She’s not two months into her new post as the Voice’s “Press Clips” columnist and already Cynthia Cotts’ copy glows with the sweaty sheen of desperation. Not that I keep myself up nights worrying about the careers of Voice writers, but she seems to be struggling. You wouldn’t have thought her predecessor Jim Ledbetter’s shoes would be so hard to fill; all he did his last couple of years was hold one-man seances to channel the spirits of Communist schoolmarms for their prudery and disgruntlement with the real world. But the early indications are that Cotts may not live up even to that legacy.
A few weeks ago she complained about John Podhoretz’s stacking the Post’s entertainment section with conservative writers–as though the Voice’s arts and entertainment writing has always been known for its political neutrality. Then she came along about a week behind Adam Mazmanian’s piece in NYPress about The New Yorker grabbing copyrights from contributing artists with her own piece about…The New Yorker grabbing copyrights from contributing artists. Did she disclose, conscience-of-all-media that a “Press Clips” columnist is supposed to be, that she’d read about it here the week before?
Last week she was really floundering. In her first item she dipped back into the Ledbetter schoolmarm tradition and broke the shocking news that men’s magazines are obsessed with tits and like to put beautiful, big-titted women on their covers. Her third item was another blinding news flash: a Voice writer prefers PBS’ Frontline to the “scaredy-cat” mainstream media. (Scaredy-cat?)
Between these moldy tidbits she sandwiched yet another old-news item, comparing “zine king” Jim Goad to journalist Gary Webb. Beyond being rejected by major commercial publishers in New York, which puts them in the same large camp with some thousands of other non-Ivy League non-domestic-novel-writing writers, the two couldn’t have less in common. But worse was how square and out of it Cotts appeared to be in retelling their tales for the umpteenth time. Of Webb she wrote that he “caught a tremendous amount of flak for ‘Dark Alliance,’ his 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News, linking the CIA with contras
who sold coke in L.A. Was it accurate? We’ll see. The series was debunked in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, and the editor of the Mercury News apologized for it.” Thanks for the thumbnail history lesson, but we’ve read much better coverage of all that in NYPress over the last year, Cynthia. Don’t mention it.
And worse: ”You may not have heard of Jim Goad,” she wrote, which I take to be her way of implying that she only recently had. Never mind that Answer Me! was the most talked-about zine of the 90s, that Goad also wrote several pieces for Cotts’ competitors over here at NYPress, that his Redneck Manifesto was widely reviewed and that his more recent troubles with the
law were just laid out in a huge article in the December Spin. Never mind all that, you never heard about him until “Press Clips”
came along. Discussing how Simon & Schuster rejected Goad’s second book, which will now come out from Adam Parfrey’s West Coast small press Feral House, she also seemed completely unhip to who Parfrey is, what Feral House is, Parfrey’s long role in the world of fringe and extremist publishing, why it makes total sense that Parfrey and Goad would know each other or just how big a step it is for Goad to move from having Simon & Schuster do his first book to Parfrey doing the next.
Last Friday, Binyamin Jolkovsky, who reproduces MUGGER’s columns in his online magazine Jewish World Review, got this e-mail:
Dear Mr. Jolkovsky,
I am the media reporter for the Village Voice. I am writing to ask for a comment on your decision to publish a truncated version of Russ Smith’s column for the New York Press. Please respond ASAP.
Press Clips columnist
The Village Voice
Phone: 212-475-3300 x3208
I know how I’d respond ASAP to such a high-handed approach, but Binyamin’s probably more of a gent than I am. Cotts must have learned this surefire method for warming up a source at the Joe Conason Charm School. Shouldn’t it have occurred to her that if Binyamin likes MUGGER’s column enough to run it on his website, the first thing he’d do with her e-mail would be to forward it to us? This is one savvy media reporter.
There’s no art-making process more “democratic” than photography. Anyone can do it. Everyone does. With billions of photographs produced every year, some have got to be decent. And since everyone’s gotten lucky once or twice, it looks easy.
That’s why people who don’t know better might have trouble accepting A.D. Coleman’s argument that a photograph can be just as much an original work of art as an oil painting.
