In Dialogue with A.D. Coleman

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A.D. Coleman has been writing about the field of photography for over 45 years. As the first photo critic for the New York Times, he saw firsthand the rise of the medium’s stature in the art field during the late ’60s, and has continued to track its long and ever-expanding evolution since that time. Throughout his career, he has taken close interest in the rise of electronic and digital media, following its developments and, most notably, publishing a compilation of his writings on the subject in a 1998 book entitled The Digital Evolution: Photography in the Electronic Age. Our conversation began over lunch in Baltimore back in March during this year’s national Society for Photographic Education conference, and continued over the course of the following months via email.

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Gregory Jones: To begin, what does the field of photography criticism look like today? With the sheer breadth of ideas generated through photographic images, it seems impossible to think that a corps of critics can keep up. Many ask where photography is going … but where is criticism going?

A.D. Coleman: Photography as we knew it 25 years ago remains alive: people teach it and learn it, make it and sell it and buy it and collect it and study it. That won’t end, not for the foreseeable future. Extrapolations of those analog systems, enabled by digital technology, will continue to emerge, and people will make stuff with them, and people will continue to write about that stuff and the systems through which it gets generated and the people who use them, with varying degrees of cogency, as ever.

But a critical vocabulary, not to mention a critical discourse, has as a prerequisite a set of shared understandings and reference points. So I don’t expect to see a sufficient vocabulary emerge soon, if ever again, much less a consistent, coherent discourse about whatever we want to label this expanded field. As I said in my “Dinosaur Bones” talk in London in late 2011, this may mark the end of photo criticism as (all too briefly) we knew it.

At the very least, this situation will lead critics to narrow their attention and specialize more than previously in one or another type of photography — as we’ve seen in the other visual arts, with writers concentrating on folk art, sculpture, performance art, fiber arts, etc.

But this brings up a problem about which hardly anyone talks (except me). The real “crisis in criticism” in the visual arts is that you can’t make even a marginal living at it anymore. This must drive all but the wealthy critic into seeking a base in the post-secondary education industry, which respects only academically jargonized writing published in “peer-reviewed” journals, no matter how corrupt that system has become, and whose workload precludes production of all but the occasional essay.

Publications have never jumped at the opportunity of adding a photography critic to their rosters. More and more today, they look for generalists, “cultural journalists” who will write broadly (if shallowly) about all the arts. We’ve seen the dying off of the print periodicals. Their online replacements pay little if anything. You can’t make money blogging about the arts. Under those circumstances, who would make a long-term commitment to writing regularly about some aspect of the medium for a broad general audience? Who could?

GJ: In 1998 you published a book called The Digital Evolution: Photography in the Electronic Age. In it, you offered a selection of your writings throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s which tracked the development of electronic (a term that now seems archaic just 15 years later) photographic media. At times in this book, you seemed to have expressed some disdain for the earlier artistic experiments in digital imaging. Which imaging issues have been resolved, and which are still uncertain?

ADC: The earliest piece in the book actually dates back to 1967, before I hung out my shingle as a photo critic at the Village Voice in June 1968. My response to much of the early work in digital imaging reflected dissatisfaction with what I saw as its lack of substantial content. Much of the incunabula in any new medium tends to rely on mere novelty — look, I can do this! I can do that! — because its pioneer practitioners have to concentrate on mastering the toolkit, and the technology is unfamiliar and cumbersome.

Once they learn how to control the tools, and the tools become more sophisticated and easier to handle, creative attention gets turned to what the artist has to say. For a small segment of the audience — the type of people who enjoy sitting through an orchestra’s rehearsal, or the run-through of a play — it’s interesting, and revealing, to watch artists find their way into a new medium. That’s a specialized taste. So such work speaks to a thin slice of the audience. I may be part of that slice, but my role as a critic requires me also to think about the larger audience.

GJ: The publication of The Digital Evolution in 1998 came right around the time when the mastery of these tools occurred. While Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky achieved seamless realism in the early ’90s with “Dead Troops Talk” (1992) and “Montparnasse” (1993) respectively, it wasn’t really until the turn of the millennium that the weight of the bell curve shifted and artists began to produce believable fictions with regularity. Now, 14 years later, we seem to be in the midst of a digitally-induced renaissance; the tools have expanded exponentially, and so too have the resulting picture-ideas. From where I stand, I see us in the midst of an era of pinpoint customization, a state of creation that is limited only by our imagination. Can you talk about how the photographic field appears from where you stand?

