wasn’t.
RW So you weren’t the glue?
TP I didn’t effect any connection between them whatsoever. In fact, when I saw those Guggenheim photographs of Garry’s the very first time I visited his apartment, the feeling I walked away with was that American photography was not at all dead, swallowed up by Robert Frank. I was tremendously excited by those pictures of Garry’s, and the chance to know the man who’d made them.
RW When you went out in the morning to shoot, did you have any plan in your head about what you wanted to do? And has that changed over the years?
TP Yes and no. Photographing in the street with a Leica doesn’t have much to do with planning. You walk out the door and—bang!—like everyone else, you’re part of the great urban cavalcade. But unlike everyone else, you’re carrying an amazing little machine that, joined with a lot of effort, can pull poetry out of a walk downtown. All of the failed pictures you’ve ever made, all of the other photographs you’ve ever loved, even songs and lines from poems walk with you too, insinuating themselves into your decisions about what you’ll make your photographs of, and how you’ll shape them as pictures. The process, if anything, is intuitive rather than the product of planning—although the fact that very few people have been able to produce this kind of work at a high level also suggests how difficult it is. In other words, intuitive may not be an adequate word for describing the stew of wildness, dogged work and hard thought that goes into producing the best of this kind of photography.
Be that as it may, with the Central Park pictures, my method, such as it was, changed, or at least adapted itself to a new circumstance, because I started using an ungainly medium-format camera, a Fujica, that also happened to have a remarkably inaccurate viewfinder. Later on, I bought other cameras in this format and also the squarer 6×7 cm shape. But as difficult as it was initially to use this “Leica with a goiter,” as someone called it, I think that my experience before this of working with small cameras in the street had taught me a lot about anticipating pictures, and understanding what I had to do physically, by moving my body and the camera, to make them clear visually. Lessons I was able to carry over to the Fujica: as I continued to use this larger camera, I quickly became quite sure with it.
RW Are the mistakes that your students are prone to now the same mistakes that students were prone to when you were teaching back in the late ’60s?
TP No. I think now that, in general—and this includes a lot of what I see in Chelsea even more than what I see from students at Yale—there’s a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination. This is an understanding that an earlier generation of students, and photographers, accepted as a first principle. Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form—typically a very large form. This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too. Sure, things have to change, but photography-as-illustration, even sublime illustration, seems to me an uninteresting direction for the medium to be tracking now, particularly at such a difficult time in the general American culture. All in all, I think that there’s as much real discovery and excitement in the digital videos that my students at Yale are making as there is in the still photography I see either there or in New York, perhaps because the video camera, like the 35 mm camera 30 years ago, can be carried everywhere, and locks onto the shifting contradictions and beauties of the world more directly and unselfconsciously than many photographers now seem to feel still photography can, or should, do.
RW When most photographers go to Central Park they do their best to make it look more bucolic than it really is. Your pictures show that it’s as crowded as the rest of New York, as dirty, as much of a freak show. And yet it is also this place of repose. People go there to get away from other people even though, as you show, when they’ve disrobed to sunbathe in the park they appear to be more uncomfortably packed together than on the sidewalks. Did you notice this after a few rolls of film?
TP You have to remember that I started making these pictures in the ’70s, and that’s how the park looked. The city was falling apart, and the grass was a foot high. New York was in dire straits then.
RW “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
TP Right. That was the reality. I didn’t have any conscious sense of showing it to be dirty or freakish, that’s just the way it was. In fact, I loved the untended grass and its suggestion of meadows and midsummer. I was photographing at Studio 54 then, too. Day and night. That’s what I did, Brassaï filling my thoughts.
RW How so?
TP I thought that the prints of his I’d seen at the 1968 MoMA retrospective described a kind of ideal photographic state between the more schematic drawing of the small 35 mm camera and the mechanical, exhaustive descriptiveness of large-format view cameras. It also seemed to me particularly apt for photographing people.
RW So you went out at night at the same time, it sounds like a busy schedule. Where were you living?
TP My girlfriend and I lived on 86th and Central Park West—
RW So the Central Park pictures were made just outside your front door?
