Photo professors take on a bigger picture

Where other people see a movie theater carpet strewn with popcorn, Lisa Kereszi sees a night-sky — the swirling pattern of the rug the backdrop for the sparkling stars of popped corn. Where other people see a cheap carnival toy, David Hilliard sees a symbol of changing definitions of masculinity. Where other people see a bustling city scene spreading in all directions, Tod Papageorge sees a coherent vision that fits within a camera frame.

While these three photographers pursue distinctly different forms and subjects for their art, they have one commonality: positions on the faculty of Yale’s world-renowned Photography Department. Led by Papageorge, the department boasts photographers — both old hands and up-and-comers — at the forefront of photography today.

Papageorge began taking photographs as a senior English major at the University of New Hampshire and decided “just like that” to be a photographer rather than a poet. After two Guggenheim fellowships, two single-year stints teaching at MIT and Harvard, and a position as a curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Papageorge was appointed the Walker Evans Professor of Photography at Yale in 1979.

Now the head of the Yale Photography Department — the “best faculty in the country” — Papageorge still pursues poetry, but through his photos. Known for what he described as an “almost self-admiring” style of photography, Papageorge said he pursues a perfection and consciousness of form to illuminate both the complexity, but also the coherence, of social landscapes.

Currently at work on photography books of Paris and New York City’s Central Park, Papageorge said the process of making photographs is practically subconscious for him. Ever since being first inspired by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Papageorge said he has been able to see a frame around any potential picture.

“When I first saw photographs, I was able to look at them,” Papageorge said. “I seem to be applying a totally different part of my brain.”

David Hilliard MFA ’94, a student of Papageorge, originally planned on a different career. After studying to become a filmmaker, Hilliard was ultimately attracted to photography’s ability to provide a work that although static, nonetheless tells a story. With his unusual form — panoramic photos presented in three panels — Hilliard tries to satisfy a “visual hunger” while presenting a narrative. The panels allow for more ambiguity, as each photo can be taken in a different light, creating a breakage in time. The panels also allow for emphasis on different aspects of a given scene and greater juxtaposition of those elements. Also, Hilliard said, that’s the way his father took photographs, so it is a style that is simply ingrained in his photographic sensibility.

Hilliard began teaching at the University in 2002. Art major Dinah Dimalanta ’05, who took both introductory and intermediate photography with Hilliard last year, said she enjoyed taking a class from someone whose work she admired so much.

“[The class] was really inspiring because the work was about him, and he used his life and his experience and his family,” Dimalanta said. “Not only were [the photos] really beautiful for the viewer who didn’t know him, but knowing him and seeing his work was really interesting.”

One of the Photography Department’s newest hires, Lisa Kereszi MFA ’00 is another alum of the “boot camp” she calls Yale’s graduate school photography program. While she said it can at times be “daunting” to now be colleagues with the people who were so recently grading and critiquing her work, Kereszi said it is also “comforting” to work with the same people who taught her because of the familial atmosphere.

But Papageorge in particular, Kereszi said, will always be her mentor.

“Sometimes I still think: Would I hang this up in a crit? And what would Tod say?” Kereszi said.

While Kereszi also does work for magazines “to pay the rent,” she said her primary role is as an artist, shooting scenes not usually requested by editors. Past shoots have included portraits of burlesque artists. She is especially interested in empty interiors — from that shot of the rug at York Square Cinema here in New Haven to shots of empty strip clubs.

“I take somewhat overlooked places and infuse drama into them,” Kereszi said. “Something you wouldn’t normally look at.”

Though her current project in Florida is largely inspired by the state’s pivotal role in the 2000 presidential election, Kereszi said she wishes she paid more attention to the political climate in her photos.

Hilliard said many people expect a greater social consciousness from photography.

“I think photography is always equated with responsibility in a way we don’t ask of painters because it’s so literal and unabashed,” Hilliard said. “The responsibility is to be true.”

As an openly gay man, Hilliard explores the ideas of masculinity and sexuality in his work. While he said his work does not have an overt political message, he said he is interested in expressing “the real” through universalizing specific scenes with acuity.

“At least I stand up and I’m counted,” Hilliard said.

Papageorge said he thinks art in general is important in today’s political climate — an importance it has not lived up to. For instance, in the 1970s Papageorge used one of his Guggenheim fellowships for a series of photographs on sports in American culture as an expression of frustration with the Vietnam War.

“It’s a shame that so much of contemporary art has reneged on the responsibility of dealing with these issues,” Papageorge said.

“Photography certainly can make a statement — I don’t know if it can make a difference.”

But both in the political and in the everyday, Papageorge said photographs are a different — and “perfect” — way to record the particular worlds we live in.

“If students come to college to learn how to think, then photography is its own special kind of thinking,” Papageorge said.

Professor David Hilliard’s triptych of comic book superheroes and average Poland Spring water-drinking men is just one of a number of his celebrated three-panel photos.
Courtesy DavidHilliard
Professor David Hilliard’s triptych of comic book superheroes and average Poland Spring water-drinking men is just one of a number of his celebrated three-panel photos.

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