Not that Coleman, one of the country’s preeminent photography critics, doesn’t understand the problem. “Popular interest in photography,” he once wrote, “is at best a mixed blessing. The very familiarity which results brings with it not only acceptance but, perhaps inevitably, a curious form of contempt. The importance of photography in our lives is so frequently acknowledged
that we have become numb from repetition, while the increasing technical sophistication of modern cameras (coupled with our escape from formal visual inhibitions) has made it easier to take good (though not great) pictures. Despite or because of all this, the significance of an original photograph–as a statement, a work of art, a Ding an sich–is usually overlooked…”
At 55, Coleman’s been thinking about the photo as art for roughly 30 years now, and his writing is as eloquent as his opinions can be flinty and disputatious. By his own estimate he’s written more than 1700 essays and articles, but as prolific as he is, the average Coleman essay is also long (“I like a long runway,” he smiles), methodical and thoughtful. He rarely writes a critique for its own sake, but connects the topic at hand to larger social or cultural issues. And he can be uncompromising on his principles. He once began a column with the declaration: “I herewith declare my refusal to review Untitled, the new book featuring previously unpublished and unexhibited photographs by Diane Arbus, which has just been issued by Aperture.” He then clearly argued his objections to the book, which included: “I believe that public presentation of this imagery–a set of pictures of developmentally disabled people made during the period 1969-71, the years just before the photographer’s suicide–exploits its human subjects in ways that I find morally reprehensible. I refuse to contribute to that process in any way.”
As one measure of his output, not one but three new book-length collections of his essays have just come out. There’s Light Readings, a revised collection of essays from 1968-’78 that was originally published by Oxford U. Press in ’79 (U. of New Mexico Press, 310 pages, $19.95); a collection of more recent essays, Depth of Field, also from U. of New Mexico Press (198 pages, $19.95/$45 hardbound); and The Digital Evolution: Visual Communication in the Electronic Age (Nazraeli Press, 192 pages, $24.95).
And those are just the new ones. His other books include The Grotesque in Photography (1977), his first, and still the standard text on the subject, Critical Focus (’95), Tarnished Silver (’96) and one for kids, Looking at Photographs: Animals (’94).
A native New Yorker, Coleman started writing for the Village Voice in its golden age, May 1967, when he was in his mid-20s. He stayed until ’73. Meanwhile, in ’69, an editor at The New York Times invited him to take over a photography column there. Coleman was 27 and “utterly flabbergasted. You gotta understand, when I was growing up in the bohemian lefty Village, there
was nothing to aspire to more than to write for the Village Voice. We as human beings didn’t write for The New York Times–gods wrote for The New York Times… So to land at the Village Voice was fantastic. It was unbelievable. And it was a fluke–I just wrote a piece and sent it in cold and Diane [Fisher] called me up and said hi… So when the Times called, I had only been writing for three years. I had no formal grounding in photography, no credentials of any kind. But then again, they didn’t have many choices. There were like two photo critics out there, and one of them was me.”
He left the Voice in ’73 over an editorial dispute. He’d written a long, two-piece essay panning a new photo book edited by Minor White–an early but characteristic show of intellectual brio on his part, since White was an archon of the photography establishment. The Voice published the first part, then his editor “refused to publish the other unless I modified the tone. Which was so unheard of at the Voice at that time… I had no idea what this was all about, and I still really don’t know… It wasn’t White bringing pressure to bear… The Voice basically offered an ultimatum, that I either change the tone of the piece or they wouldn’t publish it, and I did what was probably the big stupid act–or one of maybe two stupid acts of my professional career. I held a gun to my own head and threatened to resign, rather than demand the editor’s resignation. And they accepted my resignation!” He laughs ruefully. “Which surprised me and chagrined me of course, but what could I do?”
He stopped freelancing for the Times the following year, when a change in editorial regimes made him feel unwelcome.
His longest run in any paper, however, was more recent: He had a column at The New York Observer from the summer of 1988 until Nov. ’97. He left there over a dispute, too: a very late-90s argument over electronic rights. The online art magazine he edits and maintains (nearbycafe.com) reproduces his resignation letter to Observer president Brian Kempner. It’s a classic Coleman text, written with daunting clarity and a precision of scruple you just don’t see too often in this equivocal world.
