70s Los Angeles Beaches Time Capsule by Tod Papageorge


Young men with long hair carrying surfboards towards the waves; girls in bikinis lying on blankets; children digging in the shallows; groups of bodies sunbathing on the sand.

The coronavirus pandemic lockdown provided prominent photographer Tod Papageorge with an unexpected amount of time to revisit those images of Los Angeles beaches he had captured on several trips to California between 1975 and 1981. He had no never took a break from organizing them before. .

Now that these works are on display at the Danziger Gallery in Los Angeles, this is the first time they have been exhibited.

“Thinking of those photos sitting like negatives in yellow boxes was kind of disheartening,” Papageorge, 82, said in an interview from his home in New Haven. “It’s a great joy to now be able to have people see them and respond to them.”

“The Beaches”, the exhibition of the work which runs until August 31, features 20 images that have been enlarged in two sizes – approximately 24 inches wide, approximately 56 inches wide – all taken with cameras medium size. Dealer James Danziger, who also has a gallery by appointment in New York, said it made sense to show this corpus in the city where it was created.

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

Papageorge – 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 he used a 35mm camera extensively. “I knew I was using a machine that could record the breathtaking beauty of light,” he said. “The camera can portray a kind of sparkle that I was very interested in – even obsessed with – trying to achieve in these images.” He added: “Light is a very, very powerful component.”

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

This is Danziger’s second show with Papageorge; the gallery owner showed the photographer’s series of tourists at the Acropolis in Greece, taken in the 1980s. The exhibition, “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 the Phillips Academy.

These images resonate with beach photos, Papageorge said. “It’s kind of an arena of congestion and beauty and bodies in space that I think works in a similar way,” he said. “The tourists – they are very simply dressed and young, against the beauty of the Greek temples.”

His images of Studio 54 in the late 1970s look similar. “It’s not everyday life, it’s kind of an extreme situation,” he said, “party people, party people.”

In Papageorge’s photographs, his subjects look away, which he says is deliberate; he wanted them to “appear unaware of me”.

“To create meaning – as we know it from classical painting – of the worlds of images seeming to unfold as we study them, uninfluenced by the presence of an intrusive photographer-shaper,” he said. he declares. “A sense heightened in many beach photos by their visual complexity, a kind of density that I was interested in pursuing in my work from the start of the shoot.”

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

The images have a timelessness even though they also capture a tumultuous chapter in history. Reviewing photos of Vietnam for The New York Times in 2009, Ken Johnson wrote that the project was “an oblique critical study of that broad swath of Americans who weren’t revolutionized by the ’60s, the ‘majority silent” 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 has taken its time expanding the selections over the past two years. “It got me back to the very first 35mm work I did when I first moved to New York as a 25-year-old in the mid-60s, which was nice. sure at the height of the Vietnam War and the sex and the drugs and the rock ‘n’ roll,” Papageorge said. “It’s hard for people to know how loaded it was. a similar period today.

“I think people will see a kind of parallel between the worlds depicted in these images, especially the war books, and today – the kind of stress the culture is feeling now, the division and the polarization.”

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

During his last semester, in 1962, he decided to take a photography course and that changed everything, especially a photograph found in the library by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. “It was a conversion experience,” he said. “I searched and searched for hours and found two more. At the end of that night, I thought, ‘I want to be a photographer. Because what I saw in those images of Cartier -Bresson was a real poetry that was not based on this agony of trying to put words together.

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

In the 1960s, John Szarkowski, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, helped elevate photography to an art form. (Papageorge has been on display at the museum since 1971.)

“He hung shows and wrote texts that really revolutionized everything”, remembers Papageorge.

The photographer, who is also represented by the Thomas Zander Gallery in Germany, has had his work acquired by institutions such as MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Library of 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 were seeing things in the images that we had never seen before – he took the genre of street photography to a new level,” said Peter MacGill, the former president of the Pace-MacGill Gallery, who worked closely with Papageorge. “You would see details. We would see facts and events, the nuance of a gesture. He would choose the right moment to trigger the shutter.

Papageorge influenced generations of budding photographers as Director of the Yale MFA Photography Program from 1979 to 2013; about 30 of his students have become Guggenheim Fellows, he said.

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

Teaching came easily to him, the photographer said, due to his background as an English student.

“My framework for photography was and always has been poetry,” he said. “I had this kind of built-in analogy generator when I was talking about images, which were poetry, poets and poems – opening up students to the poetic possibilities that photography could have.”

Papageorge continues to do new work. His residency at the Rome Academy American Academy in 2009 initiated an ongoing project to photograph this Italian city in digital color. “There is still a lot to do,” he said.

More immediately, with the Los Angeles show and his upcoming books, Papageorge takes pleasure and pride in revisiting the past. “I look at the work I did as a young man and think of it as an old man, although I don’t particularly feel that way,” he said. “It allowed me to subject these bodies of work to a retrospective review that I think they benefit from.”

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

The beaches

Through August 31, Danziger Gallery, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, Calif., 310-962-0002; [email protected]


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