20 May 2008

Tod Papageorge - "not a political photographer"?

The latest issue of The Nation arrived in the mail this morning. It includes this brief interview with Tod Papageorge about whom I know very little beyond the fact that he's been teaching at Yale for three decades or so. He has a new book out - American Sports, 1970 or How We Spent the War in Vietnam and its published by Aperture. Here are a couple of passages from The Nation interview. The first is about the predicament photographers face generally.
"Well, photographers and poets, their glory and their shame--that's a quote from Auden, the glory and the shame--is that a poet has to depend upon words, these words. "Cup"--it's so mundane and common--but Robert Frost would say, "fill a cup up/Up to the brim, and even above the brim." The word becomes transformed, ideally. So the curse of the poet is, he has to use all of this pain quotidien to make magic. And it's the same with the photographer. He's stuck with the things of the world to transform. What you must understand is that the effort involved here in making these pictures or any that I've made is to make visual poetry. In other words, to use the material of the world as the stuff of transformation into meaning. So whether those facts or those pieces of material bear any kind of conclusive or direct line of connection to the truth is totally irrelevant to me. This has nothing to do with the truth! This is a book of poetry. Whether you respond to it that way is something I can't be concerned with. But that's the ambition."
That seems fair enough . No need to convince me, really, that photography traffics in poetics, not truth ~ transforming the mundane into something significant. But then we get to the matter of "To what end? For what purpose?" And here we encounter what, in light of the subtitle of the book, seems a thoroughly peculiar comment about the sort of work Papageorge himself does, and the influences on his work:
"This work, and work of this ilk, came out of a group of photographers who were working in the '60s and the '70s in New York who were all, I think, radicalized by the publication of Robert Frank's The Americans. So I guess consistent with all of this work is a kind of negative view of America, a critique of America, done, again, in the interest of nothing but aesthetic or artistic success. In other words, there's no money to be made doing this."
But, insofar as the photographs in the book constitute a "critique of America" - and I think they work both acutely and astutely in that regard - it seems disingenuous to suggest that the criteria of success in this work were exclusively "aesthetic." Sure, the criteria were not commercial. (Papageorge goes on in the interview to comment on the way galleries have influenced photography in that regard.) But the "artistic success" of the work was deeply, necessarily informed by a serious political sensibility too. Otherwise, these images might well have appeared in The Sporting News. The difficulty Papageorge quite successfully confronted was how to convey "a negative view of America" in a subtle, oblique way? There are no scenes of battlefields, or protests or politicians. Yet, the aesthetic and political remain intimately intertwined here. What we see is America at play, oblivious - or seemingly so - to the death and devastation we are sowing abroad. The claim these images make upon us emerges primarily against a largely unstated context. And that claim recurs today. Why release this book now? The answer is the same as when we ask "Why make these photographs in the first place?" Politics.

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Blogger Jeremy said...

Did a search on Theory of Photography and found your blog. Interesting read. I will keep checking in. I have been trying to read as much photographic thought as I can get my hands on.

20 May, 2008 18:47  
Blogger Stan B. said...

When ya come down to it, ain't too much we don't do that ain't- political, that is...

20 May, 2008 20:22  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Stan, No argument from me on that. What I don't get is why photographers fall over themselves trying to make sure that nothing they've ever even come close to thinking might be construed as p-o-l-i-t-i-c-a-l ... I don't get it.

20 May, 2008 22:36  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Jeremy, I hope you'll stop in again. JJ

20 May, 2008 22:39  
Blogger Keith Dannemiller said...

Might it be that politicians and their like all think they have a corner on the truth market and the intelligent photographer knows he has no business dealing with such mundane matters.

Keith Dannemiller

21 May, 2008 07:47  
Blogger Walter Dufresne said...

Here's an excerpt of a transcript in the book "Photography Within the Humanities". It's Robert Frank, speaking at Wellesley College in April 1975:

Q: In an interview with Walker Evans, you talked about DeKooning and Kline, and the energy that was in New York in the fifties with the abstract expressionists. Do you feel that this sort of energy is necessary for a lot of people to get together and make a movement?

A: Sometimes, you know, what I'm talking about is not what I mean. But I was talking about a lifestyle that impressed me. It was like a political stand. At that time I think the abstract painters were suffering. They were having a hard time. And they totally believed in what they were doing. They were a really strong group. All that photographers talked about at that time was how to make money, how to get into magazines. It was a relief to go into a group that was not interested in that way. And in that way it has changed a lot, because painters have become very successful and very commercial. ...

23 May, 2008 09:10  
Blogger Walter Dufresne said...

It was my genuine hope that the 1975 quote from Robert Frank, above, might help explain some of Papageorge's sensibility and ambition, including his refusal or denial of political ambitions for his work. Nevertheless, with a bit of luck we might see more of the work: Papageorge recently explained that HBO's producing a documentary about American sports and racism in the 1960s, causing him to scan some older 35mm negatives. The handful I've seen are both beautiful and heartbreaking in their depiction: some appear to be about modest and exhausted and even frightened working blacks in service to those crazy, dangerous white people at an Auburn - Alabama football game.

28 July, 2008 18:04  

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