Monday, June 17, 2013

Reading more, or the history of a quote

  If your pictures are not good enough, you are not reading enough. 
     – origin unknown ?

The internet has a unique ability to amplify misinformation. From false facts and incorrectly or unattributed photographs, things quickly spread and mistakes are perpetuated. In preparing a talk I had given for publication and doing some quick fact-checks, I came across a recent example, which has a curious history. I had used the above quote, a smart turn on Robert Capa's famous quote, in my talk and was trying to find the exact origin.

Most readers of the blog will quickly identify the quote as attributed to Tod Papageorge, the photographer and educator. The quote can be found widely online, but the original source was not immediately apparent. After a quick search, I discovered Papageorge supposedly said it in 2007 at a NYPL panel discussion hosted by Blindspot, entitled "Truth and Authenticity in Photography" Part III. I was pretty sure I had watched the video a number of years ago, but I decided to watch it again because the panel included Paul Graham, Mitch Epstein and Danny Lyons. However, in rewatching it, there is no evidence Papageorge ever said the above quote. I watched it twice.

Determined to find the source, I began searching further. I skimmed Papageorge's book Core Curriculum with no luck. After some careful Google searches, the first appearance online of the quote appears to be an article written by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin for foto8 entitled "Unconcerned by not Indifferent" (March 8th, 2008). In that article, they cite the 2007 NYPL panel discussion. Since it did not appear in the talk, I emailed Broomberg and Chanarin's studio and asked if they had another possible source. They insisted it did appear in the panel discussion, or happened outside the recorded talk, and provided no further information.

After appearing in the Broomberg and Chanarin article, the quote seems to have taken on a life of its own. It appeared in innumerable blogs, articles and books, including my own talk. The most influential and widely cited source is David Campbell's excellent lecture "Narrative, Power and Responsibility," which is the source of many references. Broomberg and Chanarin's article was also reprinted in James Pomerantz's widely read blog A Photo Student (here), which is where I first encountered it. The quote also appears in print in Robert Hirsch's Photographic Possibilities (Focal Press, 2008, 3rd Edition) and more recently Fred Ritchen's Bending the Frame (Aperture, 2013), which I am currently reading and recommend. Hirsch cites the panel discussion and Ritchen cites Campbell.

Since I had no luck with Broomberg and Chanarin, I emailed David Campbell, who pointed to the talk and was equally baffled. Hirsch was also perplexed. In a final effort, I emailed Papageorge himself. While he did not disagree with the quote and admitted to making comments about his own dismay about people not reading in the past, he does not recall ever saying the exact quote or anything close. Case closed? I'm not sure.

It seems likely that the misquote begins with Broomberg and Chanarin and spread from there, but it is possible the source lies elsewhere. Perhaps Papageorge did say those words and simply forgot. Perhaps Broomberg and Chanarin crafted the quote to fit their arguement, knowing that it might be something Papageorge would say. Perhaps they simply misheard Papageorge or misread their notes and mistook their own words for Papageorge's. Perhaps someone else made those comments off the record that day and Papageorge got the credit. We may never know. Given the widespread proliferation of the quote both in-print and online, it's unlikely that we'll know the real answer or that it will be corrected anytime soon. It is also unlikely that this post will do much to correct the problem.

History is full of similar misquotes and/or falsely attributed quotes. Quotes that are fabricated, polished and modified by reporters, writers or other sources, until they take on a life of their own. In this case, the murky origins don't diminish the haughty truth of the quote, they just point to the all too human way in which information is spread and altered both online and in other media.

If you have any further information, please let me know.