Introductory essay for American Sports, 1970, or How We Spent the Vietnam War. Aperture, 2007
“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.
New York Times, October 9, 2006
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.”
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 Baroque underworld arias into benevolent
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, though, 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.” 
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 feel that poetry is the opposite of bureaucracy, though
Dante’s plan for Hell, it turns out, is daunting enough to amplify
and distort any canzone. Such a disciplinarian system causes the
most virulent, intuitive information -poetry-to echo in its confines.
We live in a horrible world. We adore its every detail.
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 particularly like lyric
poetry because it is a short form, more immediate than painting
and prose, and better at scraping zest from the present. And the
photographer who has most vocally insisted that the process of making
vital photographs is essentially lyric is Tod Papageorge.
In his introductory essay to his friend and mentor Garry Winogrand’s
Public Relations, Papageorge reveals 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. And 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 discomforting, 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 this increasing visual discord. 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 face of the bartender at the Folies Bergere, art was made to please, glorify, control, and perfect. What followed was an 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 and its betrothal to the outer limits of listenability.
Dick Fontaine’s 1966 film, “Sound,” is no more than a primitive music video, but in it, John Cage, riding a merry-go-round, stares into the camera and asks, “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, a project he began while spending Sundays in zoos he began 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 a bit moderate.
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 saw the streets of New York as a randy amateur theatrical,
with Winogrand’s horny, cracked-open proscenia: blues in the key
Throughout his writing, Papageorge’s hears in the increasingly atonal screech of street photography a generous, speakable almost moral—lyric. He wants ballet where there is mostly Merce. In 1912, Jacques Henri Lartigue mentions in his diary 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.” This glamorous self-assessment marks the very moment when the evolving practice of hand camera photography diverted from the functional street practice of the view camera that can be traced from Charles Marville and John Thompson to Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. It tells us that the rational, fully-functioning street image is hurtling to a spectacular death, and that the crowd below will gladly go to pieces to watch it fall.
Tod Papageorge did make a series of New York photographs that feels
governed by a more lyrical, controlled, less diverted tone. They
aren’t in this book. His pictures of Central Park, gathered in Passing
Through Eden (Steidl, 2007), and made with a medium format
6x9 cm. camera rather than the requisite, rangy Leica, are solid
and clear, often involving a single subject, generously, almost
languidly, placed in the frame. Unlike Winogrand’s hard-on or Frank’s
awe, or even the bilious, easily-excitable appetite on display in
these pages, Papageorge’s tack in Central Park is charm, as his
luminous full-toned prints of this work, emanating ardor, dazzlingly
I can’t help noticing how much these 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 photographers who have
imitated him, using larger formats and even more elaborate
staging. Though DiCorcia’s urge is to deaden and empty, and Papageorge’s
is to slather with honey and stare, both have made thorough, careful,
resolved pictures with “the right objects in the right position,”
pictures with solid frames and characters who, though pulled straight
from the world with a minimum of mediation, are so studiously observed
they feel enacted. The syntax 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.”
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, quoting Senator Sam Ervin as saying, "Apparently anyone who in the Army's definition was 'left of center' was a prospective candidate for political surveillance." And “Kent State” is an anagram for “Test Taken,” the test the U.S. government flunked badly enough in May of that year to drive the antiwar movement into the mainstream.
In April, 1970, Tod Papageorge received a Guggenheim Fellowship, only eight years after first picking up a camera. Trained with a poeticizing proclivity, Papageorge headed into battle with American sports culture armed with undeniably impulsive, if not acidic, energies. He seems, in these pictures, under the sway of Walt Whitman, who was more interested in experience than expression:
“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." 
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, even the most controlled studio image, is a block of text, a parallelogram clamped on its ostensible subjects, significantly composed of accidental information, down in the details and at the reaches of the frame. The pictures in American Sports are 35mm. paragraphs that capture background and weather, ligament and fat, as well as meat and bone, even as they ride on their innovative grammar and intent observation. Crowds sprawl to the horizon, pulsing like light drawn into a black hole. But around them, the stadium buildings and parking lots are as well-seen and ill-thought-of as the crowds themselves, tacky pageantry resolving into cinder blocks, drop ceilings, I-beams, and weeds. Papageorge is building a system in this book to contain his ire, and though it is a system of rolling, sometimes atonal, complexities, the system is drawn from top to bottom of frame, and from first picture to last, inexhaustible and omnipresent—a hellish bureaucracy.
American Sports should have been introduced by Franz Kafka, who
knew how to sequence set-pieces of draining bureaucratic drama.
Or by Herman Melville, who wrote prose in great, swaying ship holds
of information, taking the etymology of “kilter” —listed in every
dictionary as ‘origin unknown’— to his forgotten, suburban grave
in the Bronx. In American Sports, off-kilter is the only
way to measure a world so embarrassingly misaligned.
In “Letter for Melville 1951” Charles Olson wrote of Moby Dick that, “this beast hauled up out of great water was society.”  The pictures are similarly gaffed. They appear to hang from a hook. Papageorge’s anxious camera tracks cheerleaders, 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. We are satellite dishes, built to ingest entertainment, and no matter how hideously we export our own brutality, we never expect war to interrupt our commute.
Papageorge was not a likely candidate for social engaged photographer. He did 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 refusal to adopt a pat journalistic position made him 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. While his pictures do celebrate movement (looking back on these images it is startling to realize how few contemporary art photographers employ the camera to stop motion) 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 the business of getting entertained. While their war in Southeast Asia expands into Cambodia and Laos, the citizens in this book appear to be turning their own country into an enormous DMZ, a scarred stadium of misdirected rage.
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 own lives with ritualized violence: slasher films, roller
coasters, video games, 24-hour news, sport. Elias Canetti, in Crowds
and Power, writes, “To the crowd in its nakedness everything seems
a Bastille.”  The masses in American 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
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. And, as Epictetus in his 1st century Discourses reminds
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.
I chose “Mike and the Mad Dog” for a reason. And its crosstown rival, The
New York Times. That Americans’ spectacle-hoarding daily lives
are perilously out of register with their government’s public policy
has never diminished. What has diminished is the photographer’s
willingness to address the issue. Fine photojournalism now hovers
over the money shots of the world’s suffering, responding to unfolding
tragedies with ever-familiar graphic forms, filled out in triplicate.
Art photography has largely pursued the opposite course: 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 that 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.
 Dante, Inferno. Duling, Robert, trans.
New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1996.
 Lartigue, Jacques Henry, Diary of A Century. Avedon,
Richard, ed. New York, NY, Viking Press. 1970.
 Borges, Jorge Luis, from "Investigation of the Word" The
Total Library, Penguin, 1999.
 Bucke, Richard Maurice, Notes and Fragments left by Walt
Whitman and now edited by Richard Bucke. rpt. Folcroft, PA:
Folcroft Library Editions, 1972.
 Olson, Charles, The Collected Poems of Charles Olson.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987.
 Epictetus, The Discourses. Oldfather, W.A, trans. Cambridge,
MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1928.
 Canetti, Elias, Crowds and Power. New York, NY: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1984.