Former Yale School of Art cinematographer captures the grace and tension of the 1960s in a new exhibition

The exhibition “War & Peace in New York” by 81-year-old photographer Tod Papageorge presents previously unseen photographs taken between 1966 and 1971.

Danielle Sanchez

12:17 a.m., January 27, 2022

Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander

In a solo exhibition entitled “War & Peace in New York” at the Galerie Thomas Zander, Tod Papageorge, photographer and former director of photography at the Yale School of Art, presents an unpublished series of street photographs taken between 1966 and 1971. Filled with spontaneous movements and unresolved tensions, the works capture the restless, unease energy of the Vietnam War and daily public life in the city.

The exhibition opened on November 6, 2021 at Galerie Thomas Zander in Cologne, Germany, and is on view until February 19. The series of photographs are separated into two parts – “Down to the City” and “The dear common ground” — which will be published by Steidl in the form of books each containing 146 photographs. The exhibition features 22 photos from each series.

“When the images were photographed, they were made as a continuum of responses,” Papageorge said. “The two sons [“Down to the City” and “The Dear Common Ground”] was born from my efforts of 80 years. I was interested in the 25 year old version of me who took the photos and tried to figure out who I was at the time.

The artist said he needed all the time the pandemic gave him to make sense of the work and find the two threads that allowed him to separate them into two books.

“To the cityaligns in spirit with the “war” side of the exhibition and “The Dear Common Groundaligns with peace.” Papageorge’s general psychological state at the time the photographs were taken was intense, an intensity which he says informed both books. He had an obsession with both becoming an artist and the political climate which seemed oppressive and endless.

The photographs themselves manifest this fervor with spontaneity and a sense of continuous movement. Papageorge is able to pause the moments it captures, but the resonance of each photo continues to evolve.

“From his work, you feel like the world is moving and the photographer is freezing that movement in a complicated way,” said Lisa Kereszi, director of undergraduate art studies. “They feel like they were taken yesterday.”

The exhibit features vivid street scenes of the tense socio-political climate, pro and anti-war protests as well as images projecting the disturbed American spirit generated by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of American political figures such as John F Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The melodrama in Papageorge’s works is palpable.

“Even five decades after the photographs were taken, they still seem startling and relevant in both their visual language and their subject matter due to their unresolved tension,” said Frauke Breede, executive assistant and artist liaison at Thomas Zander Gallery. “The best art keeps its mystery.”

In one image, a group of Black Panthers march down the street with physical grace as passers-by part to give them way. The eye contact they make with the camera communicates a tacit understanding between the photographer and the subjects. In another photograph, a white woman reads “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver and stares intently at the photographer with a look that echoes sympathy for black Americans and the times, as if Papageorge and the woman are seeing remains of themselves into each other. It is through this frozen transience that Papageorge recounts the human condition at that time.

“Where the art in the New York photographs is so elusive, it’s almost a kind of sublime,” said senior critic and professor at the John C. Pilson School of Art. “The works are literary.

In fact, Papageorge said the two books not only reflect two psychological conditions, but are also carefully sequenced. He organized them narratively in a novelistic manner, similar to other publications such as Robert Frank’s “The Americans”.

The images themselves evolve into more complex frames containing converging lines and shapes that, according to Kereszi, resemble puzzle pieces.

Papageorge majored in English at the University of New Hampshire and didn’t start taking pictures until 1962 during his final semester. He was moved by works like those of 20th-century French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson that captured the poetry he had tried to write without the agony of stringing the words together. According to Papageorge, photography is in many ways like making poetry through a medium of exact description.

Garry Winogrand, who became his mentor during this time and was himself influenced by Papageorge, said: “I photograph to know what something photographed will look like. Those words have stuck with Papageorge and are evident through his most recent efforts to discern what he was obsessed with capturing years ago.

In a sense, these books are the artist’s manifesto, capturing his evolution.

“This work has waited 50 years for Papageorge to give it its final form,” said Pilson.

The exhibition also features a series of color photographs taken between 1966 and 1967 entitled “Dr. Blankman’s New York”.

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