A. D. Coleman interview

A. D. Coleman

April 2003

A. D. Coleman, photography critic and lecturer, has published numerous books, including The Grotesque in PhotographyLight Readings,Tarnished SilverDepth of Field, and The Digital Evolution. His collection of essays, Critical Focus, received the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Writing on Photography in 1995, and the Kulturpreis of the German Photographic Society (DGPh) in 2002. Coleman’s internationally syndicated columns and essays have appeared in ARTnews, Photo Metro, Artforum, the New York Times, the New York Observer, Technology Review, and the Village Voice; they have been translated into 20 languages and published in 28 countries. A Guest Scholar at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1993, and a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Sweden in 1994, he was the Ansel and Virginia Adams Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Creative Photography in 1997.  Jim Kasson interviewed Mr. Coleman in Portland, Oregon.

JK: What new issues should concern photographic artists these days?

ADC: One of the new challenges relates to the maturity of the medium. Photographers come into the field today at a different place in the evolution of the medium than 30 years ago. Then the question was, “Is photography an art form, a form in which poetry can be made?” That question has been answered irreversibly, and the answer is yes. The battle’s been won. Its presence provided a certain edge to photography at the time, and an energy to photography as an outlaw or bastard medium, produced mainly by people who considered themselves art outsiders. But photography is now a mainstream medium. You could even argue that it’s the defining medium of the late 20th century. There was a creative, positional, and intellectual challenge that photographers now don’t have to – and don’t get to – deal with. The way you function within a medium that’s trying to prove itself is different than what you do after the medium doesn’t have anything to prove.

JK: These days, who’s a photographer? Deborah Orapalo thinks of herself as a painter, but she works in nearly the same process as Holly Roberts.

ADC: I’ve always cast my net as widely as possible. By my lights, if you’re using a camera, or a lens, or light-sensitive materials, you’re functioning within the territory of photography, though you may not literally qualify as a photographer. Even if it’s something as over-the-edge as holography on the one hand, or photorealist painting on the other hand, I’ve always thought that it was useful to talk about such work with a set of reference points that come out of the history of photography. Not that I’d call a photorealist painting a photograph; it’s not. A hologram is not a photograph; but there’s a usefulness to talking about holography with the vocabulary of sculpture, and there’s also a usefulness in investigating it with the reference points and the field of ideas of photography.

The hot medium of the last quarter of the 20th century, and going into the 21st, is photography and photo-based art. The positioning of work in one category or the other is both political and economic. You can sell photo-based art for higher prices than photography. To make a broad distinction, a great deal of photography produced today is high on craft and low on ideation. Conversely, a great deal of photo-based art is strong on ideation and weak on craft. The two sides look at each other across a divide, and shoot spitballs at each other.

JK: There’s a backlash among some photographers. In the last ten years there’s been a popular revival of many old processes – bromoil, albumen, and the like. Photographers going down this road put incredible time and talent into producing beautiful physical objects. The subjects that many of these people choose are pretty ordinary, as if to say, “I can make a work of art out of anything.”

ADC: In the late ‘20s or early ‘30s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [the movie studio] was being invaded by Hungarians. Anybody who was Hungarian would come to Hollywood and try to get a job at MGM because they had a Hungarian cousin. Louis B. Mayer hung a sign in the employees’ cafeteria that said, “It’s not enough merely to be Hungarian.”

Well, it’s not enough to merely be doing alternative processes. It’s not enough even if these processes are tremendously cumbersome, difficult, expensive, and volatile. There’s a great deal of work around that’s extraordinarily crafted. In the last 30 years, the level of craft in photography has both risen and diversified. The people now doing alternative processes probably know how to do them better than the original practitioners. There are exceptions, but the imagery that’s the subject of all this craft is often average. The finely crafted print turns into the well-made pot – a well-crafted object that has no content other then the fact that it’s well-crafted. Where are the ideas? I don’t mean to say that all photo-based art has substantial content; much of it is, on the ideational side, about as thin as some photography is on the craft end. This isn’t to valorize photo-based art; but who is doing traditional photography that’s as provocative to the mind as the best of photo-based art?

JK: Who, indeed?

