back download PDF

To Hell in a Hand Camera

Tim Davis
published in Todd Papageorge, American Sports, 1970

“Oh what a weekend. And that music. This was The Poseidon Adventure this weekend. This was. I’m gonna tell you, Dog. Game Seven. Kevin Brown. Johnny Damon. Smiling that side. We saw him smiling this side. But nothing in recent memory annoyed me as much as Kenny Rogers. I sat there and I said. You could have asked the Yankees…They thought to a man to a stadium to a state that they would beat the hell out Kenny Rogers that night. There is not a person in the world; there’s not a human who thought the Tigers were going to win…Some of these rats, they can’t leave the ship fast enough.”

Mike Francesa, opening monologue to “The Mike and the Mad Dog Show” WFAN, New York, October 9, 2006


Car bombs in three Iraqi cities killed nine people on Saturday and wounded dozens more, while the government gave its first official reckoning of the carnage in the northern city of Tal Afar this week.

The explosions on Saturday were in the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad; in Hilla, which is frequently hit by car bombings; and in the northern town of Tuz khormato, south of Kirkuk.

The Interior Ministry gave its first news conference about the killing in Tal Afar, announcing that the total number of dead was 152 with another 347 wounded. It appeared that the 152 included those killed in the initial truck bombing of a Shiite neighborhood and those killed in the subsequent reprisals.

A retaliatory rampage by Shiite police officers and gunmen after the bombings killed 47 Sunnis, said Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, who runs the Interior Ministry’s National Command Center, which tracks attacks across Iraq.”

New York Times, October 9, 2006


Since Dante, most of our artistic descents into Hell have been escalator rides. I blame opera, particularly Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which was written in the flush bucolic Mantuan court, and resolves its hero’s underworld arias into benevolent baroque major keys. In ancient texts, Orpheus wasn’t allowed to speak to his lost bride. But the mute have trouble singing, and so since Monteverdi, Hell has been a place for art making, for song. Orpheus barely appears in Dante’s Inferno. Sighted among the “philosophic family” in Limbo, he is mentioned only once. In fact, there are nearly no references to music in the Inferno, just the sullen wail of those drowning in the Styx, uttering, “This hymn they gurgle in their throats, for they cannot fully form the words.”[1]

What really makes Dante’s songless hell terrible is its bureaucracy. Humans are humans because they organize, and they organize to discipline and punish. In a cathedral of beautiful language and elaborate cognition, The Inferno charts the architecture of suffering. Line by line, we know poetry is the opposite of bureaucracy, but Hell, it turns out, is thorough enough to out-echo any canzone.

Photographers like poetry. I first read Robert Frost’s response to someone who wanted a poem better explained— “You want me to say it worse?”— in an essay by Robert Adams. And I encountered Robinson Jeffers’ sonnet "Does it matter whether you hate yourself? At least / Love your eyes that can see.” in a letter from Ansel Adams to Alfred Stieglitz. Photographers like the lyric because it is a short form, more immediate than painting and prose, and better at scraping zest from the present. And Tod Papageorge is the one photographer who has most vocally insisted that the process of making vital photographs is essentially poetic.

In his introductory essay to his friend and mentor Garry Winogrand’s Public Relations, Papageorge admits his youthful feel for life and art was governed by “Keats’ phrase ‘a vale of soul-making.’” He then tells us the way Winogrand, “the most unpoetical of men,” parted that Romantic veil with his rangy, energetic intelligence. His relationship with Winogrand defined for Papageorge a new poetics of photographic possibility. “The best poems are those with the right words in the right order; so are the best photographs those with the right objects in the right position,” he writes. In his seminal “Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence,” Papageorge maintains that the “stylistic exaggerations which occur in his [Frank’s] pictures serve only to retain that sense of resident wildness we recognize in great lyric poetry.”

Papageorge is clearing conceptual room for the dissonant, intuitive impulses of the hand camera practitioners who found their predecessor Cartier-Bresson’s staked-out, prettily designed visual analogies constrictively careful. The line from Bresson to Papageorge is an asymptote of increasing dissonance. On some level, modernity has meant learning to love dissonance. From the moment archaic sculptors figured to animate a block of alabaster by carving a smile in it, until Manet wiped that smile off the bartender at the Folies Bergere’s face, art was here to please, glorify, control, and perfect. Modernity is a Dantean inversion of that progress, a rolling adaptation of our ability to hear and accept imperfection, awkwardness, ugliness and pain.

