New York

Tod Papageorge

Daniel Wolf

Tod Papageorge has a way with words. In the introduction to the catalogue for the Evans and Frank show, which Papageorge put together as an homage, there are moments of real eloquence. They come when he addresses himself directly to the photographs. He takes a surprisingly persuasive view of Frank’s The Americans, for instance, as a kind of group portraiture in which “heads are drawn with the sculptural brevity of those found on worn coins.” A phrase like that makes clear the truth of what Papageorge says in his first paragraph: this exhibition was “born of love and respect.” Only someone who really did love Frank’s work would take the trouble to make his description of it so precise and so apt. Papageorge does Evans’ pictures equal justice when he speaks of “meanings which reside in [their] detail . . . as an etymology resides in a word.” He means that from an Evans picture of a room, we can intuit the uses to which it has been put, emotions that have been felt there—in other words, its history. “Etymology” isn’t just an insight into Evans. It’s a simile that applies to the whole photographic medium with the rare authority that only statements by working photographers have.

Papageorge’s feelings as a photographer are what give his catalogue introduction its merit. I wish he had relied on those feelings more. Instead, he mixes what comes from the heart with pronouncements that sound as if made by an academic historian. Perhaps his position at Yale, where he is a professor of photography, makes him feel that his sincerity as a photographer is not enough, or not quite appropriate somehow. Whatever the cause, the effect is vitiating. The emotions he shunts aside are the very ones I would feel most privileged to have, the kind that I try hardest, as a critic, to keep alive in myself. As an historian, Papageorge is less provocative.

His thesis, which he outlined in the April 1981 issue of Artforum, is that “Frank used Evans’ work as an iconographical sourcebook for his own pictures.” This Papageorge attempts to prove by pairing Evans and Frank pictures that look alike, usually because they are of the same subject. Thus when Frank took a picture of a gas station, he did so, Papageorge says, because he was “remembering” an Evans picture of that subject. Art history written this way is a circular argument. The historian is drawing conclusions from an arrangement of images that he set up in the first place. Papageorge’s image pairs illustrate the connection between Frank and Evans, but they don’t “demonstrate” it as he claims. You could make image pairs as close and striking as these out of all sorts of photographs that have no historical connection whatsoever. In fact, Papageorge himself did just that at a lecture I attended several years ago.

If Frank had imitated Evans’ work as slavishly as this show implies, he really would be the “epigone” of Evans that Lincoln Kirstein recently called him in a letter to me. I just don’t believe that influence between visual artists, particularly photographers, occurs in the mechanical way Papageorge suggests. Being derivative is so easy in photography that no one who hopes to do original work lets himself copy somebody else’s compositions this closely. Serious influence occurs, rather, as a suffusion of one photographer’s work through the imagination of another. Young photographers’ ability to see the universals in the work of past masters, to abstract the masters’ styles, is one of the things that makes them capable of great work themselves. It gets them beyond the mere duplication that this show supposes. The show is, as a show, not really necessary; the images, from Evans’ American Photographs and Frank’s The Americans, are all familiar and available. And as an “essay,” I’m afraid, it’s worse than unnecessary. It’s misleading.

In 25 years, a former student at Yale might do an exhibition like this about Papageorge’s relationship to Garry Winogrand. If the exhibition were based on the work of Papageorge at a New York gallery a year and a half ago, that relationship would also come out looking rather derivative. Papageorge had been editing Winogrand’s pictures for “Public Relations,” the show at the Museum of Modern Art that capped the period Winogrand spent photographing press conferences and other public non-events. The images in Papageorge’s own show, many of them taken at discotheques, suggested that he had fallen too much under Winogrand’s spell. There were a few photographs, however, that still carried the stamp of Papageorge’s best earlier work. One in particular that I remember was of a woman lounging at her ease against the body of her boyfriend, on the grass in Central Park.

Papageorge’s new show, which he has entitled “At Ease,” follows through on that image and reestablishes his photography in its own right. The theme of this show is also similar to one prominent in the work of Winogrand, whose company Papageorge kept on the streets of New York at one point in their careers. But here Papageorge makes the theme his. It takes on a different mood, a personality that’s distinct from anybody’s else’s. Like Winogrand, Papageorge has always had a bluntly erotic element in his work. In Winogrand’s photographs this eroticism has usually taken the form of a confrontation with women, the sort of confrontation seen in his book Women Are Beautiful. There is a high level of sexual energy in the exchange between him and his subject. In Papageorge’s recent work, it is the languor and indolence of life to which the photographer responds. The sexuality permeates a different part of the spectrum of human behavior.

Many of the pictures in the show are simply of people sleeping in the park: women, men, children, vagrants of indeterminate sex. In every case the photograph reveals a pure, abandoned hedonism in sleep, an almost sexual pleasure. Since Papageorge does not make eye contact in these photographs, they are a more detached observation than Winogrand’s best shots. They are cooler to the touch. But still to be felt underneath are the heat of life, and the sensuous pleasure the photographer took in making the photograph. You see them there, in the photograph, the way you see the contour of a landscape under a blanket of snow.

Colin Westerbeck