ADC: There are some. Joel-Peter Witkin’s imagery just lasts and gets deeper and richer. It’s extraordinarily crafted. The imagery itself endures so well it surprises me. After all these years, people still say, “It’s just shock value.” But I’ve been looking at some of these pictures for 20 years; the shock value hasn’t worn off, and the images haven’t worn thin. They continue to provoke me. Witkin doesn’t have a huge body of work, so every time you get a new book, about half of it is pictures you’ve seen before, but I’m always excited to see those pictures again. It’s possible to do both things: to make work that is aware of the history and traditions of the medium, and the ideas of the medium. However, many people are just doing one or the other.

JK: Is a fusion possible?

ADC: What I think will and should emerge is a field of ideas in photography that’s not separate from the field of ideas in art generally. Work should be responsive to and aware of both, and we should be working towards a merger. People coming to photography from a background in the other arts, whether they’re critics or performers, should be aware of the history of photography and its field of ideas, and incorporate those into their thinking and their work. Conversely, photographers need to be aware of the wider field of ideas in all the arts, and be responsive to those, not simply to the history of photography. The field of ideas in photography is much richer than most people outside the medium give it credit for.

JK: Examples?

ADC: I wrote a piece in 1976 on the directorial mode. I was trying to establish a lineage for what some people call staged photography. No one had looked at that current trend and said, “Where does that come from?” I went back to the work of O. G. Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson and other 19th century figures who were doing this. I tracked the evolution of that set of ideas up through the middle ‘70s. Photographers had been doing that for at least half a century before the conceptual and performance artists started. It’s an idea that originates in photography, not in conceptual art, or in performance art. Yet, if you look at any history of that tendency written by an art historian or an art critic, their understanding of it is that that started happening in SoHo in 1975. They ignore the photographic history as if it’s irrelevant. I think that’s shoddy and inaccurate historianship; it’s crucial to recognize that there is a history to that form, and if you’re going to look at that activity, you have to look at how that activity was performed across the board.

My hope for the next quarter century would be to see an increasing sophistication and broader knowledge base –  on the part of art critics, art historians, and artists –  of what photography has contributed to the field of ideas generally in art practice, giving credit to photographers who merit it for what they innovated. Conversely, I hope that photographers will be looking at other media and saying: “What did those artists bring to the table? What are the challenges that they put to us originally, and what are the challenges that they put to us now?” . . . rather than having a dismissive attitude toward them.

JK: Do you see any trends in that direction?

ADC: I don’t see that happening in a big way yet, but many among the current generation of curators, who have studied photography as part of their art-history background, bring to their curatorship an awareness of this medium’s history, and a lack of prejudice against it. This is different from the attitude of the previous generation of art-museum curators. Most of them were ignorant of photography. It wasn’t part of their preparation, and when you look at the shows they curated 25 or 30 years ago, photography was simply excluded.

JK: As photography became more ascendant, it became harder to ignore.

ADC: Chicken or egg? One way or another, today it’s not a medium they can ignore; it’s also not a medium that they want to ignore. It now has respectability. They don’t have to take any deep chances as curators by curating a photo show or incorporating photography into a survey show. No one is going to start waving a flag and saying photography’s not art; that’s all over. They are in a position to treat it simply as another art medium, and they do so.

The best of them have informed themselves about photography’s history and background, and some have them have done extraordinary shows. The Whitney Museum took on a curator named Sylvia Wolf, who had been at the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s now the Whitney’s first curator of photography. Wolf did a first-rate retrospective of Ken Josephson’s work. He’s a photographer’s photographer. His work is about photography, about the medium. There’s a famous picture of his son holding up a Polaroid of himself in front of his face. Pictures about pictures, pictures including pictures, punning. This is not a person who was known to anyone outside photography, although his work is deeply conceptual, and a precursor to a lot of work from the 1960s and 1970s done by conceptual artists, who were using photography to ask self-referential questions about the medium.

For someone like Wolf, with an art history background, to single out a figure like Josephson, who is not a high-profile contemporary art person, and to say it is important that we understand this work, signals to me that we’ve got a generation of curators who are finally well-prepared to look at photography and its field of ideas – not to look at just who’s making pretty pictures, or even powerful pictures, but to look at who’s creating a body of work that really asks deep questions about the medium, questions that can then be built on by other photographers and other people who don’t call themselves photographers.

JK: Are some photographers moving to take a broad view of the medium?

ADC: Some are, but we also have photographers who are simply drawn to one or another aspect of the tradition, and are simply going to continue in that vein. You’ll have people doing small-camera street photography forever. You’ll have people doing large-format rocks and trees forever. Whether they’re going to add something to what’s been done in those forms before, I don’t know. I think many of them are going to be satisfied to simply repeat the established tropes of that particular segment of the medium. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’ve got a big hurdle to get over for anybody who’s seen the originals, and seen the development. Where do you go with street photography after Garry Winogrand? Where do you go with large-format work after Edward Weston, or Minor White?