“Look at the size of my ear; pour it on,” Frank Sinatra exhorts Pearl Bailey in “A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing.” And though Sinatra is not the artist we typically turn to to define progressive listening, I’d vote that motto onto Difficult Art’s dollar. Papageorge met Winogrand in 1966. In 1966 Bud Powell died and John Coltrane married Alice McCleod: figuring the funeral of jazz as a dance music; its betrothal to the outer limits of listenability.

If the internet withered into one tin can string leading to Dick Fontaine’s 1966 film, “Sound,” I’d gladly pay the monthlies. The film is no more than a primitive music video, but in it, John Cage, riding a merry-go-round, stares into the camera and asks, of music, “Does it communicate anything? Must it? Is it a sound? If so, is it music? Is music, the word I mean, is that a sound? If it is, is music music?” In crosscuts, Roland Kirk hands out plastic whistles to his audience and asks them, “What about a blues in W, baby? In the key of W?” We later find Kirk at the zoo, carrying a small child on his shoulders, playing the flute with falcons and tigers and wolves. The images are right out (either in parity or parody) of Winogrand’s The Animals, images of zoos he began by spending the day there with his children. It is 1966. The world is going wild.

O.K., I chose Sinatra for a reason. And Frost, and Jeffers. There is something in Papageorge’s poetics that reads conservative. The poets he quotes in order to define the loosening pictorial structure in Winogrand and Frank are not their noisy, difficult contemporary analogues: Fluxus, John Ashbery’s cut-up Tennis Court Oath, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson’s Projective Verse. There are graduate theses for the taking in coupling Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which took the streets of New York as a randy amateur theatrical, with Winogrand’s horny, cracked-open proscenia: blues in the key of W.

But Papageorge wants to find a generous, speakable –almost moral— lyric in the increasingly atonal screech of street photography. He wants ballet where there is mostly Merce. In 1912, Jacques Henri Lartigue mentions an inventor falling to his death from the Eiffel Tower while trying to perfect a parachute: "I wasn't there, what a pity for my photographs.”[2] This assessment marks the very moment when the hand camera tradition diverted from the ethical, functional practice of view camera street photography, from Charles Marville and John Thompson to Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. It tells us that the lyric “I” is hurtling to a spectacular death, and that the street below will gladly go to pieces to watch it fall.

Tod Papageorge has made a series of street images that feels governed by a rational, lyrical, less diverted tone. They aren’t in this book. His pictures of Central Park in Passing Through Eden, made with a medium format 6x9” camera rather than the requisite, rangy Leica, are solid and clear, often involving a single subject, generously, almost languidly placed in the frame. Papageorge’s energy is desirous, say, toward the characters he tends to track, but his tack is charm rather than Winogrand’s hard-on or Frank’s awe. The prints are luminous and full toned, seeming more geared to the museum wall than the printed page.

I can’t help noticing how much his Central Park pictures resemble later work by a species of photographer Papageorge is famous for having influenced as a teacher, but not, we hear, as a photographer. The singularity of figures in medium-format Papageorge; their comfortable, assured placement in the frame; the glowy, rigorously specific light describe a devotion to cinematic mise-en-scene that clearly influenced P.L. DiCorcia —and, by proxy, the armies of staged-person-in-room-ophiles who have imitated him. Though diCorcia’s urge is to deaden and empty, and Papageorge’s is to slather with honey and stare, both made thorough, careful, resolved pictures with “the right objects in the right position,” pictures with solid frames and characters who are so studiously observed they feel set in scene. The grammar of these photographs, and through it, the formal vocabulary of the photographers Papageorge has taught at Yale, is rational and clear and humane; reminding us, as Borges does that “There is nothing more human (that is, less mineral, vegetal, animal, and even angelical) than grammar.”[3]

***

I mentioned hell for a reason. By 1970, the United States’ aggression in Vietnam had turned obliquely on its own citizens. The January ’70 issue of “Washington Monthly” reported on an enormous government surveillance program against American activists. Senator Sam Ervin was quoted, saying, "Apparently anyone who in the Army's definition was 'left of center' was a prospective candidate for political surveillance."

