The Problem with Postmodernism

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I wrote a quick tribute yesterday to the late, great MoMA photo curator John Szarkowski. Today I got a comment worth highlighting from an important American photographer, Tod Papageorge, whose thoughts are of special interest because he’s one of the artists who works in the complex idiom that Szarkowski championed and clarified for the rest of us. I’ll call it, imperfectly, subjective street photography, though nearly all photography is to some degree subjective and this kind doesn’t have to take place in the streets. Passing Through Eden, the book Papageorge published this year, contains 25 years worth of pictures made in New York’s Central Park. And his next book, American Sports, 1970, which Aperture will publish next January, was shot in ballparks and stadiums.

Here’s Tod:

It IS impossible, at this point, to understand how profoundly [Szarkowski] shaped several generations of photographers, and even the rise of the art/photography gallery. Those Postmodernists you mention owe their very studios to John’s great influence as a eloquent promulgator of the notion of photography as an independent art–a fact that might surprise many of them even as it must have rankled John.

For years Papageorge has headed the graduate program in photography at the Yale School of Art. (Along the way he also managed to produce one of the most illuminating books about photography I ever read: Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence.) His little dig there at Postmodernism reminded me that last fall, in an interview with the omni-competent arts journalist Richard B. Woodward in Bomb, Papageorge offered a useful take on the problem with photographers who conceive a picture first, then construct it.

I think now that, in general—and this includes a lot of what I see in Chelsea even more than what I see from students at Yale—there’s a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination. This is an understanding that an earlier generation of students, and photographers, accepted as a first principle. Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form—typically a very large form. This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too.

Sure, things have to change, but photography-as-illustration, even sublime illustration, seems to me an uninteresting direction for the medium to be tracking now, particularly at such a difficult time in the general American culture. All in all, I think that there’s as much real discovery and excitement in the digital videos that my students at Yale are making as there is in the still photography I see either there or in New York, perhaps because the video camera, like the 35 mm camera 30 years ago, can be carried everywhere, and locks onto the shifting contradictions and beauties of the world more directly and unselfconsciously than many photographers now seem to feel still photography can, or should, do.

You can find the full interview here.

Final irony — At Yale Papageorge has counted among his students a number —  including Gregory Crewdson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Anna Gaskell and Katy Grannan — who have gone on to become very well known as practitioners of the staged photography that Papageorge doesn’t care for much. (Or in the case of Grannan and diCorcia, whose ingenious conflations of fiction and document I do like, maybe a better term would be “semi-staged”.) What can you do? Sometimes the kids just don’t grow up like the parents.

Central Park, 1981. Photo: Tod Papageorge/Courtesy of Pace MacGill Gallery