ADC: I’m not sure we’ve ever been in anything other than “a state of creation that is limited only by our imagination,” in any medium. With that said, to use a phrase from the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, both photography as we knew it in the analog era, and as it has morphed in the digital era are “riding madly off in all directions.” For someone who remembers the situation of photography in the mid-1960s, when the few curators who paid attention to the medium restricted their working definition of fine-art photography to black & white gelatin-silver prints no larger than 20×24 inches, the pluralism of contemporary praxis and the ecumenical relationship thereto of critics, curators, collectors, dealers, et al, simply astonishes.

This strikes me as an inevitable pendulum swing after the peak of the purist tendency, which we could say (arguably) runs from the Group f/64 in the ‘30s through the fading of the influence of Szarkowski’s Greenbergian formalism — as exemplified by Winogrand and Friedlander — circa 1980.

While I see that turnaround as long overdue, I have to say that, for all its superficial diversity, I find the vast majority of contemporary work tediously homogenized by the academic system through which its makers passed. There’s a whole set of useful questions that started to emerge in the 1950s — about how a photographic image could be organized, and how one could speak in the first person through the medium, for example — that remain open, though largely disregarded.

GJ: Do you feel there’s a remedy for this homogenization? Is it a failure of education, or a natural state of organizational trends? From my observations over the past few years, particularly in some of the larger photography institutions, that there seems to be a premium on a type of academic interest of photographs that are made by and large for the purpose of discussing the materiality and malleability of the image itself. Perhaps that discussion is pertinent to the issues that have arisen from the digital medium, but it seems that you feel that there are too many artists chasing the same rabbit; that there are many more individualized conversations that could be taking place. Am I reading you correctly?

ADC: Post-secondary education doesn’t qualify as “natural,” but this tendency manifests itself in all academic disciplines. The guiding principle of the French Academy, which first formalized education in studio art: “Control instruction and you will control style.” Instead of thinking of this as a “failure of education,” consider the possibility that it’s a successful outcome of education, from the point of the view of the art-ed industry. Homogenization tends to result from the academicization of any creative medium; you see it resulting from programs in creative writing too.

Here in the west we live in the first culture that has ever produced far more formally credentialed artists than it can possibly employ or otherwise support. Partly that results from social promotion, pandemic throughout the education system, even at the post-secondary stage. College-level art school (including photo school) has become Lake Wobegon. All the children are above average. Nobody flunks out. See my recent unsolicited commencement addresses on this subject: “Say Goodbye to Lake Wobegon U.” and “Piled Higher and Deeper.” See also my series “Trope: The Well-Made Photograph,” in which I discuss the prevalence of visual clichés that I trace directly to the construction of mandatory post-secondary photo-ed thesis projects.

Can we reverse this somehow? I doubt it very much. That ship has sailed. Henceforth few photographers will become prominent in the field without making their way into the profession filtered through the photo-ed system, which will conform their early work to one or another version of what in the publishing world they call “house style” (underpinned by what I’ll call “house theory”). As the twig is bent, so grows the bough. Some will evade that indoctrination, or shake it off, but the occasional exception will only prove the rule.

Yet I think that in photography — both digital and analog — a variety of questions, large and small, remain open, answered only provisionally if at all. A cluster of picture-makers, including some with academic training, will gravitate to those. Think here, for example, of the technology that Mark Klett and his colleagues have evolved, enabling the viewer to study a scape as Klett describes it today and then compare it to the same geographic configuration a century earlier — rephotography gone digital. There we have a whole new relationship between photography and landscape as a mode opened up.

GJ: From your writings in The Digital Evolution, it seems that you have always been mindful of future iterations of the medium, and in the early nineties you had correctly predicted many issues currently at the center of photographic conversation. The topics you addressed include complications of copyright law, surveillance, privacy and the public/private divide, the ubiquity of screen-based images, among many others. In one of your more recent series of articles, “There Will Be Ink,” you forecast a rise in photography ebooks. Talk about your reasoning behind this prediction, and what others can you share in regards to the more critical issues being discussed?

