Blasts from the Past

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Shea Stadium, New York, Tod Papageorge, 1970 / Photo: TOD PAPAGEORGE

Not long ago Aperture published American Sports, 1970, a collection of photographs that Tod Papageorge took at various games that happened to be taking place at the height of the Vietnam era. (For one thing, 1970 was the year of Kent State.) None of them are what you would find on the typical sports page. Police and security guards keep popping into the frame. The players dispose themselves in odd ways. Even the cheerleaders start looking a little paramilitary. Not all of the images have a sinister cast, as you can tell from the one above, which as much as anything has to do with how wonderfully complicated the world can look, how it’s full of little isoscoles pleasures. But it’s a book of accumulating incidents, and in a lot the images there’s a sense of low grade anxiety seeping into scenes where you might not expect to find it. It’s a book that invites close attention and rewards it.

Meanwhile Aperture has re-issued the Robert Adams classic from 1974, The New West. This was the book that represented a decisive turning away from the romanticization of Western landscape epitomized by Ansel Adams. At a moment when it was becoming plain that sprawl was re-making the foothills and plains, (Robert) Adams pointed a dry-eyed gaze over all those ugly subdivisions, wan suburban settlements that look like the ghost towns of tomorrow. I remember when I first saw the book thinking that this guy was brave simply to look at this stuff, much less to propose it to other people as the proper subject of a picture. We now understand that it was the work of a fierce aesthetic and moral imagination.

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Photo: ROBERT ADAMS/APERTURE

I like something from the introduction to that book by the late John Szarkowski, who was then the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Though Robert Adams’s book assumes no moral postures, it does have a moral. It’s moral is that the landscape is, for us, the place we live. If we have used it badly, we cannot therefore scorn it, without scorning ourselves. If we have abused it, broken its health, and erected upon it memorials to our ignorance, it is still our place, and it before we can proceed we must learn to love it. As Job perhaps began again by learning to love his ash pit.

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Photo: ROBERT ADAMS/APERTURE

I was getting ready to write this post yesterday when I happened to be contacted by Eric Etheridge, who operates an indispensable photo blog. (Which I’ll be adding to my blogroll on the next update.) He wanted me to know that he’s provided a download on his site for a Papageorge essay from 2002 about Adams. Essential reading.

Meanwhile, to close this loop, I wrote about Papageorge last summer.

And here’s a link to another part of Etheridge’s blog where you can download a Papageorge essay on the influence of Walker Evans on Robert Frank, a piece that stayed with me for years after I first came across it.

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