In 1970, Tod Papageorge received a Guggenheim Fellowship only eight years after first picking up a camera. Only four years after insisting on the lyric motivation for street photographic practice, he seems, in these pictures, under the sway of elastic-sentence-writing Walt Whitman:

“Poet! beware lest your poems are made in the spirit that comes from the study of pictures of things and not from the spirit that comes from the contact with real things themselves." [4]

The broken, damning photographs in this book pour enormous draughts of venom into the photographic frame. They aren’t lyrical, stagy, or solid. Nothing cozy—or ornery either—in Robert Frost comfortably glosses them. They are difficult and enraged, and derive their casting, awkward forms from no previous pictures of things, but from a dire need to describe the suppressed rage arcing through the American populace. They are Tod Papageorge’s descent into American Hell, and, as in Dante, there is little room for song here. The pictures remind us how pathologically prose-like photographs are. Every photograph is a block of text, an artificially imposed parallelogram on the strewn corpses of the world, capturing background and weather, ligament and fat, as well as meat and bone: “The Scrollwork on the Casket” the poet Jack Spicer called it. [5] Even the most controlled studio images are almost entirely composed of accidental information, down in the details and at the reaches of the frame. Like Hell, prose is bureaucratic, maintaining a nominative balance that allows out of control information to echo in its confines.

American Sports should have been introduced by Herman Melville, who wrote prose in great, swaying ship holds of information; who took the etymology of “kilter” —listed in every dictionary as ‘origin unknown’— to his forgotten, suburban grave in the Bronx. Charles Olson, in “Letter for Melville 1951” wrote, “this beast hauled up out of great water was society.” [6] Papageorge packs Melvillian stores of monstrous information into this book, and the pictures are similarly gaffed. They appear to hang from a hook. In Winogrand, the unorthodox tilt of the frame feels pointed and deliberate. Winogrand is always saying Let me show you what I can do. In American Sports, off-kilter isn’t a style, it is the only way to measure a world so embarrassingly misaligned.

Papageorge’s unsteadycam tracks nuns, burghers, ragamuffins, debutantes and clowns, stars and hangers on, goons and garden party geese, a robust spectrum of classes, as they take part in America’s most persistent birthright: the divertissement. Americans are praised and damned for being a pious nation. But I don’t see it. Even in the bible belt, where there is a chapel on every street corner, in every strip mall, “Church,” George Carlin reminds us, is “a place we gather once a week to compare clothing.” Our real right religion is daily life. Americans are satellite dishes, built to be ingest entertainment, and no matter how hideously we export our own brutality, we will never expect war to interrupt our commute. The U.S. Government could end our troubles in the middle east in a month, by pulling out and leaving TVs, dishes, and DSL in every home. 9/11 was so paradigm-cracking, not because we are horrified at our citizens dying (Oklahoma City lasted just a few news cycles), but because it was the day most Americans realized “E Pluribus Unum” didn’t mean “It Can’t Happen Here.”

Papageorge was not a likely candidate for social critic. He does not lack disdain for what Cornell Capa called “concerned photography,” and, in an email to me, admitted, “I REALLY had no particular 'feeling' for what I was photographing beyond needing to set it down into rattlingly dense pictures whose design might both incorporate the social madness of the moment and suggest art's perennial solution, perfect form.” His species of reticence to adopt a pat journalistic position made Papageorge this Hell’s ideal Orpheus.

You can look at any work of art and parse out how it celebrates the culture it comes from, and how it criticizes it. I cannot think of a great work of art that does not wrestle with both. Papageorge has described his inner atmosphere during this project as “A perfect storm, or confluence, of dislike, distance (coolness) and desire,” and the pictures feel equally desired and disgusted, like an underdog boxer being propped up by the man about to knock him out. Winogrand also photographed sports—American football and rodeo—and was eternally entranced by the bad ballet on the field. Papageorge’s pictures do celebrate movement (looking back on these images it is startling how few contemporary art photographers employ the camera to stop motion) but American Sports damns as it feints and praises, and its target is the audience.

