In 1970 Tod Papageorge won a Guggenheim Fellowship and set out to photograph spectator sports. He was interested in how the “public agony” of the Vietnam War–which, “unlike today, permeated every aspect of our lives”–and that “hellish” time could be captured on film. Nearly forty years later, Papageorge, who insists that he is “not a political photographer,” has published those images as a book, American Sports, 1970: or, How We Spent the War in Vietnam (Aperture). —Christine Smallwood
What was the idea behind the project?
I was using a different machine. On the one hand, the project was shaped by my tremendous feelings about the war, which of course weren’t unique. But on the other hand, I was intrigued with the notion of going out and photographing these stadiums full of thousands of people and using a wide-angle lens to do it, a lens that could draw in hundreds of people in a single photograph. And with the problem of making coherent pictures out of it. But in a way it’s in the service of an idea about the society, also in the service of my own rage at that time, the rage I was feeling. American sport. What is a sport in biology?
A mutant. A sport is a biological mutant.
So you see the war in the games?
It’s Eliot’s objective correlative. Sports, these events, become a kind of arena of material or possibility for shaping into what I feel about the war. Which was, you have to understand, inseparable from what I just generally felt. It’s not as if I decided: aha, I’m going to go out and expose America through photographing sporting events. It was nothing like that at all.
What do you think of contemporary photography?
This work, and work of this ilk, came out of a group of photographers who were working in the ’60s and the ’70s in New York who were all, I think, radicalized by the publication of Robert Frank’s The Americans. So I guess consistent with all of this work is a kind of negative view of America, a critique of America, done, again, in the interest of nothing but aesthetic or artistic success. In other words, there’s no money to be made doing this. There was something very pure about it. As Garry Winogrand once said, it’s fit work for a grown man. Or a grown woman.