Tod Papageorge, Dr. Blankman’s New York

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Steidl (here). Clothbound hardcover (10×11 inches), 136 pages, with 62 color images. Includes an afterword by David Campany. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tod Papageorge was 25 and a newcomer to New York City when he took the color photographs in this book. A series of random but focused observations made by a young man on foot, as interpreted through the lens of a 35 mm Leica, these are the edited memories of a much older man looking back at 1966 and 1967, a period when, as the 78-year old writes on the Steidl website, “thoughts of assassination, the ‘summer of love,’ and the war in Vietnam were as common as the weather.”

Although none of the pictures here overtly refers to those newsworthy events, Papageorge has organized his photographic impressions with these themes in mind. They are inevitably a partial view. He shows us only those parts of the city that he chose to explore from the public sidewalk or park pathway. Only the final photograph in the book, a view out of a darkened apartment window at a section of a pale gray classical façade, was taken indoors. Store fronts and shop windows are the subjects of about half the pictures; the other half are animated by the actions, gestures, and postures of people on the street.

He had never shot in photographed in color before and the Kodachrome 25 film that he chose—in order to fill out a carousel of slides that he hoped (incorrectly) would impress magazine editors—provided deep tonal saturation at the expense of speed or lighting latitude. I detect only one or two nighttime pictures. He seems to have rejected the option of flash.

How many exposures he made during this period, from which he has culled 62 for the book, he doesn’t say; nor does he identify any of the places where or dates when they were taken. Instead, he has carefully sequenced images (one per two-page spread) so they connect with each other via motifs that repeat as you turn the pages, pictures begetting pictures subliminally.

For instance, in the first of a group of photographs early in the book, a man and woman waiting outside the darkened entrance to a theater exhibiting The Swinger (1966) (on 42nd Street?) are dwarfed by cardboard cutouts of the movie’s female star Ann Margret in a leopard-print bikini and her smaller-sized but bare-chested co-star Tony Franciosa.

The next photograph depicts a store window crammed with a set of discordant commercial messages. A pair of bare women’s legs perched on a ladder is the most prominent feature. These truncated limbs are here for no apparent reason. They stand next to a Kodak ad, featuring the iconic yellow box of film and a white-bordered color photograph of a smiling young white couple running through a field of flowers. The happy man and woman are next to what may be an ad (it’s only a partial view) for a bank or credit union. We see only a dollar sign and the letters “Satis—“.

This still-life is followed by a close-up of a self-absorbed couple ignoring each other in what is probably Central Park on a sunny day. A young woman in a lavender mini-dress is reclining on the grass while dreamily sucking on the petals of an iris in her hand. Her male companion, in jeans and jacket and black-rimmed glasses, has his head in a newspaper. He is also holding the purple bloom, albeit more absently.

Following this trio of photographs is the clincher: an enormous and lubricious hot dog and bun, dripping gouts of mustard. This hand-painted ad on a white wall of a commercial building—the cropped lettering above implies that the brand is in Coney Island—is old-fashioned, a vestige of merchandising from an earlier era, although hardly a more innocent one.

As a sequence, the images convey how sex is always in the air in urban American culture, overtly to sell movie stars or food, and in a more sanitized form, to sell products like Kodak film or consumer banking. Photographic reproduction plays a vital role in this process and interacts with other elements in unforeseen ways.

Only when editing these images (and not at the time they were taken) is it likely that Papageorge realized how a sexploitation movie marquee in Times Square had a punning kinship with the ad campaign for Polaroid’s Swinger, the first inexpensive instant camera and film, introduced in 1965; or that the fragment of the banking sign he glimpsed might allude to the Rolling Stones, whose massive radio hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was released in the U.S. in 1965.

Photography vacuums up information indiscriminately, subconsciously, and freezes it; only later can many of the complex social signals that the camera recorded and framed as a still image be thawed out and the associations explicated through a kind of historical psychoanalysis.

The Americans seems to have served as a structural model for Dr. Blankman’s New York. Just as Robert Frank used jukeboxes, crucifixes, hats, TVs, and motorcycles to unite his diverse reactions to the sprawl of a huge and foreign country, so has Papageorge selected images of flowers (the media symbols of the hippies), fruit, ice cream, shopping, hair care, fur coats, large dogs, and adults with small children as threads to hold together his book and to make sense, in retrospect, of his reactions to the overwhelming stimuli of New York.

