Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Man Walking Through Litter in the Right Shirt
I have to admit that Tod Papageorge's Passing Through Eden was somewhat of a disappointment for me. Knowing he'd worked with Winogrand and seeing snatches of his work here and there through the years, I'd expected his first book to show me the goods. But when I finally got a copy in my hands, it wasn't really what I was looking for. Passing Through Eden is more of a conceptual piece, with strong images separated by dull grey vegetation studies, more about the book than the photographs. All in all, I found it a bit sleepy.
With this is mind I was hesitant to have any expectations about American Sports, 1970. Yesterday the book arrived in the mail and all I can say is WOW! This is the book I'd been waiting for.
American Sports, 1970 was shot within the span of one year at and around American sporting events. Subtitled "Or, How I Spent the War in Vietnam", the book is meant to compare the destruction of war to the casual meaninglessness of sports rivalry. This may explain why Papageorge chose to wait 38 years before publishing the work until another time when sports are king at home while we are mired in wars abroad. For me, the contrast doesn't really add much to the photos. Yes, war is insanely horrible, and sports are silly in comparison. We knew that. So what?
Luckily the photos are strong enough to escape any political statement. After all, these are street photos and their strength should be in their zen meaninglessness. American Sports, 1970 contains some of the finest street work I have seen. It is hard to believe one person could take such a strong suite of images within the span of one year. Holy Fuck was that guy in a zone!
The obvious comparison for American Sports, 1970 is Public Relations, which Papageorge wrote the foreword to. If you don't like that book you probably won't like American Sports. For most of the images, Papageorge's work could easily pass for Winogrand's. For example, this Papageorge photo would fit in either book
As would this
What makes Papageorge similar to Winogrand, and what makes both of their work so beguiling and attractive to me, is their amazing ability to find subtle visual moments in crowded dynamic circumstances. I would classify both of them in the Cartier-Bresson tradition rather than Robert Frank. Rather than attempt to create a mood through photographs, they are searching out singular moments. Papageorge follows the HCB tradition, but with the twist that his decisive moments are wonderfully improper and understated. Papageorge is Coltrane to HCB's Beatles. (Frank is Dylan and Winogrand Miles Davis..)
As an aside here, let me lament the fading art of singular moment street photography. Quickly, of the photo shows you've seen in the past few months, how many have been of dynamic events? How many depended on seizing a moment that would disappear in the next second? And of those very few which might be described like that, how many depict groups of people? There may be a few people working like that today but very very few with the skill of Papageorge and Winogrand. To go into a crowd of people and come away with a coherent singular moment that surpassses that moment --that can provide meaning when stripped of the context of the moment-- approaches the impossible yet both of them did it consistently.
Of course many great street photographers have staked their reputations on doing exactly this. Plucking moments from crowds is the bread and butter of street photography, whether by Cartier-Bresson,
or any other number of a long list of likely suspects. What make Papageorge different is that his logistics of exposure are so obtuse. With all of the photographers just mentioned, there is usually some central subject matter or visual form which is obviously the reason the person took the photo. Granted, the subject is elusive and often only visible in the final photo, and recording the image requires great skill. Yet afterward looking at the photo we generally have a rough sense of how the photo happened, what made the person aim his camera at something. With many of Papageorge's images I often see no reason for taking the photo, no specific event being depicted. Instead each image is a visual collection of small occurances and it's up to the viewer to decide which might be important. For example, at first glance this shot
might seem to be a photo of two sets of matching arms. Presumably that is what made Papageorge press the shutter. It isn't until examining the thing further that we notice a man sticking his tongue in his partner's face. The visual elements are so understated they almost seem accidental. I think this accidental/snapshot quality is why his photos --along with Winogrand's-- don't appeal to some. Because the motive isn't visually clear, it's presumed not to exist.
It's hard to imagine any of the four photographers above taking one of these shots
These images are as sloppy, ambiguous, and imperfect as reality. Reality isn't a guy frozen in air over a puddle. It's a man walking through litter in the right shirt.
I'm showing a lot of images here because, if you can't tell, I really like this book and am excited about the photos. It's the type of book that leaves me wanting more. Luckily on the Aperture site are three images not included in the book. I suspect they were in the mix until very late in the edit and were some of the final images cut, and the Aperture website hasn't yet caught up with reality. For those who can't get enough, here they are (sorry, only small versions available).