Photographer Paul McDonough

Photographer Paul McDonough
July, 2011

By Guy Anglade

Turning, turning,/past this hotel window, downward to older Manhattan/drifting and turning, towards the unseeing multitudes, the cars/the shadows, the shafts of sunlight, the life below.
—M.L. Rosenthal, Geometries of Manhattan: Morning

Raised in New Hampshire, Paul McDonough attended the New England School of Art in Boston to study drawing and painting. Prior to his studies, Paul became childhood friends with Tod Papageorge, the noted photographer recognized for documenting the chaotic tension between fans and athletes in professional sports during the height of Vietnam. Swapping ideas and inspired by Tod’s recommendation, knowledge, and passion for the medium, both photographers formed a friendship that would resonate later in Paul’s career trajectory. He moved to New York City in 1967 where he was transfixed by the city’s soul and kinetic energy. In the city, Tod introduced him to renowned photographer Garry Winogrand, and so begun the transferring between souls.

Why does photography appeal to you?

Photography appealed to me because it accommodates my own restlessness; it allows for a certain freedom of movement. My studio can be anywhere.

Is this restlessness spurred by a need to capture specific moments in time, regardless of location?

Yes. You want to be every place at once. New York seemed to be where you missed the least.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and its ‘lyrical descriptions’ and “distinctive vision of American life” are one of the key influences in your work. Did you try to set out your own perspective of American life in photography?

Yes, I think I did. You can’t help it. When you get there, it’s not the place you imagined or read about but you’ve been given key information about where to go and what to look at: gas stations, motel landscapes, a main street in some small town. Each vision is unique. Nabokov’s description of American life in “Lolita” is quite different than that depicted in Jack Keroac’s “On the Road.”

The bulk of your photos were taken during crucial and turbulent moments in New York City and American history: Vietnam, the 1975 fiscal crisis, racial and gender politics, the death of disco and the birth of punk and hip-hop music. It reveals both the opposite and current trends from these seismic developments. What were your initial reactions and impressions as a photographer during that time?

You’re too much in the moment to recognize the historical import of what is going on. All you can do is try to keep pace with it visually, to be where events are taking place. I was always looking to be somewhere that something was happening. I tried to figure it out what it meant later.

There feels a narrative thread that hangs together in each frame, a sense of normalcy that depicts quotidian living in Manhattan.

That’s all any single photograph ever does. There’s nothing stranger than the “normal.”

What stories are you trying to tell through the photographic medium?

There aren’t stories per se; there are tableaux that can’t be described in a verbal way. Stories are for cinema.

Are you suggesting that photographs do not cultivate or provide to viewers as Flannery O’Connor once described fiction as “the experience of meaning”?

Photographs are more like postcards. They show you something about the time and place. But they don’t fill in much beyond that. Meaning is brought in or supplied by the viewer, usually much later.

Susan Sontag said of photographers that they’ve always had, “an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky accident.” Do you believe in the idea of happenstance with your work?

Yes, I am entirely dependent on it. Part of both the pleasure and the frustration is not knowing just what you’re going to encounter and when. You have to have the belief that you will see something on the contact sheet later that rewards your faith.

Were you influenced or inspired by other photographers who used NYC as a template?

Not Just New York, but Paris, and London too—Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt. The work of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander brought me to New York. Louis Hine and Jacob Riis were two others.

In general, how many pictures would you take before you find the “right one”?

It’s hard to say. There is no formula. But the guiding principle is time. You look over the contact sheets many times. In my recent publication, I went back and discovered things that I had not paid attention to before.

Can you provide an example?

I never printed the photo with the girl wearing her long and plaid coat. Her coat was in style at the moment, but she has a Madonna (I mean the mother of Christ, not the pop icon) quality that I overlooked at the time but, now, can appreciate it.

Do you ever get the urge to collaborate with artists from other mediums?

Never.

Do you work with color photography?

I work a lot with color now; I’ve been doing so for the past 5 years.

What are your thoughts on the impact of the web upon photographic production and dissemination?

Photography, which is a technology-based medium, readily adapts to the new. Individuals like myself may be slow to let go of familiar work habits. But the medium can keep pace.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?

Nothing comes out of a vacuum; by simply being the world—galleries, museums, the books you read, the constant looking—is a necessary starting point for anything. So I am turned on by the variety of stimuli I encounter in my daily life. I have no directive other than just to be moving at a slighter slower pace than everyone else.

What do you do in your spare time? Are you still teaching?

I am still teaching part-time at Pratt Institute, where I have been for the past 40 years. In my spare time I attend galleries, catch up on a backlog of reading (mainly novels), see films, and visit museums. Lately, I’ve become a kind of curator of my own work, organizing material from the past 45 years.

Are there any street photographers that are defining contemporary culture now in the way that Robert Frank, Henri-Cartier Bresson and, now, Vivian Maier did during their time?

Hard to say when you are living in the midst of it. Those kinds of assessments come well after the fact.

What is your favorite film, old and new?

The films of the Japanese directors Mizoguchi and Ozu; the films of the New Wave in the 1960s, American directors Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang; Wim Wenders.

What kind of books do you like to read?

I like historical novels in general.

Do you have any favorite musician, old and new?

All the music of Bach, Mozart, and John Coltrane.

Are you working on any projects right now?

Organizing pictures from my files for future books and exhibits of found still life, public monuments and statuary and some studio projects involving the nude figure.

What do you consider your most memorable shot?

Probably the things I missed—those are the ones that come back to haunt you.

What is the one lasting impression you want to leave with your photos?

He looked at life as he passed by/with an avid, sympathetic eye.

Umbrage Editions published a monograph of Paul’s collection, New York Photographs: 1968-1978 and Sasha Wolf hosted a second solo exhibition focusing on photography taken between 1973-1978.

About Guy Anglade
Guy Anglade was born and raised in New York City. His writings have appeared in The Missouri Review, Print, JazzTimes, and other publications. He is an assistant editor of the literary/art magazine, Cousin Corrine’s Reminder.

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