Papageorge’s ‘poetic discoveries’

Although he is now considered one of the most important art photographers of the 1970s, Tod Papageorge was absent from the New York galleries for almost 20 years. His photographs, especially his depictions of Central Park between 1960 and 1992, have become the basis of studies on American photography of that time. As head of the Yale graduate photography department since 1979, he has taught some of the major contemporary photographers, including Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Gregory Crewdson. I met Papageorge at the presentation of his book «American Sports, 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam» at the Aperture photography foundation in New York. Papageorge was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Other than a summer in New York, he spent the first 21 years of his life in southern New Hampshire. His maternal grandparents were from Ireland, while his paternal ones came from Greece. «My grandparents were from Valera in the Peloponnese. My mother was a teacher and my father a restaurant owner. I had no artistic calling. I discovered photography through music and poetry, I read endlessly and enjoyed music.» His first exhibition in Greece, at the Xippas Gallery, is a retrospective of his images of Central Park and the Acropolis. «The exhibition is about how photography transformed two very different but powerful spaces into a set for what will hopefully become a series of poetic discoveries.» When did you photograph Greece? I haven’t visited Greece recently, but I used to go often in the past, in 1983 and 84, to take photographs of the Acropolis. I am very sensitive to the beauty of the Greek landscape and to the achievements of Greek art. There is a great question regarding whether photography is art. Richard Avedon had said that he would never become Paul Gauguin. Comparing photography to painting is like comparing apples with oranges. Of course, both are ways of creating images, but the mechanical ability that photography has of detecting real surfaces almost instantly sets it apart from any other means that existed before it. That is what is good about it, I think, the camera’s ability to create a memory that includes all details and turns it into a one-dimensional poetic telling of the truth. You can see that in the work of good photographers. How did you decide to work on what later became your book «American Sports, 1970: Or How We Spent the War in Vietnam»? I initially wanted to photograph sports with many spectators across America but, shortly after I started working, the National Guard shot and killed students at Kent State University during a protest demonstration. The anti-war movement became more active and I started seeing my undertaking less as a sports documentary and more as a chronicle of America at a scary time in its history. What inspires you, other than war? I am inspired by great art: Mozart’s operas, Shakespeare’s works, Greek drama. It may seem strange recalling these immortal works when talking about black-and-white photographs, but the truth is that I am hoping that my photographs can at least reach an emotional tension that will resemble what I see in those works. Does Greece inspire you? Increasingly so, as I read Greek classical writers and think of the achievements of the Greek mind. Can somebody become an artist without traveling? Yes they can, in fact some photographer friends of mine claim that travel can distract you from trying to become a good photographer. The exhibition at the Xippas Gallery (53D Sophocleous, tel 210.331.9333) runs to November 20.