JK: There’s what a photographer does, and then there’s the universe of art that the photographer considers important to what he or she does. You can broaden your universe and continue to produce roots and rocks in the traditional manner, or you can open yourself to a broader universe of thought and that could change your photography. You’re making a case for a broad perspective, but not demanding work that changes in response?

ADC: I’ll answer that question obliquely. I’m a great admirer of both the music and the thought of Miles Davis. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Miles was running one of the great quintets in the whole history of jazz. They’d issue one or two albums a year – great albums, classic jazz – and on each of these albums there would be a muted-trumpet rendition by Miles of one of the great ballads: Lerner and Lowe, or Rodgers and Hammerstein. As a listener, you could never get enough of these. Then he changed his quintet, and began to do modal experimentation; then he went into fusion, and began adding electric instruments, and went off in other strange directions, and he lost a lot of people. To some extent he even lost me. Years afterward, Miles told Herbie Hancock: “You know why I stopped playing those ballads? Because I loved playing them so much.” There’s a deep insight into the creative process in that. You can get trapped in what you do really well, and in what other people love, and, if you’re a musician, you become a kind of tribute band to yourself. Even if Miles never did anything again as well as he did with that quintet, it became a constriction to him, and he had to move on. Look at Robert Frank, who does a perfect book . . .

JK: The Americans?

ADC: Yes, possibly the most brilliantly edited extended statement in the history of the medium. One of the top ten, certainly. He never did anything as tightly edited as that again. Everything of his since then is looser and funkier. Maybe he saw getting lost in the search for perfection as a potential trap for himself. What was he going to do, The Americans II?Son of the Americans?

I see a lot of photographers who achieve a certain success and can’t leave it behind. You love it, your audience loves it, you’re good at it, and it’s a comfortable trap. The risk is that if you could do it in your sleep, you’re going to start doing it in your sleep. Then you’re sleepwalking through your own work.

JK: Photographers and other artists need to push to the edges of their comfort envelope to stay engaged, to stay vibrant?

ADC: Well, I don’t want to go too far. I’m not saying that Edward Gibbon shouldn’t have finished The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, because towards the end he knew how it was going to turn out. There are people who simply find one thing and keep on going deeper and deeper. When you start to see the bottom of the well, are you going to keep on digging, or are you going to look for what’s next?

There’s a balance to be struck between the exhaustion of a particular vein and leaving behind real nuggets. Sometimes the decision may be that there are still nuggets, but it’s time to let someone else have them, depending on one’s on own restlessness or temperament. There are people who still mine exhausted veins. That’s sad.

JK: Let’s shift the subject. In photography, in the last ten years or so, there’s been a technology-driven upheaval that’s come upon the medium. Some people are reacting to it by embracing it, and others are battling against it. Can you talk about how you feel about what’s going on?

ADC: I used to think this was going to be the great divide: that people who were digital and people who were analog, or chemical, or wet, or whatever you want to call it, were destined to be poles apart. What I’m actually seeing is more merger than I expected to see. I was wrong in that prediction. I gave the keynote address for the Society of Photographic Education at Asilomar in 1978, and predicted that digital photography would be a major transition point, and that it would be schismatic. In a certain way, it has turned out to be so. Departments of photography in educational contexts, for economic reasons, have to choose. When you’re running a small photo department with a modest budget, it’s almost impossible to do both. Digital is expensive.

JK: The recurring costs.

ADC: Yes. If you’re going to run a serious digital photography program, you’ve got to be replacing your software every year and your hardware every two years, if your students are going to be able to compete in the market. In a chemical photography program the equipment can be 20 years old, as long as it’s maintained. In addition, most schools have limited physical space for programs, and setting up a set of digital stations requires another set of spaces, so schools have to choose. Many of the smaller schools, driven by the economics of student demand, have simply torn out their chemical labs.

JK: The driver in photographic education is not normally fine art.

