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,

Tony Ray-Jones,

Leonard Freed,

Raghubir Singh,

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).


J. Karanka said...

Nice one! That's Papageorge reminding me why I still love street photography. I have a tendency to trace back that 'crowded apparent snapshot' to one of the Frank shots in The Americans, the one of the sidewalk seen from the side, in which a dozen of characters are walking and we mostly see their faces. None of them is the centre of focus, none of them is doing anything, but put together it's a perfect tapestry that fits the frame from end to end. It's one of the first New Orleans shots, I think. That kind of shots are the main thing that draw me into street photography, having to look behind the obvious to find either a) a series of actions that work together or b) nothing at all, but a confluence of forms ellegantly composed from a busy scene. Maybe part of their disappearance nowadays has to do with people trying to move away from Winogrand in aesthetics, which I find a bit of a pity. Most people hanged their 28mm lenses and picked up 35s, which although very nice, are sometimes a bit narrow to get enough chaos and tension in the frame. I'm not sure if part of it is due to people fearing failure too much. The 35mm lens allows you to choose better what you want, and isolate it. It makes punchlines easier, without having to deal with the problem of how to orchestrate all those messy surroundings. After all, when you have one of those crowded moments in your viewfinder you can only track individual parts of the frame sequentially, and when everything seems to collapse into place, press the shutter. It might involve an amount of guesswork that most photographers might not want to deal with.

On another note, at some point I'll scan a beautiful 1982 Winogrand I found in a book... it fits this conversation nicely.

Anonymous said...

great post blake-- I agree with and have been enlightened by your insight--but I must disagree with the music comparisons. I suppose there are many ways to label these photographers, or these musicians. All the photographers are a combo of inner expression and response to a moment in the world. If some (frank) say more to you about mood, and others (winogrand) isolate a specific moment to express personal cultural criticism, then wouldn't miles davis jive more with robert frank? And the moments and details of winogrand's photos seem to often be in line with bob dylan's words and world? And I don't see how the beatles fit with street photography at all. I'm just giving you a hard time---on that note, give r. frank a little more credit for the specific moments he's captured. They might not be as crowded, but he nails the moment for sure.

plechl said...

"What make Papageorge different is that his logistics of exposure are so obtuse." - blake

I think he's just shooting with his gut, and figuring it out later. I bet 9 times out of 10 he doesn't even know WHAT he is seeing when he actually clicks the shutter.

I can't count how many times I've seen something and while I try to figure out why I want to shoot, the scene dissolves, and only later, when reviewing the picture in my mind's eye, do I recall some stray detail, some subtle analogy that made the photo work.

It seems like the thought process must almost be sidestepped to snare these inbetweens.

These 'obtuse' moments are great. I love what they say, and how they undercut more romantic images shatter casts that have hardened upon the photographic language.

Blake Andrews said...

To J. Karanka, interesting point about the shift in lenses. I've shifted over the past 10 years from a 24 to 28 to a 35 and I now use a 40. Wide angle is nice for a lot of things but it seems to cast a particular flavor on images that draws attention to itself. A 35 or 40 seems to work best for me.

To B. Wolf, I meant the musical comparisons to be more about the photographer's place in their art than about their specific style. HCB and The Beatles occupy roughly equivalent spaces in photography and music in terms of musical innovation and influence. The same with Dylan and Frank. Coltrane and Miles Davis are influential but not as accessible (perhaps more sophisticated?), more for the hardcore fan than the casual listener. The same with Winogrand and Papageorge. In a future post I'll do a whole list of music/photographer comparisons. It's fun to think about.

To david plechl, I think you're right that Papageorge discovered a lot of shots later in the contacts. Part of photography is knowing when to shoot even if your eyes don't know when.

And to anyone who took my Instability Happens post as an honest unsarcastic opinion, WAKE UP!