The very first picture that appears in Tod Papageorge’s Dr. Blankman’s New York shows a pair of storefronts: a florist, and the titular Dr. S. H. Blankman Optometrist, who offers (small print) Contact Lenses, and, in larger print than his name, claims “EYES EXAMINED.”
Ok. Ok. I’m not that dense. 1) this echoes the opener of Walker Evans’ American Pictures, with its photo studio, but clearly isn’t interested in showing us, well, us, and instead, 2) perhaps wants us to wonder what, exactly, we’re supposed to be looking at…
These lovely photographs, well composed, nicely seen, and (many years later) expertly selected and ordered, didn’t help Papageorge land any commercial work back in the day, and instead sat in some boxes or binders or whatever until 2017, when Steidl put out this book. In the interim, Papageorge had a long career as an educator and theorist, with a few notable photography projects under his belt, mostly in black & white, and mostly made in the decade or two after the Dr. Blankman’s photographs were made.
I became aware of Papageorge quite awhile ago, and kept an eye out for a book of his photographs without success. I picked up a copy of Core Curriculum at a Half Price Books or maybe Recycled Records (Denton, TX) and kept it at work for a couple of years to read on the lunch breaks that I never took… Shame on me: in 5 or 6 years, I’ve made it maybe 1/4 of the way through and don’t remember any of it.
So after 50 years and a successful career, Papageorge found the slides, made his selections and an early maquette that found its way to Steidl , David Campany got drafted in to write an excellent and lovely Afterword, and *poof, the long-set-aside, if not completely forgotten, Kodachromes found publication. And I, having kept my eyes open for a photobook by Papageorge for several years, jumped on it.
As late 1960s street photography, it’s sorta different. There are some incredible gestures: a cabbie adjusts the meter and a large hand plucks a cigarette from a pack in a billboard on a passing bus, the hand holding the wheel echoes the hand holding the pack of Newports; a ghostly hand making the “thumbs up” gesture combines with a reflection to point at a man’s smiling/curious/surprised face, which is perched on top of the reflection of Papageorge’s torso and legs in a cafe window; a young woman with a yellow flag (that looks like a precursor to Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s Gates) forming a perfect backdrop for her face and mod haircut, munches a flower while the young man who hold a similar flower lackadaisically reads the paper. For the most part, it’s really a book of Capital-S, Capital-P Street Photography par excellence.
There are a ton of shop windows too, echoing perhaps Walker Evans and maybe prefiguring Stephen Shore, though who knows if Shore was aware of Pappageorge’s work. (Shore shot a bunch of shop windows, especially with his stereo camera, in the 1970s; Papageorge shot everything in Dr. Blankman’s in 1966/67, and only did something with them, as far as I know with this 2017 book.) Some of these shop windows are close to street photography, like a man installing (or removing) a mermaid, carrying her by fin and breast; and, well, the ghostly hand and the grinning head, but they’re mostly more like period pieces. As a sort of time capsule, they’re interesting, and I remember the 5 & dime stores and old grocery stores with flyer & ad-covered windows from my childhood. Few stores look like this now, and the few that do seem, today, to be frozen in time, back to the 80s, 70s, 60s, and it’s rare that I’m somewhere where there are actual window displays in the front of stores: they just don’t much exist in suburbs, and aren’t even too common in southern cities. So there’s a fair amount of historical and NYC curiosity to be had.
But as far as examining my eyes, well, I don’t know how successful I’ve been.
There are some series, some relationship between various images, for sure. As mentioned by other reviewers, early on there’s a huge billboard of Anne Margaret in a bikini outside of a movie theater, all warm colors and theater lights, towering over a tall slim man and a tiny woman in green who seems to be pulling some sort of face, grimacing or something, a total classic beauty & the beasts sort of picture, with an emphasis on the artificiality; flip the page, and there are some legs descending a ladder in much the same pose as Anne Margaret’s on the previous page, with a Kodak ad featuring a young man in blue shirt and tan pants and a young woman in a pink dress carrying a brown picnic basket, hand-in-hand, running through a field of yellow flowers; flip the page, and a young woman in a pink dress chews on a flower, while a young man in a brown jacket and dark jeans reclines, bored, next to her.
Fairly obvious sequencing, even for a dullard like me, especially since most of it was covered by Richard Woodward (who goes further with it in Collector Daily). Once that was pointed out to me, I went looking for more and remembered some of Robert Frank’s innovative and fancy sequencing in The Americans (recently revealed to me by the excellent Looking In catalog).
Two pairs of women lunch or dine in the window of a Howard Johnson’s. They’re mostly obscured by the darkness of the interior, and two of them have their heads replaced by ads for Burgundy Cherry and what might be Peaches N Cream ice creams (Enjoy at Home! and Cocktails!). Then Papageorge is reflected in the window of (the same? another?) HoJo, advertising American Charcoal Broiled Steaks & Chops, and Howard Johnson’s 28 flavors of Ice Cream. And then Papageorge interrupts a man as he’s about to photograph a woman: she covers her face and holds a hand up, apparently laughing in a yellow dress in front of some fucsia bushes; the man standing over a collapsible tripod turns partway toward the camera. And then a blonde woman on a street corner holds a long strip of photographs up in front of her face, gripping the top like a camera.
Maybe I’m getting it… Maybe.
The whole book is full of these, what, conversations? between images, and if I didn’t get it after 7 viewings, well, maybe I got some more on the 8th and 9th time, and you’ll probably get them much quicker.
Overall, Dr. Blankman’s New York rates a solid 4.4 stars.
And, really, you should pick up a copy. The pictures are good, the edit is good, the pacing is good, the Campany essay is good, and it’s a shame it took 50 years for these pictures to come out. There’s a reason it was on several best of lists back in 2017/18. I’m not sure why it didn’t sell out, and so has held its value, more or less, but Steidl’s loss is your gain, for now, anyway…
If you really want to read something decent about Dr. Blankman’s, Chuck Patch, writing in The Art Blog, has a much more nuanced, researched, and appropriate take than my first drafts, as does Woodward, in Collector Daily. And, no surprise, but the NYT Lens Blog also does it better… would that I could learn something from all of them, really.
*Again, if you’re buying from Bookfinder, DO NOT TRUST eCampus or BiggerBooks. They’re both Amazon resellers, and if they can’t get the book from Amazon for cheaper than they sold it to you, they’ll hold your money for a few weeks, likely in an interest-bearing account, then send it back to you with not even an apology.