Time capsule of '70s Los Angeles beaches from Tod Papageorge
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Time capsule of '70s Los Angeles beaches from Tod Papageorge
An undated photo provided by Danziger Gallery shows Tod Papageorge’s “Los Angeles Beach, 1981,” from a show at the Danziger Gallery in Los Angeles. The photographer, at age 82, is still making waves, with a show at the gallery in Los Angeles that debuts a body of work from his past. Danziger Gallery via The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- Longhaired young men carrying surfboards toward the waves; girls in bikinis lolling on blankets; children digging in the shallows; clusters of bodies sunning on the sand.

The coronavirus pandemic lockdown provided prominent photographer Tod Papageorge with an unexpected expanse of time in which to revisit these images of Los Angeles beaches that he had captured on several trips to California between 1975 and 1981. He had never taken a break to organize them before.

Now that body of work is on view at the Danziger Gallery in Los Angeles, the first time they have been exhibited.

“To think of those pictures sitting as negatives in yellow boxes was a little disheartening,” Papageorge, 82, said from his home in New Haven. “It’s a great joy to be able to have people now see them and respond to them.”

“The Beaches,” the exhibition of the work that runs through Aug. 31, features 20 images that have been enlarged to two sizes — some 24 inches wide, some 56 inches wide — all shot with medium format cameras. Dealer James Danziger, who also has a by-appointment gallery in New York, said it made sense to show this body of work in the city where it was created.

“What is particularly strong about these pictures is this feeling that you get of life and sun and California,” Danziger said. “These are the people who went to beaches from Venice to Malibu in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”

Papageorge — the winner of two Guggenheim Fellowships, and whose work has been collected by more than 30 major institutions — recalled the excitement of his first trip to California in 1975, the first time that he extensively used a medium-format camera. “I knew I was using a machine that could stunningly record the beauty of the light,” he said. “The camera can describe a kind of radiance that I was very interested — even obsessed with — trying to achieve in those pictures.” He added, “The light is a very, very powerful component.”

A complete set of the Los Angeles beach pictures has just been acquired by the New Orleans Museum of Art.

It is Danziger’s second show with Papageorge; the gallerist showed the photographer’s series of tourists at the Acropolis in Greece, taken in the 1980s. The show, “On the Acropolis,” opened in New York in March 2020 and then in Los Angeles in 2021, before being acquired by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy.

Those pictures are resonant with the beach photos, Papageorge said. “It’s a kind of arena of congestion and beauty and bodies in space that I think works in a similar way,” he said. “The tourists — they’re very simply dressed and young, set against the beauty of the Greek temples.”

His images of Studio 54 in the late 1970s have a similar aspect. “It’s not daily life, it’s sort of an extreme situation,” he said, “the revelers, the partyers.”

In Papageorge’s photographs, his subjects look away, which he said is deliberate; he wanted them “to appear not to be aware of me.”

“To create the sense — as we know from classical painting — of the pictures’ worlds seeming to unfold as we study them, uninflected by the presence of an intrusive photographer-shaper,” he said. “A sense heightened in many of the beach pictures by their visual complexity, a kind of density I was interested in pursuing in my work right from the beginning of taking pictures.”

Papageorge also looked back at his work in the late 1960s, which explored the psychological effects of the Vietnam War, as well as daily life on the city streets. The result is a two-volume “War and Peace in New York: Photographs 1966-1971,” due out from Steidl in November. Most of the photos included in it have not been previously published.

The images have a timelessness even as they also capture a tumultuous chapter of history. Reviewing the Vietnam photos for The New York Times in 2009, Ken Johnson wrote that the project was “an obliquely critical study of that broad swath of Americans who were not revolutionized by the ’60s, the ‘silent majority’ who did nothing out of the ordinary during the war. The absence of hippies, yippies and other dissidents is part of what makes his series a thought-provoking time capsule.”

Papageorge took his time to expand the selections in the last couple of years. “It allowed me to go back to the very early 35-millimeter work that I did when I first moved to New York as a 25-year-old man in the mid-’60s, which of course was during the height of the Vietnam War and sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” Papageorge said. “It’s difficult for people to know how charged that was. We’re living through a similar period today.

“I think people will see a kind of parallel between the worlds described in those pictures, particularly the war books, and today — the kind of stresses that the culture is feeling now, the division and polarization.”

Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1940, Papageorge studied English literature at the University of New Hampshire, where he was serious about — but frustrated by — writing poetry. “I had exalted ambitions,” he recalled. “I wanted to be the next John Keats. Every word was an agony.”

During his last semester, in 1962, he decided to take a photography class and that changed everything, in particular a photograph he came upon in the library by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. “It was a conversion experience,” he said. “I looked and looked for hours and found two more. By the end of that night, I thought, ‘I want to be a photographer.’ Because what I saw in those pictures by Cartier-Bresson was true poetry that didn’t rely on this agony of trying to put words together.”

Over the next couple of years, Papageorge discovered the searing personal work of Robert Frank and Walker Evans. He lived in Boston, San Francisco and then New York, where he met the photographer Garry Winogrand, who became one of his closest friends. He also met Frank and Diane Arbus.

In the 1960s, John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, was instrumental in elevating photography to an art form. (Papageorge has been exhibited at the museum since 1971.)

“He was hanging shows and writing texts that really revolutionized everything,” Papageorge recalled.

The photographer, who is also represented by Galerie Thomas Zander in Germany, has had his work acquired by institutions including MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

He has published seven books, including “Passing Through Eden: Photographs of Central Park” (2007) and “Tod Papageorge: Dr. Blankman’s New York” (2018), which documents the two years he shot in color in New York in the late 1960s.

“We’d see things in the pictures that we’d never seen before — he took the genre of street photography to a new level,” said Peter MacGill, the former president of Pace-MacGill gallery, who has worked closely with Papageorge. “You’d see detail. You’d see facts and events, the nuance of a gesture. He’d choose the right moment to release the shutter.”

Papageorge influenced generations of aspiring photographers as the director of the Yale MFA photography program from 1979 to 2013; about 30 of his students went on to become Guggenheim Fellows, he said.

“He really goes beneath the surface,” said photographic artist Awol Erizku, who studied with Papageorge. “It was never just to look at photography for photographic qualities, it was always something beyond the image itself.”

Teaching came easily to him, the photographer said, because of his background as an English major.

“My frame for photography was and always has been poetry,” he said. “I had this sort of built-in analogy maker when I talked about pictures, which was poetry and poets and poems — opening students to the poetic possibilities photography could have.”

Papageorge continues to make new work. His residency at the Rome Academy American Academy in 2009 started an ongoing project photographing that Italian city in digital color. “There’s still a lot to do,” he said.

Most immediately, with the Los Angeles show and his upcoming books, Papageorge is taking pleasure and pride in revisiting the past. “I’m looking at work I made as a young man and considering it as an old man, though I don’t feel that way particularly,” he said. “This has allowed me to put those bodies of work under retrospective scrutiny that I think they gain from.”

“The work was created in the rush of love and life,” he added. “I never had the chance to reconsider it. Or even consider the whole thing.”

‘The Beaches’

Through Aug. 31, Danziger Gallery, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, California, 310-962-0002; info@danzigergallery.com.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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