An interview with photographer Tod Papageorge RAAR’09

PapageorgeTod Papageorge. Credit: Deborah Flomenhaft

Tod Papageorge is the Walker Evans Professor of Photography and Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at the Yale School of Art. The Features section of the Academy website has posted eight compelling photographs from his work this summer in Rome (“In the Street, June 15-July 27”). Recently AAR Mellon Professor Corey Brennan caught up with Papageorge to ask him about his six weeks at the Academy this summer as the Photographer in Residence, and about some aspects of his approach to photography in general.

You are well-known as a black-and-white photographer of people in public spaces. For your Rome photographs, you are using a digital camera (a Leica M8.2) for the first time, and shooting in color. How much of a departure are your Rome images from your work to date?

It was all a big change, of course, and coincided with my arrival in Rome: I’d bought the Leica just a couple of weeks before, and spent some harried days up until my flight learning a few things about digital photography, and pinning down and applying a series of technical modifications to the camera. So the experience of making these pictures was as bright-penny new as the city itself seemed to me.

My early years as a struggling photographer made me wary of color: the cost of a few rolls of Kodachrome and the special processing it required discouraged me from using it. Later, when I might have been able to afford it, I’d become a black-and-white photographer, which, for me anyway, alludes to a way of thinking as much as it does to how certain photographs look. Once in Rome, though, I quickly decided that, because I had the camera for it, the best way to photograph the city was to take as much advantage of the remarkable color and light abounding there as I could.

Perhaps the color-lessons I imagined myself learning as I visited and revisited the Caravaggios in central Rome were an actual help. In any event, the greatest surprises I experienced while working with this camera had nothing to do with the putative problems of thinking in color, and everything to do with a new working process. And those surprises were all positive.

What were they? Well, the most obvious were that I could now check my framing and exposure on the fly, as I made pictures, and, even more fundamentally useful, review every photograph I’d made during the day back at the Academy the same night—a feedback loop of a kind I’d never known before. And this is to say nothing of all of the worry that the process eliminated, those depressing varieties of anxiety that I’d always gone through when traveling with film: Will the X-rays ruin it? Is there a refrigerator in this room? When will I get it back to my darkroom and be able to develop it? And be able to make contact sheets of it?

Now, no more of that; none of it.

The Leica that you used is of the “rangefinder” type. Precisely what makes this a real advantage for street photography?

“Rangefinder” refers to a focusing system where the photographer manually adjusts a lens to bring a split image in the viewfinder into alignment. Its advantage is that it’s straightforward and quick to use, particularly with wide-angle lenses. This, along with a window-like viewing system (where the photographer can see things moving into and out of the edges of the visual field), and, in the case of the Leica, an especially quiet shutter and superior lenses, comprise a classic method of making photographs–one that’s particularly effective in the street.

Had you worked in Rome before?

Yes, a couple of times, but not as extensively as I did on this visit, and with not nearly as much success.

How did you organize your day photographing in Rome? How much of a challenge was it working with Rome’s bright midday light?

It was more difficult to organize than it might seem, what with the harsh midday light that you mention and, of course, the heat. I never developed a consistent program for dealing with it, other than tending to visit the Pantheon after I discovered weeks on into my stay that, at that time of day and year, the sun pours its light straight down through the oculus. (Talk about a great lens!)

The majority of my pictures, though, were made after 4:00 pm. The light began to settle down into a kind of generalized glow just about then, and the heat became more bearable.

During the months of June and July the composition of the city changes—Romans start to peel away for vacation, and even the number of tourists start to thin. Did this ebb and flow have an impact your work at all?

Yes. I was happy enough to leave Rome when I did—on July 27—because it was clear to me that the gradual emptying-out of the city had reached a point where there would be exponentially less for me to photograph going on into August. Needless to say, I’d love to come back in a different season to add on to what I’ve done and, I’d hope, complete a body of work that I feel I got a tremendous start on during my time at the Academy.

Even the dozen or so of your Rome photographs that I’ve seen represent a very weighty portfolio. Is there something about the specific spaces you chose in the city that lend themselves so well to the photographic aesthetic?

Romans tend to be dramatic—and unselfconscious about it—and are often picture-handsome. Throw in the color palette of the architecture, and armies of tourists, and layers of archeological/historical/religio-enriched environments, and you have a space fully fit, perhaps uniquely fit, for a daily series of lightning photographic-poetic raids.

That said, I tended, after a couple of weeks, to follow my own footsteps and revisit places where I could fairly count on running across a certain amount of that drama and visual complexity. Even in the small group of pictures shown here you can see that I favored the Trevi fountain, with all of its crush and madness, and also the Largo Carlo Goldoni, a small piazza at the base of the Via Condotti, where the sunlight became astonishing at about six o’clock, and the turnout of shopping Romans provided an attendant, rampant spectacle.

Your Rome street images are full of detail, often with multiple competing centers of interest. Do you allow anything in your images to be irrelevant?

The picture is the picture, so nothing in it is irrelevant—and, therefore, everything in it should bear some greater or lesser responsibility for it being picture-perfect. Not simple-perfect, though; and not predictably perfect (as in, “I’ve seen this before”); but perfect in that all it describes joins in the cohering visual/reading experience a viewer of it should (ideally) have.

You mention “reading” a photograph and, earlier, used the word “poetic” to describe your work. How do you relate these words to photography in general?

I’ve always felt that photography is closer to poetry than to the other visual arts. What other artistic medium owns anything like the mixed relationship that these two have to common, lived reality? A photographer must employ what Zen calls the “ten thousand facts” of the physical world to build his pictures from, just as a poet can only use the ten thousand words of her language (what W. H. Auden called the “glory and the shame” of poetry) to construct her poems. The first operates through denotation, the second through connotation. But the problem for both is to transmute the dross—the contingent stuff of things or words—into the webs of meaning and resonance that are achieved photographs and poems. Neither medium is like music, but both are more like each other than like painting.

It was once written of photographer Garry Winogrand, “There are no adjectives in photographs, only nouns” (Leo Rubinfien). I would love to hear your comment on this.

I may have just answered this, if I understand what Leo Rubinfien was meaning to say, which I guess is that photography is a medium of surfaces, those ten thousand facts—or denotative nouns—again. My cavil with this is that, as I also said, any photograph is everything that’s in it, including the visual weaving that binds it—and all of its “multiple competing centers,” if it’s complex enough to have them—together. And I can easily imagine applying any number of adjectives to describe the beauty or intricacy or rhyming of that weaving in a particular photograph, as I can imagine Garry Winogrand (who, I guess you know, was a very close friend of mine) also applying them.

The photographs in your recent (2007) book, Passing Through Eden: Photographs of Central Park, very powerfully evoke the New York of the 70s and 80s. And the images in your (2008) collection, American Sports, 1970, or How We Spent the War in Vietnam, deeply illuminate a pivotal era. Is it too early to identify any particular attributes of Rome in 2009?

Thank you for your kind words about my books. As for my work in Rome, let me finish the project, and I’ll let you know what I think then.

10, 6-25.10025Tod Papageorge

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