In the fall of ’97 Coleman and all the other freelance columnists–Rex Reed, Molly Haskell, Hilton Kramer, Todd Gitlin, all of them–were informed that the Observer was going online with AOL, and sent contracts to sign. “I’d have been happy to have my column go online,” Coleman wrote Kempner, “but not at the cost of signing all my electronic rights over to Arthur Carter, the
Observer’s wealthy publisher, as you insisted I do… You demanded that I sign over to the Observer, in perpetuity and for free, all of my electronic rights to all of my writings to appear there after October 15 of this year, and told me I couldn’t write for the paper any more unless I agreed to make this mandatory donation to Observer publisher Arthur Carter’s business enterprise. I refused to succumb to that blatant blackmail; you thereupon terminated our relationship. So I’m no longer writing for you. Period.”
Coleman was the only holdout, which still surprises him. “You were going to sign away–you did sign away, because everybody except me signed–all of your electronic rights in perpetuity,” he says. “In fact, initially they put it out as a complete work-for-hire contract, so you were signing away all rights, including print rights, and I negotiated them out of that… I was talking with Rex Reed, who had a website going up, and he said, ‘How does this affect my website?’ And I said, ‘You will not be able to
use your column at your website, period–that’s how it affects your website.’ Oh, it’s amazing. People still don’t get this idea of electronic rights.”
Coleman insists that he would have signed a limited, one-time-usage contract for temporarily reproducing his column online–which was all that was needed anyway, since the online columns are wiped after one week, and there’s no online archive. But he wouldn’t sign away reprint and reproduction rights forever because, as he wrote Kempner, “I own all the rights to all but two of the 1700-plus articles I’ve published in my 30-year free-lance career, and intend to keep it that way. Those rights constitute my health plan and my retirement fund; moreover, I generate roughly $6500 per year through the licensing of subsidiary rights to my writings.”
Although he admits that the paper had been grinding down his column anyway–it went from weekly to biweekly to more like monthly by the end–he tells me, “I hated to leave that column. I’d spent almost a decade developing it and developing a readership and would have loved to feel I had some other alternative.”
It’s not like he hasn’t been writing in the year since. “I’ve got columns going in the Czech Republic, in Spain, in Germany, in Hungary, on the West Coast here; I send stuff out not as columns but as one-shot articles on a regular basis to a number of other publications. I have things happening in Latin America.” He does “Visual Literacy,” a book review column in the gallery guide Photography in New York, and writes regularly for Art News. He writes essays for museum catalogs–which, he happily
tells me, pays better than the journalism–scholarly things, lectures. He’s got the website, the three new books to push and plenty of ideas for future books.
Coleman has written about all the major issues in photography of the last three decades, from the NEA and censorship to digital reproduction. “Nothing I write goes out that is not in the very least useful,” he says. “There’s really no assignment I take that I’m not asking myself on some level how can I make this hot for myself and my colleagues, ask the difficult questions.
How can I make it hot for my readers? How can I further my ideas and push the reader a little bit?” He cites Miles Davis’ answer to Herbie Hancock, who asked how he could have stopped playing the beautiful bluesy ballads he cranked out in the 1950s. “He said, ‘Herbie, you know why I had to stop playing those ballads? Because I loved them so much.’” Unless
you keep pushing yourself and your readers, he says, the familiar can become easy, and a trap.
Returning to our initial point, he acknowledges that photographers themselves don’t always help his case for the printed photo as unique art object. On his good side there are the Edward Weston types who make artistic choices at every step, from setting up the tripod to the exposure, developing, dodging, cropping and the paper the photo’s printed on. Think of it “on the level of being a printmaker,” he suggests to me. “But I would construe this term ‘printmaker’ very broadly, in the sense that I would think of Weegee as a printmaker. Weegee’s printmaking medium was newspaper halftone and the magazine. He made his negatives and determined his exposures on the basis of what he knew would render effectively in those print mediums. So Weegee’s original prints, from my standpoint, are the Daily News pages, his books like Naked City, Coronet and magazines like that.
“And that’s vastly different from a Weston print made at the same time. [Weston] really wanted you to see how he handled the nuances of silver, as an interpreter of the negative in the darkroom. Ansel Adams–bless his heart, I have not a high regard for his work, but he gave us the perfect metaphor. He said, ‘The negative is the score. The print is the performance.’ And for someone who is a committed performer of their work, the original print is a significant artifact. Someone who uses the darkroom in a significantly interpretive way, you need to see how it is they rendered it, just as you’d want to hear Stravinsky conduct The Rite of Spring.”