ADC: It’s commercial art or applied usages. Driven by demand, many smaller schools have gone digital. Bigger schools, like RIT [the Rochester Institute of Technology] or the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, provide both. I think you’re going to start seeing some schools recognize chemical photography as a niche market for them. They’ll say, “That’s what we do; if you want to learn digital, go someplace else.” I think that will be a steady niche market for the next 50 years. What the size of that market will be we’ll see as this shakes down. I think there’s enough interest to sustain a number of such programs. It’ll be a strategic move that some schools make, and the smart ones will make that move early, and establish themselves as the place to go to if you want to do that kind of work.

I don’t think the skill sets of chemical photography are going to disappear; they’re here to stay. It’s interesting that during the infancy of digital imaging, the range and diversity of alternative processing work has expanded exponentially. The market is clearly happy to have this diversity. You go to the annual AIPAD Expo in New York, or the Armory Photo Show that they had for the first time last year, and you look at what’s happening, and the market is delighted with the diversity of photographic objects. Even the processes that combine digital and chemical elements are desirable.

JK: Some chemical photographers feel threatened because they fear the loss of the materials that they use.

ADC: It would not surprise me to see Kodak drop out of black and white chemical photography, but others will take over to form a boutique market.

JK: Look what happened to the LP record when the CD came along. The variety that was available plummeted, but the quality skyrocketed. The LPs you buy now are thicker, flatter, and better recorded than the LPs of 20 or 30 years ago.

ADC: I expect that quality will go up. The complaint I’ve heard from photographers for a long time is that there’s less silver and lower quality than there used to be. If a boutique market develops and photographers are willing to pay for high-quality materials, chemical photographers could have the ability to produce richer photographs.

JK: What about the ethics of image manipulation? Digital photography didn’t make such things possible for the first time, but it certainly makes them easier.

ADC: In journalism, there may be a problem. I see no difficulty in the context of art. If you could salvage a negative that got damaged, is that cheating? People used to retouch their negatives or their prints. If you’re going to salvage an image, why not use the very best tools you’ve got?

JK: Photoshop invites photographers to do things to images that haven’t been considered photographic, like drawing on their images.

ADC: Some will be better drawers and painters than others, and some of them will do things that are just God-awful. I’m seeing a lot of work in traditional forms that I think is just awful anyhow, so I’m not worried that digital photographers make more awful things than would have happened otherwise. We’re in a shakedown period. We don’t yet have standards for what digital photography is. There was a lot of bad photomontage around in 1970, and then we began to recognize, through the work of Uelsmann and some others, what could be achieved here.

JK: Jerry did it so well he scared everybody else off.

ADC: Maybe it did that, but at the very least it set a benchmark. It said, you’ve got to get close to that, or you’re not in the game.

JK: Now we’ve got paintings and photographs. Maybe there are a few things in between, but they’re tradionally different animals. Now the distinctions are getting sloppier. Will that change the aesthetics of the people appreciating the art?

ADC: It has to. Right now, we have the largest and best-educated audience for photography that the medium’s ever had. The number of people going to photography shows has been high since the ‘60s, especially any kind of photography that’s informationally based: documentary photography, photo-journalism. Attendance at shows likeThe Family of Man, or the Diane Arbus retrospective, was immense. Curators at museums say that photography is the most dependable draw that they have.

New audiences have emerged around photo festivals. There are dozens of international photo festivals where 80,000 people or 100,000 people come to a month-long festival. The medium’s never had an audience base of this scale. Although their education varies hugely, I’d say they’re better educated. What with the exponential growth in photographic literature, the PBS-style programs, the lecture series, etc. at least anybody who wants to be educated about photography these days can be. Which means that more people are educated than ever were. They’re there for the pleasure of looking at pictures. They’ll have different appetites for different kinds of pictures; but, generally speaking, they have never rejected the increasing diversity of photographic objects. I’ve never heard the audience say, “Why can’t we just have silver gelatin prints? What do we need all these other things for?”

My favorite kind of photographic object is the finely wrought silver gelatin print. If I had to pick a print to take with me to the mythical desert island, I’d be choosing between an Edward Weston and a Minor White. There are things that happen in silver that don’t happen in the other media, things that are particularly satisfying to me. The volumetric rendering, the creation of deep space, simply don’t happen in any other medium. But those are personal tastes.

JK: What do you think about publications taking sides?

ADC: I look at a magazine like Photo Vision, which has declared, in effect, “Lips that touch digital will never touch mine,” and I think, well, you’re dooming yourself to death. The audience for that magazine is limited, and shrinking. I never want to see a magazine die, but this is a recipe for slow death. When I was with Camera and Darkroom, we had that debate as digital was emerging, and we decided we had to do both. Photographers, including the high-end amateurs and pros who were our readership, were going to be dealing with digital in their own heads if not in their own work, and we had to confront that. The audience shouldn’t drive what artists make, but it may inform artists as to how their work is being received.