This Orpheus looks steadfastly away from sport, his expected Eurydice. And he refuses to sing. Instead a dire dissonant roar rumbles across the frame as Americans slouch about their business getting entertained. As their war in Southeast Asia was expanding into Cambodia and Laos, the Americans in this book appear to be turning their own country into an enormous DMZ, a scarred stadium of grotesque pathological misdirected rage. We know from art history that the most popular spectator sport of the last few millennia has been public execution. See the riled crowds at ten thousand Crucifixions; the horizons in Netherlandish paintings of reaping and mowing dotted with Catherine Wheels and gallows.

We know from literature that sport itself has long inspired bellicose reactions. Patroklus’ funeral, in Book 23 of the Iliad, turns into a nasty set of games, with Menelaus trying to drive Antilochus’ chariot off the road; and rowdy crowds taunting shotputters with laughter.

Epictetus in his 1st century Discourses reminds us:

There are unpleasant and difficult things in life. And do they not happen at Olympia? Do you not swelter? Are you not cramped and crowded? Do you not bathe with discomfort? Are you not drenched whenever it rains? Do you not have your fill of tumult and shouting? But I fancy that you hear and endure all by balancing it off against the memorable character of the spectacle. [7]

Sport is a pantomime of war, and even during peacetime, we beg its stresses back into our lives. Buying mortgages in the padded cell of Western consumer culture has turned us all into what I call horrorists. Terrorists enact violence on the lives of others; horrorists fill their empty lives with ritualized violence: slasher films, roller coasters, 24-hour news, sport. Elias Canetti, in Crowds and Power, writes, “To the crowd in its nakedness everything seems a Bastille.” [8] The masses in AMERCIAN SPORTS hold all the horrorist’s contradictions deep in their awkward straining postures. They feel they are storming the Bastille; they know they are at the baseball game.

I chose “Mike and the Mad Dog” for a reason. And its crosstown rival, The New York Times. That Americans’ pleasure-hording daily lives are perilously out of register with its government’s public policy has never diminished. What has diminished is the photographer’s willingness to address the issue. Fine photojournalism hovers over the money shots of the world’s suffering, filling out unchanging Magnum-derived forms, in triplicate. The photographer Eric Gottesman calls this the “Flies in the Eyes” school. Watching the film “War Photographer,” having to witness the jittery, immediate, palpable, camera-mounted video resolve into familiar Nachtwey after overfamiliar Nachtwey, I’ve never felt so disappointed by photography.

Art photography has largely pursued the opposite tack: moving to the suburbs and producing grand tableaux of our alienation and its magical underbelly; or doing as the Dusseldorfers do and standing back in the pretense any photograph can be taken from a neutral position. American Sports has arrived here, three decades late but just in time, to remind us how to descend into Hell. Papageorge acts as Orpheus, Virgil and Dante. He keeps his mouth closed and his eyes open. He leads us with confidence through this tiered tower of America’s embarrassing credulity, but never masks the fear that splits open the pictures’ forms, keeping them relevant. We are in Canto XI, standing above “The outrageous stench/ Thrown up in excess by the deep abyss,” and Dante is so pleased by Virgil’s ability to answer his questions that he admits, “Doubting pleases me as much as knowing.” [9]

 

***

[1]Dante, Inferno. Duling, Robert, trans. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1996.

[2]Lartigue, Jacques Henry, Diary of A Century. Avedon, Richard, ed. New York, NY, Viking Press. 1970.

[3] Borges, Jorge Luis, from "Investigation of the
Word" The Total Library, Penguin, 1999.

[4] Bucke, Richard Maurice, Notes and Fragments left by Walt Whitman an d now edited by Richard Bucke. rpt. Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions, 1972.

[5]Spicer, Jack. “The Scrollwork on the Casket” from One Night Stand & Other Poems. San Francisco, CA: Grey Fox Press, 1980.

[6] Olson, Charles, The Collected Poems of Charles Olson. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987.

[7] Epictetus, The Discourses. Oldfather, W.A, trans. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1928.

[8] Canetti, Elias, Crowds and Power. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

[9] Dante, Inferno, Mandelbaum. Allen, trans. New York: Bantam Books, 1982