Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Paris Photo findings #2: Tod Papageorge, 'New York Nights' (UPDATED)

Tod Papageorge, New Year's Eve at Studio 54, 1978
(Now with more info about the work. Scroll down for the update)

"My first question, one that many photography people are curious about: what took you so long to publish a book?"

"The easy answer is that nobody asked me".

Too bad I did not take some shots myself, because the photographs by Tod Papageorge I have seen at Paris Photo are nowhere to be found on the Internet. On the outside wall of the booth of a gallery I cannot even remember (Pace/McGill? Not many of the exhibitors had Papageorge in their roster, and I had no luck on the fair's website looking for more info) there were perhaps twenty or more gorgeous black and white prints from the author of the 2009 Deutsche Boerse shortlisted Passing Through Eden, a series of pensive scenes of daily life inside Central Park from the late '70s.

During the same years Papageorge was photographing new yorkers chilling out in the green, he was also spending his nights in the exact opposite environment, the crazy parties of rich and spoiled VIP's attending the Studio 54. Those photographs became part of a wider body of work called New York Nights, and the selection at Paris Photo was focused on the famous disco club, with the beautifully flash-lit images arranged in a cloud of prints, showing all sorts of upper class debauchery with the most elegant kind of snapshots you can imagine.

Papageorge himself explained in an interview how he tried to merge the 35mm vibe with a higher level of plasticity of the image, inspired by the work of quintessential night-time wanderer Brassaï:

"I thought that the prints of his I’d seen at the 1968 MoMA retrospective described a kind of ideal photographic state between the more schematic drawing of the small 35 mm camera and the mechanical, exhaustive descriptiveness of large-format view cameras. It also seemed to me particularly apt for photographing people".

Tod Papageorge, New York Nights, Studio 54, 1977-78
In an another interview with Alec Soth Papageorge elaborates more on the subject: 

"T. S. Eliot coined the phrase “the disassociation of sensibility” to describe what he understood to be the separation, or even abyss, between feeling and intellect in John Doone’s poetry. What I felt I saw in Brassai’s photographs was a remarkable integration of those two things; in other words, a superb intellect unselfconsciously married to a profoundly sensuous apprehension of the world that expressed itself, in his photographs, as a perfect union of form and (dense literary) content. THAT’s what captivated me about his work, not sex per se, or sex perverse, but his great-hearted/great-minded reading of the physical world. I might add that, after seeing an exhibition of mine in Paris, his wife wrote to me to say that Brassai saw in me a “fils espiritual,” his spiritual son–a remark that I treasure."

There could not be a better way to explain that union of almost paparazzi-approach and richness of details and depth that Papageorge shows in those Studio 54 photographs, where the decadence of all those beautiful and intoxicated bodies looks almost like a dance, filled with grace and at the same time extremely unsettling and ultimately sad. Larry Fink did something similar with his party photographs, also shot with a combination of black and white and flash, but personally I don't think he ever reached the same level of intensity attained by Papageorge with his nights at the Studio 54.

So no chance to see them on the Internet, we were saying. Well there is one way: the Harvard Art Museums has a good selection of those photographs available for purchase or study, although the website only offers small thumbnails for preview. I haven't tried the procedure yet, but it is definitely worth going through filling some forms to try and have them sent to you to be able appreciate them, even if just on a computer screen.

Tod Papageorge, Metropolitan Museum of Art Opening, 1977

UPDATE - The gallery which showed Papageorge's Studio 54 installation at Paris Photo contacted me to provide some information about the work: Köln-based Galerie Thomas Zander presented an installation of 39 never-before-shown photographs made by Papageorge between 1978 and 1980 at Studio 54, which you can see in the photograph below as it was shown in Paris:

Tod Papageorge, Studio 54, New York, 1978-80
(installation by Galerie Thomas Zander at Paris Photo 2013)
© Tod Papageorge, courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne
From Papageorge's accompanying notes:

"Perhaps only photographers would be interested in this, but I think it’s relevant to note that all of this work was made with medium-format 6 X 9 cm cameras (which produce a 2 ¼” x 3 1/4“ negative), most of them with an early version of a machine that the manufacturer, Fujica, later developed into a popular model. This beta model, however, was relatively heavy in comparison to the later version and, even worse, had an extremely inaccurate viewfinder. That, along with the heavy flash that I attached to it to make these pictures, resulted in a process in which the odds seemed stacked against actually making good pictures... I wasn’t interested in using my smaller 35mm Leicas for this work, having been inspired ten years earlier by a retrospective exhibition of Brassai’s 1930s photographs—made with an early (Voitlander) version of a 6 X 9 cm camera—that I’d seen at the Museum of Modern Art. I hoped to capture in my own photographs something of the actuality of flesh and sweat and desire that I recognized in Brassai’s, and felt that this odd Japanese camera, for all of its problems, would be the best way that I could do it."

"Flesh and sweat and desire"

The more I learn about Papageorge, the more I like his work and his persona.

After all, he is the one who a few years ago said: “If your pictures are not good enough, you aren’t reading enough.” (via)

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