Tod Papageorge and the ‘truth’ of photography


Tod Papergeorge is one of the most insightful photographers around. Interviewed by Mark Durden for foto8 last November (I’m catching up on some reading while snowed in), he offered some interesting views on photography, documentary and truth.

Photo: Tod Papergeorge, ‘Central Park, 1978’

Durden asked Papageorge if he thought his work was part of what John Szarkowski called the New Documents:

New Documents was an effective title for that exhibition, but none of the photographers included in it—Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander—nor any other photographers I knew at that time, would have used the word “documentary” to describe what they were doing in their work. If nothing else, Robert Frank’s The Americans had taken care of that by defining an aesthetic that depended on poetic transformation, rather than an (apparently) literal fealty to a series of facts.

As for me, my initial introduction to serious photography occurred in 1962, when I discovered a couple of early pictures of Cartier-Bresson’s while taking a college course in basic photography. They convinced me, literally on the spot, to be a photographer—and not because I had an itch to document this or that aspect of the world. I saw these pictures as poetry, Cartier-Bresson as a prodigious poet, and photography as a way to possibly do something roughly in the same camp.

Later in the interview, Durden asked Papageorge to expand on his statement (made in Papageorge’s essay on Gary Winogrand) that while photography pictures the world it does not follow that it has a moral responsibility to it. Was this not contrary to writers like Susan Sontag and other critics, said Durden:

It’s always been puzzling to me that capacious minds like Sontag’s, to say nothing of those of almost every art historian, look at a photograph and see not a picture, but the literal world held in their palm. With that, they’re revealing themselves to be no more sophisticated than the proverbial tribesman who believes that a photograph made of him steals a piece of his soul. There seems to be no cure for this universal form of innocence, or ignorance, but it is, to put it mildly, frustrating to spend years working as a photographer and writer about photography and realise that this misunderstanding is as prevalent today as it was the day I first saw those Cartier-Bresson photographs—and recognised them as picture-poems.

You mention Genet and writing, a good parallel. Let’s say that the young Sontag reads the front page of the Times, and then turns to Our Lady of the Flowers, both experiences generated by black marks on a page, yet utterly different in their intention and, presumably, effect. Is it so difficult for her not to see, then, that the photographs on that front page are similarly different from the Diane Arbus portraits she’s thinking of writing about?

For Papageorge, failing to appreciate the differences between news photographs and those of Arbus, Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand and others was the product of a philosophical error:

…Sontag (and legions of French critics and their progeny) was tarring photography with a tired brush, based on a much older relationship that obtained between pictures and moral lessons, and the unexamined belief that the pictures themselves were in some way at least related to the literal truth.

Of course, semiotics teaches us, if we needed the reminder, that a photograph represents a physical trace of the world, and therefore exists in an ontological space quite different from that of any of the non-filmic arts. I don’t buy that argument: ontologically, a photograph is a unique kind of picture, but a picture nonetheless, one that has radically transformed the piece of the world it describes, whether for artistic or journalistic or any other ends, but (obviously) has not transported it out of its picture-state into some nebulous truth-state.

I don’t want to draw any big conclusions at this point, other than to say that we need to think carefully about how Papageorge’s statements impact on the desire for photographs as documents. If work understood as ‘documentary’ is better appreciated as ‘poetic’, what are the implications of this for truth claims based on pictures?

6 Responses to “Tod Papageorge and the ‘truth’ of photography”

  1. Carlos Cazalis

    I have to say that this diatribe on what photography is supposed to be and what label it needs to carry in order to be identified or polished and then classified is really destructive to the medium. Documentary, photojournalism, war photography, art or fashion photography is all the same, they are documents, visual images of what each person with a camera lives, experience or wishes to frame for us to see. What is further done with the compilation of images or image and set on stage by a curator, the photographer, the artist or and then an editor is simply the use of photography to make a cognitive human point. Poetry? Well, why the hell not, because our views are ever so subjective as humans that who are we to be so judiciary in our choices to determine and tell another what one thing that we are both looking at is?

    Let photography be photography and let’s allow us to use it to communicate what we deem emotionally, culturally, socially and of course even politically important to our history. Ah history now that is a document worth playing with.

  2. Sean

    Notions of indexicality are complex, and contested – as the recent publication Photography Theory (ed :Elkins, James. 2007) highlights again and again. Indeed, many of the comments within the book – in response to the published round table discussion in an earlier section – bemoan this exclusive focus. And then there are many comments both for and against the indexicality of the photographic image.

    What come out forcefully in reference to these discussions is striking a balance between discussing the photograph as a specific image type, and its relation within a broader community of images.

    On first reading Tod Papergeorge’s quotes above, it seems that he rails against the indexicality of the photograph, its ability to testify, to witness (similar to Joel Snyder). However, after reading these again it might be that, rather than adopting such an emphatic view, he too adopts one that acknowledges the photographs inclusion within a wider community of images.

    One additional point, however, is that (from the quotes above) the everyday use of the photographic image is not taken into account – which is to reference the photographs relation to the photographed. Holiday snaps are not theorized to such degrees!

  3. Benjamin Ball

    I’ve always thought of documentary photography as poetry. A nuanced image sings of possibility. It is succinct, but profound. This is surely why documentary photography has for so long succeeded as a form of communication.
    But what is communicated? The poem is the form, not the message itself, and it surely has repercussions for the world from which it is extracted. I don’t think Sontag’s arguments and concerns about photography can be so lightly dismissed, or reduced to such simple terms. Photographs, like poems, are read, and the photographer has the privileged position of composing what is read. A poem is not expected to deliver truth in its entirety, nor an exact truth, but like photography it has the potential to communicate something true of the world and of ourselves. Something that resonates. Photography can communicate truth, especially when poetic. It needn’t be set up as a dialectic.

  4. J M

    Recently I showed my portfolio of photographs taken of everday life (without disturbing it) to an eminent french art historian, and I came up against these very same absurdly misunderstood preconceptions of the photograph as truth. Sadly many cannot yet come to terms with the fact that a photograph is just a picture and nothing more, just like the Pope when he is blessing a photo held out to him. Nothing is more deceptive than ‘belief’, photography is another form of mark making. The literal translation of the Japanese for photograph (i.e light drawing), is the oxymoron of ‘truth copy’ (i.e shashin) which highlights the paradox at the heart of the medium. If photography is free to express itself then society is also free to express itself. Only 150 years ago european’s were hanging writers publicly for transgressing the morals of the day, and as ‘the pictures generation’ (see spiritual america) proved morals are as transient as fashions in hats.

  5. J M

    A good example of this delusion can be found in contrasting the contradictions between Barthe’s Death of the Author, were he concludes that there cannot be an ultimate reading of an authors work, and yet in his analysis of the photo of his mother in Camera Lucida he concludes that there is a subjective emotive reality in his personal relationship described in the image of his mother. This is as if to say that a photograph is some how truer than a written description. How can it be so?


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