For someone whose work represents a unique split-second moment, a one-time-only instant of candidness, it’s interesting to find Richard Paup in the midst of a second chance at recognition.
Paup is somewhat of an accidental photographer. His original dream was to be a filmmaker, and when that aspiration was sidetracked by the responsibilities of a freelancing career in the film industry—it became a job, not a dream—he adopted still photography as his creative outlet. On breaks from filming in various locations and during extended worldwide vacations, Paup took his camera to public places and waited for the right composition, the right person, the right instant to appear. He looked to capture brief glimpses of real life.
That was over 30 years ago. Paup’s photographs were never exhibited and some were never even developed from the negatives. He got sick with Graves’ disease. Hospitals, health care bills and years piled up. It wasn’t until recently that Paup, as a volunteer teaching photography in local schools, was offered access to a darkroom and started to develop all of his old images.
“There’s a lot to be said about seeing,” says Paup, sitting in his home in Hamilton. “I think most people don’t see. Basically, what we do is we scan our environment and decide whether or not there’s something in it that impacts us directly. Whereas a photographer is constantly scanning the environment for an anomaly. I think people take their visual reality for granted.”
Paup’s seen a lot. Starting this week, some of the images from his most prolific period with a camera will be on display at Gallery Saintonge as What I Saw: Black & White Photographs from 1968-1977—his first major exhibit. The 41 images are all un-posed shots that capture a distinct place in time, and reveal a raw intimacy.
Says gallery director Kerri Rosenstein: “The documentary aspect of his work seems almost secondary to qualities of line, shadow and composition, every image striking and arresting in its own way, every image serving as an attempt to see beyond the surface.”
Paup’s subjects range from elderly white women arguing on a park bench to Latino children playing on Lucky Street to a black man performing in a drum circle. His settings range from France, Italy and Afghanistan to San Francisco, Montreal and New York City.
“Behind the facade of regular, everyday American happiness, people were actually very unhappy,” says Paup, of the era. “I wondered if it was possible to photograph in some sort of way that feeling, that sense of alienation, that sense of sadness. That’s where these photographs came from.”
When Paup began taking these photographs in 1968, he had already been schooled at Berkeley, tried a brief stint in the Merchant Marines (“I wanted to be a working-class intellectual…But the people weren’t as interesting as I thought they’d be”), and teamed with Roger Minick, a photographer who published Delta West, to make short films. The movie making seemed like his calling, so he joined the International Photographers Union in 1969 and worked on such productions as 1972’s The Candidate, starring Robert Redford. Eventually, “the career kind of took over,” he says.
While working consistently in moving pictures, Paup carried his camera with him and took photographs during his off time. Since he was no longer making movies for himself, his camera became his only artistic outlet. Since he was a freelancer with a flexible schedule, he traveled throughout Europe, India, Asia, and across the United States and Canada.
“I’d go out for walks in places where there are people,” says Paup. “It was a way of being alone, but also being around other people. It was a way to interact with others, but not having verbal interaction. It was a great way of feeling centered.”
Paup tried to find an audience for his work at the time, but failed. Despite encouragement from friends like Minick, galleries did not feel his style fit contemporary trends.
“It was a period in which conceptual art was becoming more dominant as an aesthetic. I think what I was doing was too traditional, kind of retro,” says Paup. “The funny thing to me right now is that the photographs now have taken a whole different meaning…Younger people who were not even born yet are saying, ‘These are really cool pictures of a time that’s passed.’”
Paup quit as a film freelancer in 1980 and continued to travel, this time playing saxophone in bands throughout Europe. It all came to a stop in 1988 when he became too sick to perform.
“I’ve thought about this, and basically my whole adult life has been colored by this disease,” says Paup, who started feeling its effects in the ’60s. Despite years of treatment, he still suffers some of the symptoms of the thyroid ailment.
Paup has lived in Hamilton since 1994 and is still active in photography—he teaches and now shoots landscapes in color. His work is being displayed in part because he applied for a grant with Montana Job Services and Ravalli Services Corporation that helps disabled residents become more financially independent. The money from the grant enabled him to put all of his images on DVD so he could present his work to galleries and book publishers.
“They’re really about composition,” says Paup. “It’s not so easy when you’re dealing with a constantly shifting, dynamic human environment. You have to be projecting into a situation and knowing when that moment’s going to occur when you want to take that shot. You have only one chance. Either you got it or you didn’t.”
What I Saw: Black & White Photographs from 1968-1977 is on display at Gallery Saintonge through Saturday, July 30. The gallery is located at 216 N. Higgins Ave.