Walker Evans and Stuart Davis in the 1930s were among the first to be alert to the role of advertising in promoting the consumer society. They liked that the incongruous, often surreal collisions between text and image could create a third kind of energy, seemingly easy to read but just as often opaque. The pictorial curiosity and bemusement they felt was shared by Pop artists in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Papageorge belongs to and extends that tradition. The sorts of places and things he photographed are mainly the same as those beloved by Atget, Abbott, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Levitt, Klein, Frank, Faurer, Meyerowitz, Ghirri, Eggleston, Winogrand, Friedlander, and many others.

It was his new NYC friends Meyerowitz and Winogrand who encouraged Papageorge to venture into color, a medium that the former already felt entirely at ease with and that tantalized the latter, even if he could never entirely commit himself to its seductive challenges. (Winogrand’s color work, reproduced piecemeal since his death in 1984, will soon get its own monograph, edited by Susan Kismaric and Michael Almereyda.)

Color for Papageorge was a passing fancy that he did not embrace again until more than 40 years later. In editing together these disparate occasions, he has used as binding agents the yellow of NY taxis, Kodak ads, and flowers and, to a lesser extent, shades of red. For the most part, he favors naturalistic rather than boldly expressive color. One can’t help wondering, though, if he has also wondered what he would have lost or gained if his camera had been loaded with monochromatic film.

Papageorge, like Evans, took up photography in earnest after college when he decided he could not fulfill his original artistic ambitions to be a writer. Evans went to Paris with aspirations of becoming a novelist but unwisely measured himself against the crushing example of James Joyce; Papageorge was a published poet when he arrived in New York but had chosen, according to David Campany’s afterword, an equally formidable role model in Robert Lowell.

It’s interesting that Lowell in these years published Near the Ocean (1967), a book brimming with his rage against LBJ and America’s lawless persecution of the Vietnam War. Widely panned at the time, the book has since been elevated in stature, with the final poem, “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” now considered one of his greatest. The last stanza is often quoted:

        “Pity the planet, all joy gone

          From this sweet, volcanic cone;

          Peace to our children when they fall

          in small war on the heels of small

          war—until the end of time

          to police the earth, a ghost

          orbiting forever lost

          to our monotonous sublime.” 

Restricted to images rather than words and sentences, and to an artistic creed that allowed him to photograph only what he found in the world rather than whatever dramatic scenarios he could imagine and construct in a studio or darkroom, Papageorge must have frustrated himself trying to conveying photographs his own bitterness and worry about the political leadership of the day. (He was still prime material for the draft.)

Although it’s doubtful anyone could view this book, then or now, as an anti-American protest on a scale with Lowell’s soaring rhetoric, the photographer has ingeniously edited his old material to bring out latent messages that were there, even if he may not have been fully cognizant of them at the time.

The word Vietnam appears in these pages only once, on a leather jacket worn by a young man. He is standing in a group looking down at the seal pool in Central Park on a cold, sunny day. Snow is on the ground. From his cropped haircut, he may be a soldier on leave. The words “Chu-Lai Vietnam” on his back no doubt refer to the air base operated by the U.S. Marines near the DMZ from 1965-70.

Papageorge follows this photograph with one even more apparently benign, of a vegetable stand overflowing with produce. Only on close inspection, below the oranges covered by a hand-written sign (“2 for 25 cents”) can one read the words on an advertising ticker: “FRESH KILLED TUR-“.

The next photograph in the sequence is an unnamed storefront, the left half of which is a pitch-black interior. At the entrance to this netherworld is a wedge-shaped ramp painted the color of dried blood. In the photograph that follows, of an anxious boy in a captain’s cap riding on the shoulders of his anxious father, we can read Papageorge’s thoughts about the human cost of the war across generations.

Would he have chosen these same 62 images in 1970, or perceived then all of the possible connections he sees now? Could a 25 year-old have edited them together to make a lasting critical statement about the chaotic era he was living through?

Probably not. Dr. Blankman’s New York is about death, war and flower power only after the fact. That doesn’t detract from the book’s conniving subtleties. Photographs don’t have fixed meanings. The best ones contain multitudes and resist glib or pat translation. They can be re-read profitably decades after they were taken. Papageorge was probably as surprised in opening his old boxes of Kodak slides, as most of his viewers will be leafing through these pages, that these images of New York in the ’60s have retained such potency. He should also feel vindicated in making the right career choice. As fine a critic and teacher of other photographers as he has proven himself to be over several decades, he has never ceased to be a poet.

Collector’s POV: Tod Papageorge is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York (here), Galerie Thomas Zander in Cologne (here), and Michael Hoppen Gallery in London (here). Papageorge’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary market in the past decade. Recent prices have ranged between $1000 and $6000.

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