On Nov. 19, a group of panelists were sitting at a table in “The Pool” room of the Yale School of Art. They were watching the artwork of Erin Desmond ART ’15, a first-year candidate in the Master of Fine Arts Photography program. As each of the panelists was critiquing Desmond’s work, one of them rose from his slouched position to ask the student sitting before the table: “I told you to read the poem and you didn’t?” Taken aback, Desmond gave an honest response: “I completely forgot.”
The panelist was a bespectacled man clad in a grey zipped-up jacket named Tod Papageorge, and he proceeded to rattle off three stanzas of his suggested reading, “To Earthward” by Robert Frost, tracing through the words with such gusto that his final pronounced syllables left the room silent. To him, the poem was particularly applicable to Desmond’s work.
Papageorge served as the director of Yale’s graduate photography program for over 30 years, before stepping down from his position in early 2012. This past year, he has continued to teach his “Core Curriculum” class, which focused on the history of photography, while also participating in the weekly panels dedicated to critiquing the work of graduate students in the program. But at the end of this semester, Papageorge will retire from the Yale faculty, leaving behind himself a legacy of one of the best graduate photography programs in the nation.
FROM POETRY TO PHOTOGRAPHY
In 1962, Papageorge graduated from the University of New Hampshire not with a degree in photography, but in English. It wasn’t until his senior year of college, he said, that he moved away from writing poetry and started taking pictures.
“I remember looking at the photographs of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, thinking ‘This is poetry, but without the agony of using words,” Papageorge said, referring to the 20th century French photographer, widely recognized as the father of photojournalism. Several of Papageorge’s colleagues and former students said his passion for words has frequently inspired his work, both as a photographer and as the director of Yale’s photography program. Richard Benson, one of Papageorge’s closest colleagues at Yale, now retired, said photography and poetry are two parallel fields for Papageorge. He added that it is not rare for students to hear Papageorge launch into “metaphorical discussions of photographs in terms of poetry.” For Benjamin Donaldson ART ’00, scenes like Papageorge’s reciting of Robert Frost’s poem during Desmond’s critique are not a novelty.
“Tod’s teaching style is well known as being one that prizes the poetic underpinnings of artistic endeavors,” said Donaldson, who now teaches undergraduates in Yale College’s art program. He added that Papageorge’s habit of quoting poets like Keats and Frost during critiques serves “as a method of getting to the heart of a problem with the student’s work … The true mettle of a student is whether or not they follow up on his suggestion to actually read what he has suggested. Woe be unto the student that fails to do so, for a myriad of reasons.”
Lisa Kereszi ART ’00, who now serves as the director of undergraduate studies of the Art Department of Yale College, attributed the success of Papageorge’s teaching style to his “smart humor,” pregnant with his love of language and particularly puns. His familiarity with words allows him to eloquently articulate the meaning behind photographs, as testified by a collection of his essays entitled “Core Curriculum,” which was published in 2011 by the publishing house Aperture.
During his time at Yale, Papageorge has transmitted to generations of his photographers the notion that, while “photography is fiction” and “there are no truths in a photograph,” the best images are always created from reality. For Papageorge, one cannot dream of more perfect, more telling, or more ridiculous images than one can find in real life, Kareszi said, adding that this philosophy is particularly evident in Papageorge’s photographs.
For Papageorge, it was his eye as a photographer and his articulate prose that garnered him the title of director of the photography program at the Yale School of Art for over three decades.
BRINGING PHOTOGRAPHY INTO THE CURRICULUM
When Papageorge was appointed director of the Photography Department at the Yale School of Art in 1979, the department was only in its infancy. Until Papageorge’s arrival, photography was taught under the Graphic Design Department at the Yale School of Art. It was Walker Evans who paved the way for the creation of a department solely dedicated to the study of photography. One of the most famous photographers in American history, Evans joined the Yale faculty in 1965, when the legitimacy of photography as an art medium was still much debated. However, Evans’ reputation as a photographer and as a believer in fine art photography, was a large pull for many potential students.
“I chose to go to Yale because of the legacy of Walker Evans,” said Lois Conner ART ’81, a New York City-based photographer who previously taught at Yale for over ten years.