JK: There’s an indirect way that audiences drive art. If an audience likes something, it’s going to get displayed. If it gets displayed, artists will see it, and some will like it well enough to make similar work. They’ll say, “Those are the shoulders I want to stand on,” and try to stand on those shoulders. But if you’re thinking about your audience when you’re tripping the shutter, you’re going to make lousy pictures.

ADC: Sure. It doesn’t mean you’re not thinking about communicating; that’s a different thing. In my work, I don’t think about pleasing my readers. I do want them to have a good time in my essays, but that may mean that I really tick ‘em off. I want the reading process to be rich, so my writing is full of allusions and asides – including puns and jokes. Many readers don’t see that, because they think that criticism must all be serious, and therefore if they come across something that seems like a joke it can’t be. I sometimes think I’m a standup comic masquerading as a photo critic.

JK: What do you have on the front burner currently?

ADC: Two main projects, in addition to my usual freelance writing, teaching, and lecturing. First, I’ve now established a second website. My first, The Nearby Café (nearbycafe.com), which I opened in 1995, is a multi-subject electronic magazine which contains my own newsletter on photography, “C: The Speed of Light” (at photocritic.com), among other things. That’s an experiment in using the web as a space for potlatch – for giving information away for free. The new site, The Photography Criticism CyberArchive (at photocriticism.com), is a deep, subjective-specific online repository of writing about photography from 1820 through the present, by myself and many other writers. It’s password-protected and subscription-based, in order to enable the contributing authors to earn some revenue for including their work and to cover the costs of production and rights-licensing.

My most exciting moment with this project – aside from the day that the concept took shape, in the fall of 2001 – came a few weeks ago, when I did the html work that enabled me to post the complete text and half the illustrations for W. H. F. Talbot’s classic book, The Pencil of Nature, in the Archive for subscribers to access. So I launched Talbot’s ideas into cyberspace – a little milestone in photo history. Probably not important to anyone else, but I felt this glee as I set up those web pages . . .

JK: And the other project?

ADC: I’ve accepted a position as Historian-in-residence and Director of Special Programs for the Museum of Heliography, a new space for photography (almost 4000 square feet) that will open in the Midtown West district of Manhattan – on Eighth Avenue, between 38th and 39th Streets – this coming November.

JK: What’s this museum about?

ADC: It takes as its jumping-off point a collective of photographers who organized themselves formally as the Association of Heliographers on the East coast between 1962 and 1967, issued a manifesto, established a gallery in New York City, did other things. By the time they disbanded, the group included people as diverse as Paul Caponigro, Walter Chappell, Claudia Andujar, Larry Clark, and Jerry Uelsmann. They encapsulate almost all the energies of the photo community in the middle 1960s, and in their various approaches to the medium anticipate much of what’s happened since.

JK: What do you do for them?

ADC: This germinal group has fallen through the cracks of the medium’s history. I’m there to help collect and organize the existing documentation of their brief but notable history, to create and/or supervise the creation of new documentation (research essays, oral history), and to devise and oversee public programming – lectures, panels, symposia, seminars, publications, a website – that will help to create an awareness of this group’s importance and trace the ramifications of their activities in the decades that followed. In effect, it’s an opportunity to rethink the history of photography in the U.S. from 1955 on.

JK: This is the first time you’ve had a public position and a public platform of this sort. How do you feel about that?

ADC: This project makes use of all my existing skills, doesn’t require me to do things that don’t interest me or that I’m not good at (such as fundraising), provides me with a support base such as I’ve never had . . . I couldn’t be more delighted, or excited. Plus, it’s a half-time position, at least to start with. So it leaves me relatively free to continue with most of my other projects, though I’ll have to scale a few of them back. The main adjustment I have to make has to do with the fact that it is both a public position and a day job – even if only a half-time one. As a freelance, I have work, a profession, and a career, but I haven’t had a day job where I reported to an office since early 1968. The new job means I can’t just step out of the shower and sit down at my desk wrapped in a towel with a second cup of coffee at 9 a.m. every weekday anymore. So I bought a few suits, and now I’m looking at new footwear, and remembering Thoreau’s warning: “Beware of any enterprise that requires new shoes.” But I needed some new shoes anyway.

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