ADC: The cost of producing printed and bound books of photographic images — especially in high-quality reproduction on coated stock — has skyrocketed over the decades since 1968. The list price has gone up accordingly.

The market for what we talk about as serious photo books (Frank’s The Americans, Winogrand’s The Animals, Clark’s Tulsa, etc.) was never large, and didn’t grow substantially even as the medium exploded during the photo boom of the ‘70s and since. The number of such books published per year rose geometrically over that stretch of time, most of them financial failures. How many photo books did you buy last year at or near MSRP?

As one consequence, few commercial publishers will consider photo books unless they’re subject-specific in ways that appeal to a market outside photography: Marilyn Monroe, cats, dogs, babies, etc. Taschen seems to me the only house that’s figured out how to produce oddball photo books and make money at it. The smaller, independent publisherspowerHouse, Aperture, Nazraeli have in many cases become vanity presses, requiring photographers to subsidize their own projects to the tune of $30-50K. And all they can guarantee for that is editorial control, a high quality of production, and some level of distribution … not a substantial publicity push (nonexistent nowadays), not reviews (hard to come by), not sales. Plus the prestige of their imprint on the book, which diminishes as it becomes known that’s for sale.

Many publishers now fulfill their own orders via POD; take a look at IngramSpark. So ask yourself: Is Aperture’s imprint on your book worth $50K to you?

If publishers require authors to fund their own books and handle their own publicity, who needs them? The logical path now involves self-publishing, via print-on-demand (POD) for that segment of the market willing to purchase that particular book in hard-copy form and a much lower-priced ebook format for those satisfied with digital presentation. I find the screens of tablets such as the Kobo Arc10 HD or the iPad attractive viewing/reading spaces for images and image-text combinations; the touchscreen component substitutes one haptic experience for another. They also enable hypermedia options (audio, video, slideshows, links) that the printed book doesn’t. Ripe for exploration.

The broader question you raise has to do with the size of the market for what I’ll call “physical art” — sculptures in bronze, books on paper, music on vinyl, photographs in gelatin-silver — versus the market for creative content delivered in digital form. The former is limited, and shows no signs of exponential growth. The latter is already vast, and growing at high speed.

GJ: Over the past several years, the question of, “What is photography?” has come up time and time again. It’s a question that’s currently mirrored in the title of ICP’s exhibition, “What is a Photograph?” Similarly, the platitude “Photography is Dead” seems to make perennial appearances throughout essays (rants?) found throughout online platforms. It seems to me that the issue at stake isn’t about the liveliness of the medium and its incidentals, but perhaps it’s an issue of language. Perhaps “photography,” as an umbrella term, can no longer adequately cover the multitude of lens- and light-based works being made today. Do we need to start thinking about a new photographic vocabulary? If so how would we go about this?

ADC: I’ve addressed this variously in recent years, at greatest length in that UK talk. We’re not talking here about practitioners (and critics, historians, critics, audience) simply expanding the parameters of what they accept under that rubric in style and content and performance — the resurrection of so-called alternative processes, or directorial strategies, or image-text works, or the other tendencies that energized the late ‘60s and the ‘70s in the medium.

What we see now constitutes a radical transformation of the technology (or technologies) of lens-based imaging. On the most basic level, this constitutes the dematerialization of photography, from image production and storage through distribution and reception, none of which now require the level of specialized training necessary just a few generations ago. Then we get to the imaging options: cameras that see around corners or make 360-degree panoramas, digital files that enable the viewer to determine foreground-background relationships, apps that make it possible to record the photographer simultaneously with the external subject matter.

Not to mention that fact that the line between insider/MFA-made work, “outsider” photography, and vernacular photography has become just about impossible to draw.

So we have Kuhnian paradigm shifts happening on several levels at once. And we’re smack in the middle of them. The vocabulary we evolved for discussing static two-dimensional lens-derived images on paper can’t suffice for this situation; it applies only to a small slice thereof.

