Monday, April 23, 2007

Passing Through Eden by Tod Papageorge

Pace MacGill Gallery is currently exhibiting Passing Through Eden: Photographs of Central Park by Tod Papageorge (April 3 – May 12). I had seen the show last week but made a point of seeing it again (it is worth seeing twice). This time I was pleasantly surprised to find the book was finally available for sale. This is a title I had heard was being published and have been anticipating its release for almost a year.

I’m happy to say it has been worth the wait.

Tod Papageorge has been photographing for the past 35 years but he is mostly “known” as an educator and a writer. He penned the introduction to Garry Winogrand’s book Public Relations and has written extensive essays on Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Robert Adams. He has taught at Yale School of Art since 1979.

With all of these accolades, ironically, it is rare to actually see his photography. Aperture and a magazine called Big Picture published some of the Central Park photographs in the early eighties and a small handful of other work has shown up in various catalogs over the years. Until now, there has not been a book dedicated to his work.

Published by Steidl, Passing Through Eden is a hefty book both in its large trim size and amount of images. Gerhard Steidl has once again done a nice job with the reproductions. They achieve the extended tonal range and luminosity that Papageorge’s medium format negatives provide. A well written essay at the end by Papageorge called “Words For Pictures” discusses not only how the “project” evolved but also how his life has been shaped by photography and poetry.

Papageorge has been photographing in New York’s Central Park since 1966. These images cover 26 years worth of wandering in which Papageorge finds his subjects lounging in the grass and on resting on park benches absorbing ethereal sunlight.

The book’s sequence is designed to metaphorically represent the first chapters of the Book of Genesis (Eden is in the title after all) and one can more or less “read” the sequence as such. Through the 105 photographs we follow the Creation, Man in the Garden of Eden, and Papageorge seems to take pleasure in dwelling on Man’s disobedience to God. Papageorge serves up images of sexuality and lust that are amplified due to the descriptive power of his medium format cameras. Flesh is rendered so seductively on sunbathers that he seems to be tempting our willpower even though we know the penalty. In one image, a slight twist, “Adam” has two “Eves.”

In reference to the banishment from Eden, Papageorge turns a small sequence of four images on their head. Literally reproducing them upside down. They are images of couples laying in dark grass that seems to be absorbing all light and reflecting very little. Seen inverted, the people are tossed around in a weightless and disorienting world. I understand the purpose of this and commend Papageorge for breaking the boundries of design and taking risks, though I’m not sure such an extreme was necessary. With the exception of the last picture in this sequence, it’s my opinion that these could probably have been left out of the book entirely.

It is remarkable though that for its length and amount of pictures, the book doesn’t feel heavy with superfluous photographs. For me, most photo books published have about 30 percent too many images and they tend to suffer greatly for them. I think this book could have lost at most 12 to 15 images. But seeing that it represents 26 years of work and we have been given so little opportunity to see what he’s been up to, I can forgive his trespasses.

Book Available Here