TP Right, there wasn’t any great calculation; I was walking every day from the apartment to MoMA to work on Public Relations, an exhibition of Garry’s photographs that I was guest curating there, so I took my camera and started photographing in the park. I had a second Guggenheim for that year, and wasn’t teaching.
RW Well, the other book you have coming out next year, the sports pictures from 1970, published by Aperture, are even more about crowds and spectators. But what struck me as I was looking at them on disk last night is that all the people look as if they’re on the margins. Even if you’re photographing the star quarterback or pitcher, the wide-angle lens spreads and compresses everything: it’s such an equalizer. No one person really can be more important than any other. It’s a very democratic way of photographing.
TP I’m glad you brought that up because the project was to a certain degree an aesthetic experiment. Virtually all of it was done with a 28 mm lens, a very wide-angle lens. So as much as the pictures are almost desperately about something—the violently disturbed American spirit at the time of Vietnam—they were also about trying to “fill a cup up to the brim / and even above the brim,” as Frost put it. I think the project works both as a strong set of pictures and as the description of an intense experience: I wouldn’t want you to believe that it’s simply a kind of visual after effect of being out in the world using a particular lens. But a good part of what I was playing with was metaphorically throwing this very small wide-angle lens at a world in breakdown to see if, picture after picture after picture, I could make something that was dense and coherent at the same time. So you could say that the work was the result of a calculation—not a calculation that assumed there would be successful results, but one that assumed, in fact, that there probably wouldn’t be.
RW That’s the thing about a 28. Even if you’re photographing one person—
TP Well, I almost never did.
RW But even if you were! If you were photographing the starting quarterback, the 28 spreads out space so he would not appear to be this grand, heroic figure. Everyone is shrunken and the same, sort of mushed down. I love those pictures, and I love that kind of aesthetic, because everyone’s a player.
TP Right. Like you and me.
RW You talked about the importance of seeing the Brassaï show. Are there other photographers whose work was not interesting to you as a young man but who interest you now? Or are the ones who meant most to you when you were 25 still the ones who speak to you?
TP It’s fascinating, I think, first loves and all of that. I would argue that nobody was more influential on my work than Cartier-Bresson. I doubt that anybody else would agree with that, but that’s the way I feel about it. And Robert and Garry. But who knows? Brassaï, as I’ve said, and Atget in the sense that he demonstrated and confirmed the greatness of photography, more powerfully, I’d say, than any other photographer.
RW How are you handling the switch to the digital universe?
TP I’m curious to see if one can produce compelling prints digitally, black-and-white prints. Certainly that’s possible now with color. But walking around MoMA earlier today and looking at a print of Robert’s or Diane’s [Arbus] on the wall, there’s just nothing like it. There’s really nothing like it.
RW Digital does offer unique advantages in terms of richer black tones—
TP Well, it’s different. We have a couple of huge digital prints up at Yale that were made from Walker Evans’s negatives. I was uninterested in them the first moment I looked at them. They just don’t have what, to me, makes Evans a great photographer, that sense that the lens has cut like an especially sharp knife into the light and drawn out a radiant fact. On the other hand, though, Robert Frank’s work would probably look great in digital prints: deep tones and not a heavy emphasis on description.
RW You said the goal with Garry always was process. Not exhibition, gallery shows, or sale of prints. Did you absorb that mentality pretty much?
TP This may go way back to your first question: why no book until now? I don’t photograph for exhibition, but to engage in this process of understanding photography itself. I started to photograph because poetry was impossible for me, not realizing that photography was at least as difficult, and also not anticipating how, as with poetry, that difficulty can, in itself, create an addiction in those people who see this kind of creative test as something monumentally attractive. We all have to deal with our strengths and weaknesses, and while I guess my strength is my willingness to engage repeatedly with this deeply difficult problem of making coherent pictures, my weakness is an equally strong tendency to want everything in my pictures to be part of a perfect web—not a very healthy or often-satisfied ambition when trying to clarify such complex chunks of the visual world. But that’s my problem, and maybe something I can’t escape.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee