Former Yale School of Art Photography Director captures the 1960s’ grace and tension in new exhibit
The exhibition, “War & Peace in New York,” by 81-year-old photographer Tod Papageorge showcases previously unpublished photographs taken between 1966 and 1971.
Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander
In a solo exhibition titled “War & Peace in New York” at Galerie Thomas Zander, Tod Papageorge, photographer and former director of photography at the Yale School of Art, displays a previously unpublished series of street photographs taken between 1966 and 1971. Filled with spontaneous movement and unresolved tension, the works capture the restless energy and unease of the Vietnam War and daily public life in the city.
The exhibition opened on Nov. 6, 2021 at Galerie Thomas Zander in Cologne, Germany and is on view until Feb. 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 as books containing 146 photographs each. 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 threads [“Down to the City” and “The Dear Common Ground”] came about through my 80-year-old efforts. I was interested in the 25-year-old version of me that took the pictures and trying to understand who I was back then.”
The artist stated that he needed all the time the pandemic afforded him to make sense of the work and find the two threads that allowed him to separate them into two books.
“Down to the City” aligns in spirit with the “war” side of the exhibition and “The Dear Common Ground” aligns with “peace.” Papageorge’s general psychological condition at the time the photographs were taken was intense, an intensity he says informed both books. He had an obsession both with becoming an artist and with the political climate that felt oppressive and unending.
The photographs themselves exhibit this fervor with spontaneity and a feeling of ongoing movement. Papageorge is able to pause the moments he captures, but each photo’s resonance continues evolving.
“From his work, you get a sense that the world is moving and that the photographer is freezing that motion in a complicated way,” said Director of Undergraduate Studies in Art Lisa Kereszi. “They feel like they were taken yesterday.”
The exhibition features arresting street scenes of the tense socio-political climate, pro and anti-war demonstrations as well as pictures projecting the perturbed American spirit generated by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of America’s leading 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 feel surprising and relevant both in their visual language and their subject matter due to their unresolved tension,” said Frauke Breede, executive assistant and artist liaison at Galerie Thomas Zander. “The best art keeps its mystery.”
In one image, a group of Black Panthers strides down the street with physical grace as passersby part to give them passage. The eye contact they make with the camera communicates an unspoken understanding between the photographer and the subjects. In another photograph, a white woman reads Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” and looks intensely at the photographer with a stare that echoes with sympathy for Black Americans and the times, as if Papageorge and the woman are seeing remnants of themselves in each other. It is through this frozen transience that Papageorge narrates the human condition during these times.
“Where the art lies in the New York photographs is so elusive, it is almost a kind of sublime,” School of Art Senior Critic and professor John C. Pilson said. “The works are literary.”
In fact, Papageorge stated that the two books not only reflect two psychological conditions but are also carefully sequenced. He organized them narratively in a way that is novelistic, similar to other publications such as Robert Frank’s “The Americans.”
The images themselves evolve into more complex frames containing converging lines and forms that, according to Kereszi, feel like puzzle pieces.
Papageorge majored in English at the University of New Hampshire and only began taking pictures in 1962 during his last semester. He was moved by works like those of 20th-century French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson that captured the poetry he had been trying to write without the agony of stringing words together. According to Papageorge, photography is in many ways like making poetry through a medium of exact description.
Garry Winogrand, who grew to be his mentor during this time and who himself was influenced by Papageorge, said, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” These words stuck with Papageorge and are evident through his most recent efforts in discerning what he was obsessed with capturing years ago.
In a sense, these books are the artist’s manifesto, capturing his evolution.
“This work was waiting 50 years for Papageorge to give it its final form,” Pilson said.
The exhibition also features a series of colored photographs taken between 1966 and 1967 titled “Dr. Blankman’s New York”.