Tod Papageorge started taking photographs in 1962 as an English literature major at the University of New Hampshire. Like a number of his contemporaries, he sought to discover his own artistic identity — what it meant to be an American photographer at the time — and he is now recognized as one of the nation’s greatest artists in the medium. In particular his work provides a direct link between the European tradition most obviously exemplified in Henri Cartier-Bressons concept of the “decisive moment” (a rare and unique moment loaded with visual possibility that the skilled photographer was expected to recognize and capture) and an American school, exemplfied by canonical photographers like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus, that sees the world as overloaded with visual opportunities. Papageorge has also been instrumental in defining the shape of American photographic history: He curated “Public Relations: The Photographs of Garry Winogrand” for the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 and “Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence” for the Yale University Art Gallery in 1981. And his own influence on younger photographers has been enormous as well. Since 1979 he has been Walker Evans Professor and director of graduate studies in photography at Yale, where his students have included Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Gregory Crewdson, An-My Lê, John Pilson, and Justine Kurland.
Two recent books of Papageorge’s work reveal him as one of the first photographers whose instincts are both within the American tradition and recognizably contemporary: Last summer Steidl published Passing Through Eden, a collection of images he took over 25 years in Central Park; in the fall Aperture published American Sports, 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam. This volume, featuring photographs Papageorge took during his 1970 Guggenheim Fellowship, provided the starting point for his conversation with ARTINFO.
Tod, this new book is a remarkable document of a moment in American history. The country was in the depths of the Vietnam War, a whole world order seemed to be under threat, and yet people chose to divert themselves with team sports.
Yeah — bread and circuses! The fact of the matter is that I was very young to be applying for the Guggenheim Fellowship, and I knew my only chance was if I made an interesting proposal. I thought spectator sports would be very interesting; it wasn’t any more profound than that. But once I got the grant, and Kent State happened, and I started going to the stadiums that spring, I became much more focused. I was looking to do a group portrait of America in the middle of this terrible conflict. I was in a state of anger throughout the project. I remember being in Cincinnati for the World Series, and I was staying in some grimy hotel and not able to sleep all night — I was just so wound up.
I understand that when you began to pursue photography, while at college in the early 1960s, your starting point was Cartier-Bresson.
Yes. I was still writing poetry at that point, and I recognized in Cartier-Bresson a species of poetry. I actually won the university’s poetry prize — which was $15! — and bought an out-of-print Cartier-Bresson Decisive Moment for $12.95. I also insisted that my photography teacher buy one for the school.
And you were still under the influence of Cartier-Bresson when you took off for Spain a year or so after graduation. What were you looking for?
There’s a quote from Goethe — “We only see what we know.” We’re not blank slates or pure lenses looking out at the world. We’re formed by what we’ve read, the exchanges we’ve had with our friends and family, and everything we’ve looked at. The pictures I took in Spain were shaped, if not determined, by the Spanish art that I’d looked at, particularly by Goya’s prints, and also by the poetry that I had admired in college, most importantly Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. I think Frost is one of the great imperishable poets in any language, because of his dark, dark vision couched in the most amazing twisting of vernacular language.
It’s easy to draw a parallel between the frame of the picture and the forms of poetry. Within these limitations — with these poets at any rate — there’s a great intensity of expression. That was what I was trying to find — something at once specific (I’d see someone in the street with a chair on his head, and I’d think of the Goya print of the same subject) and very general (related to a tragic sense of life). There are a lot of pictures of kids playing in ruins, and of the Semana Santa.
Were you seeking Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”?
Yes. You wait and wait and wait, and watch and watch and watch.
When you came back from Europe, you met Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand.
Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) determined more than any other book the shape of photography in postwar New York. It described an America that was more like a Rimbaud poem than Life magazine. He really raised the bar.
But it was in Garry Winogrand that I discovered another way of working. Watching him I realized that the world offers more than certain moments — it’s constantly exploding with moments.
You attended workshops at Winogrand's house in the mid-1960s. Do you consider him a mentor?
The whole question of mentorship or influence is very interesting. If you have a talented student, they don’t respond to the mentor’s work simply because of circumstance. It wasn’t that I met Garry and we became friends and therefore I did or didn’t do certain things. The fact is that I identified something in his work that struck me very deeply. The first time he invited me to his house, he showed me huge piles of prints, and I was dumbfounded. I had thought that American photography was pretty much dead, that Robert Frank had throttled it, but I realized this wasn’t true at all and that Garry was moving it somewhere else. I came into his house thinking that what I really wanted to do was work in film — I left realizing that photography was still possible.
Which brings us to the work that’s now assembled in Passing through Eden.
The Central Park work was a ratification of what I learned from Garry. I changed my style, though the method was very much like the early work. Because of the training I’d had I was often able to take a single picture and have it be [compositionally] precise.
You’re clearly very proud of those pictures.
In my estimation, anybody going through that book and looking at, say, the pictures of people on the park benches will be completely amazed by them. The precision of the pictures, one after another, is a tour de force. I’m very proud of both books.
You’re also a believer in good photography coming out of hard work. Is it 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration?
It’s 90 percent desperation! I remember once talking to Garry in a moment of despair about my work and he said, “The only thing I know, Tod, is that all great work is the result of great labor.” It’s the nature of the medium. You go out and spend hours in the street; then you develop the film, contact the negatives, and edit some to print. Snapping the shutter creates this trail of labor. It comes out of your passion for the thing.
Something else Garry used to say about photography was, “It’s worthwhile work for a grown man.” This ridiculous-seeming activity of walking along the street and lifting up a little camera is so powerful, so complicated, and so resistant to being mastered. If I had the choice between doing that and sitting in an office somewhere … Are you kidding?