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.
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?