Arts & Culture

Object Lesson

Sports, war, and their discontents

Joshua Chuang is the Marcia Brady Tucker Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Tod Papageorge. Courtesy Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York.

Tod Papageorge. Courtesy Pace/ MacGill Gallery, New York.

Autograph Seekers, Shea Stadium, NY, by Tod Papageorge. This photograph is one of a series Papageorge made in 1970 on spectator sports in America and the anxieties of a country at war. View full image

Armed with a 35mm Leica camera and Guggenheim grant, Tod Papageorge traveled the country in 1970 with the aim of documenting the phenomenon of spectator sports in America. He was compelled to alter his project, however, by the tragic events at Kent State that spring. Confronted with deepening public malaise over the seemingly interminable war in Vietnam, Papageorge decided to retain sports as his nominal subject, but focus his inner lens on the anarchy taking place beyond the sidelines. After lying dormant in the photographer's studio for nearly four decades, the project is finally being published this January as American Sports, 1970 (or, How We Spent the War in Vietnam). The book offers a penetrating portrayal of a society descending into chaos.

For the image here, Autograph Seekers, Shea Stadium, NY, Papageorge (now the Walker Evans Professor of Photography at the Yale School of Art) trained his lens on a frenetic crush of star-crossed autograph seekers who had jammed themselves against the barrier separating spectator from sport. The scramble of torsos, hands, arms, and paraphernalia that spans the frame reads almost like a cubist collage. On the faces of the fans is the full range of emotions that a zealous youngster might experience in his or her dogged pursuit, from giddiness and satisfaction to resignation and anguish. In the center of the picture, a clear-eyed man stares out at us with strange calm. Providing a stark contrast to the experience of America's young soldiers nearly half a world away, these enraptured fans might also serve as an analogy. In Papageorge's eyes, even our national pastime has failed to relieve us from the discontents of war.

The release of American Sports, 1970 follows the publication last year of Papageorge's Passing Through Eden: Photographs of Central Park. As director of perhaps the most acclaimed graduate photography program in the country, Papageorge has played a central role in shaping contemporary photographic practice. With these books, his work is garnering long overdue attention of its own.


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