After Evans passed away in 1975, Yale School of Art Directors decided to formalize the photography program, thus spearheading the creation of an official department dedicated to the medium. They started a three-year search process for a director which ended with the hiring of Papageorge.
A brand new teacher thrown into a faculty of entirely Yale alums, Papageorge never seemed to show any fear, Conner recalled.
“Oh Tod? Tod is never nervous. He has either the greatest confidence or he is unwilling to show any lack there of,” she said.
Robert Lyons ART ’79, who was a member of the first class of the newly established photography department, said the new photography director brought an intense work ethic that everyone respected. He also added that whether or not Papageorge had completely formalized the structure of the program, he had a “certain kind of swagger” that earned him the affection of most of his colleagues and students.
“We had Tod for one year at the beginning of his tenure. It was kind of a crazy and exciting time, because there was still an ongoing process of having people come to see who would replace Walker Evans,” Lyons said.
Over the past 30 years, Papageorge’s work at the Yale School of Art has contributed to establishing one of the best-recognized photography programs in the nation, as confirmed by a 2012 U.S. News World & World Report ranking of graduate degrees in photography. Richard Benson, who accompanied Papageorge in the beginning stages as the director of the department, said Yale’s graduate photography program is centered on three main components: practice, history and critique.
In addition to the weekly critiques of his students’ work and technical classes where students produce visual work, Papageorge also used to give lectures every Wednesday about the history of photography, often inviting some of his own favorite photographers to give guest talks. Many of his personal lectures grew from essays that were published in “Core Curriculum,” focusing on the work and the themes of photographers ranging from giants like Walker Evans to friends of his like Garry Winogrand.
A SUCCESSFUL TALENT SCOUT
In addition to establishing the prominence of photography within the Yale School of Art, Papageorge leaves behind another kind of legacy. A self-proclaimed “talent scout,” Papageorge has mentored generations of young photographers, many of whom have become successful fine artists, including such famous protégées as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Abelardo Morell, Katy Grannan, and Gregory Crewdson and 33 recipients of the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship — an award he himself has won twice.
“He’s very good at seeing the potential in a person’s work, especially before they’ve fully realized it themselves,” said Kate Greene ART ’10, who currently teaches an introductory course on digital photography.
Several MFA alumni interviewed attributed their professional success as photographers to Papageorge’s harsh criticism of their work as students. The weekly critiques are what several former MFA students said they remember most about their time at Yale. Twice a semester and once more before graduation, photography students are required to sit in 45-minute-long critique sessions before a panel of five esteemed photographers. Meredith Miller ART ’03 said she was “often so petrified” during those critiques that she is “not sure [she] has accurate memories of them.” On a similar note, Green described that experience as one of the “most frightening” of her life.
“The MFA program has a formality to the critique structure that seems jarring to outsiders,” Donaldson said of the critique sessions, which are open to the greater New Haven community. “The structure creates a great deal of stress on the students: it was very hard to be in the chair for 45 minutes when things weren’t going well.”
Despite the stressful environment of these critiques, all of the former MFA students recalled this experience as ultimately rewarding. In a program that accepts only 10 applicants every year, former students said they are not surprised Papageorge holds them to such high standards.
“It’s not just his opinion for kicks — he says what he says to guide his students,” Kereszi said, adding that Papageorge’s critical voice helps students grow.
Papageorge said he is aware of both the benefits and the strenous nature of the photography program. To check his high standards, he remembers playing the role of the “bad cop” to Benson’s “good cop” on the critique panels.
Still, former photography students said they have come to appreciate the harshness of Papageorge’s critiques. For some, Papageorge’s demeanor during the panels made his opinions especially precious.
“You sat there and stared in this room with such tension because you wanted to hear what Tod had to say. His opinion was what you cared most about because he was so close to photography,” Miller said.
For others, like Donaldson and Kereszi, Papageorge’s lack of constant praising made the rare moments of laud all the more genuine.
“Tod gave me a chance. The program is life-changing. For whatever reason, he saw that [I] might have something to say,” Kereszi said. “ I do know that he says he looks for ‘potential,’ which is a large part, I think, in the success of the program, and that he has a special way of identifying that mysterious thing to gamble on.”
Correction: Dec. 5
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Lois Conner ART ’81.