Absent a bunch of people buying in simultaneously to a particular ideology (as happened with Marxian and postmodern critics), any new vocabulary for any medium emerges piecemeal, over time. And unless the medium stabilizes for some period, critics can’t test and refine their vocabularies and their understandings. So if the medium remains in flux, as I anticipate, criticism thereof will flounder about. And if, as I predict, no support base for critics emerges, that will give us one or more generations of critics with a commitment to the medium and the field at best transitory, at worst casual.

GJ: You mentioned in an earlier discussion of ours that you are working on a new edition of The Digital Evolution. What are your plans for this new book?

ADC: The initial proposal, accepted by a respected academic press, involved simply updating it by expanding it, to bring it up through the present. In the original edition I arranged the contents chronologically, as you know. I considered that the most effective way to show how my thinking about these tools and their implications changed as the technologies themselves developed and spread — with me running alongside it, or a few steps behind, trying to anticipate where it would head next.

However, when I began editing the second edition I quickly hit an unexpected wall — that of the book’s size, and the limits thereof. The original book runs about 180 pages, and it’s all lean meat. There’s nothing in there I’d want to cut. But I’ve written a great deal about digital technologies since 1998. I saw no way of fitting the best of that material (now some 16 years’ worth) into a second edition of The Digital Evolution without losing a crucial chunk of either what that original book contains or the later material. Which would also fragment the continuum of thought that it represents.

So I set the editing aside, hoping to devise a solution. Which came to me this summer: Make two books. Y2K will function as the logical cut-off point for the new edition of The Digital Evolution, which will collect the cream of my 20th-century writing on this set of issues. Then I’ll start editing a second volume of 21st-century texts as a follow-up — Son of The Digital Evolution, as it were.

I haven’t yet discussed this with my publisher, but I’ll do that in early September. I’ll offer them the option of publishing the second volume as well. I hope they’ll agree to this plan. If not, I’ll have to shop it around; I don’t see any other way to shape this material.

GJ: Parting Thoughts?

ADC: I suspect I sound like a grumpy old man, and I don’t want to leave readers of this Q&A with the impression that I take pleasure in raining on the current parade. I don’t. I cherished some aspects of the photo scene as I found it in the late ’60s — the relatively pure love of the medium that motivated most of those involved with it, and their struggle to legitimate it as a serious cultural activity, for example. But the success of that struggle (in which I took part) brought inevitable changes. And nada dura siempre.

So let me close by noting a few of the things I find exciting in photography today.

* First and foremost, the fact that the average citizen in many parts of the world now not only carries a camera every day (built into a cellphone, most commonly) but makes and shares lens-derived images, still and video, with other people on a regular basis. The production of photographs, and the use of them to communicate as a casual social function, has become an unremarkable commonplace across the social strata and the age and income demographics, etc. That’s the true, long-promised democratization of photography as a visual-communication technology, which I celebrate without reservation.

* As a subset of that, and a consequence of it, we have for the first time true citizen journalism and citizen photojournalism, which, when combined with social media and the internet as distribution systems, makes it possible for the average person to have enormous impact on world events. Think here of examples such as the documented murder of Neda Agha Soltan in Iran, the waitstaffer’s video of Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” speech to Republican fatcats, and the rebel fighter’s photos of Muammar Gaddafi’s ignominious end.

* This means that professional journalists can self-publish material that doesn’t make it past official censors, or that mainstream media don’t choose to present for one reason or another.

* All of this drives innovation in the technology of digital imaging on every level: production, storage, distribution, display. Not a week goes by that I don’t read about some new photography-related invention that would have seemed like science fiction in 1970. That comes as a corollary of the long-awaited integration of photography into quotidian life — not just image consumption, which we’ve all done for more than a century, but image production and distribution done as a matter of course by billions of people. Whatever problems and frustrations and confusions this may cause the working critic or curator or historian of photography, as enunciated above, I also find it breathtaking, and fascinating. And I hope I convey some of that excitement in my writing about these developments.

Thanks for your time, Allan; it was a pleasure

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Interview by Gregory Eddi Jones

Photo Credit: Anna Lung. A. D. Coleman, Staten Island, fall 2013.