Untitled (Summer Rain), 2004
© Gregory Crewdson
Alec has declared it Tod Papageorge week over on his blog. To keep faithful to his declaration he has been quite a blogging fiend, posting about Mr. Papageorge sometimes more than once a day. I must say, I’ve really enjoyed the posts and can agree with him that Papageorge’s new book Passing Through Eden is something marvelous.
In Alec’s most recent post, he has linked to Richard Lacayo’s little piece, The Problem with Postmodernism, which was a good read. A portion of the text discusses the fact that for years, Papageorge has been the head of the graduate program in photography at the Yale School of Art and, interestingly, doesn’t like much of the photography coming from the students. He tells Richard B. Woodward of Bomb Magazine why that is:
I think now that, in general—and this includes a lot of what I see in Chelsea even more than what I see from students at Yale—there’s a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination. This is an understanding that an earlier generation of students, and photographers, accepted as a first principle. Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form—typically a very large form. This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too.
Sure, things have to change, but photography-as-illustration, even sublime illustration, seems to me an uninteresting direction for the medium to be tracking now, particularly at such a difficult time in the general American culture. All in all, I think that there’s as much real discovery and excitement in the digital videos that my students at Yale are making as there is in the still photography I see either there or in New York, perhaps because the video camera, like the 35 mm camera 30 years ago, can be carried everywhere, and locks onto the shifting contradictions and beauties of the world more directly and unselfconsciously than many photographers now seem to feel still photography can, or should, do.
This is ironic because at Yale, Papageorge can count “among his students quite a few — including Gregory Crewdson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Anna Gaskell and Katy Grannan — who have gone on to become very well known as practitioners of the staged photography that Papageorge doesn’t care for…” One might also add David Hilliard, Angela Strassheim, or a number of others to that list.
I can agree with Papageorge about photography as theatre generally failing in comparison to photographs of real moments due to this “synthetic emotion” that results from making rather than taking the photograph or, what comes before that, the notion of a preconceived image. However, I have to be honest, I can’t help but have some emotional reaction to a few of the images that are staged or, in the case of some of the artists mentioned, “semi-staged” as long as they feel real (for example, DiCorcia’s photographs of male prostitutes in Los Angeles). Is it that the story behind them is real? In a comment on Christian’s blog, my friend Bryan Schutmaat wrote about the famous Robert Doisneau photograph of the couple kissing.
Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville), 1950
© Robert Doisneau
“I think this is a good photo,” said Bryan, “but after I learned that these were hired models, and the scene had been constructed, I liked it a lot less.” This is obviously not the case in a Crewdson photograph, as I don’t believe he has any intent on tricking his viewers into thinking the moment is real. But, does knowing the story behind the making of an image, knowing that it’s entirely staged, devalue the work? Apparently not by the art market’s standards.
I have found myself wondering what made so much of this ‘tableau’ work rise as it did in popularity. But, that may be a discussion for another day; what I’m really curious about is not the trends of the market but what viewers — those looking at and responding to the art — think about the true value or “utility” of such photographs versus images of things that really happened. We may be able to agree that staged images are, in some way, less honest… but what about their value? Papageorge declares that the creative possibility of the world is richer in surprise than the imagination. Is it?
Oh, and Alec, here is another Papageorge article for you.