John Sexton, ”a very fine classic landscape photographer who worked as Ansel Adams’ assistant for years,” gives a slide lecture on Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a famous Adams landscape. “He shows you a straight, undodged, unmanipulated print from the original negative, and it’s boring as dogshit. Then he shows you the envelope [that held the negative] with all Ansel’s varied instructions written on it, and shows you what happens when you affect the negative that way, and then he shows you three or four variants of how Ansel printed that negative over time,” and hopefully you begin to understand just how much thought and work go into making one of Adams’ very clean and “natural”-looking works.
None of this talk about the negative and the print, Coleman adds, is “a matter of being a precious objects fetishist. It’s a matter of seeing and hearing the work the way the maker meant me to see it.”
Which is why on Coleman’s bad side are photographers like critics’ favorite Garry Winogrand, who portrays himself as basically just another snapshot-taker like the rest of us. Coleman wrote in 1989: “Garry Winogrand once described his approach to photography in these words: ‘You see something happening, and you bang away at it. Either you get what you saw or you get something else–and whichever is better you print.’ No credo could be more self-indulgent or uncritical, especially since statistical probability is on the side of the small-camera photographer who ‘bangs away at it.’”
the confusion for many people, he concedes, is that photography is the infinitely
“They’re not wrong [to think that]. There’s just another level to think of. You can infinitely reproduce or print a negative if you’re careful with it. No one has destroyed a negative by printing it. The negative does not become exhausted like a litho or an etching.”
Of course, this whole issue of reproducibility has taken a quantum leap in the age of the digital image, the computer and the Internet, all of which he addresses in The Digital Evolution.
“Digital is really curious,” he says to me. “Initially I predicted this kind of absolute schism, with digital on the one side and analog on the other side. I was wrong… [D]igital is infiltrating everything. Some fields it’s infiltrating dramatically. I would suspect that photojournalism is going to be almost entirely digital in the next five years, max… Even people who are working to a large extent in what we consider to be traditional analog ways are finding uses for digital as a kind of intermediary document. I know people who are traditional black-and-white landscape photographers who will take their analog negatives, scan them, do any necessary tweaking and corrections on the screen, generate a new analog negative digitally and take that corrected negative into the darkroom, rather than doing all the burning and dodging that’s traditionally necessary for negatives…”
So, thinking of that Sexton lecture, he says that “it would not at all surprise me that if Ansel Adams were alive today he might very well decide to digitize that negative and print from an altered version that did not require those seven or eight or 10 darkroom operations… I think you are going to find people using digital for everything from darkroom management and record keeping to this kind of negative correction onto digital photo-montage, keeping the generation of images completely
through digital means that look photographic but that have no photographic referents…”
When you do that, where’s the original work of art? Is there one?
“I don’t know,” he shrugs and grins, one of those critics who’s willing to admit he hasn’t thought everything through yet.
When it comes to the NEA and public arts funding, Coleman–who was the first photography critic to get an NEA grant in ’76, and has picked up a few other grants over the years–is scornful of artists who act like they’ve got some sort of innate right to public support, with no public oversight. He calls the related issue of censoring photographers and photography exhibits “the
hot-button issue” of the 90s, citing the tsouris that’s been handed Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sally Mann and Jock Sturges.
“Photography is a problematic medium in this regard for a lot of people. If someone had written a book version, as it were, of Sturges’ images [of nude adolescent girls], or someone wrote a poetic version of Sally Mann’s work [including portraits
of naked children], it wouldn’t raise the kind of hand-wringing and book-burning impulses that photography does. Photography disturbs people on some very deep level, because people have a hard time accepting the photograph as a fiction.” As a leading critic in the field, Coleman’s often called in to testify in court cases, where the courts are struggling still to define the legal and
moral distinctions between, say, Sturges’ naked 13-year-olds and kiddie porn. They’re issues that won’t be resolved soon.
Along with the writing, Coleman’s always taught–at NYU for some years, at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and, at one point, commuting back and forth every week between his home on Staten Island, the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.
Asked what he thinks of today’s college students, he replies without a tic of hesitation, ”They’re just getting dumber. It’s not that I’m getting older. They don’t really have writing skills, they don’t really have reasoning skills–which go hand in hand to some extent–they’re much more narrow in their focus, they’re basically concerned only with their own work, they have no historical reference points… I started teaching in the early 70s, and I was visiting schools before that, and I just remember
brighter, more avid students. Not that they weren’t concerned with their own work, but they just were hungry for anything about photography–history, criticism, theory, ideas, interdisciplinary connections. And now they’re more narrow, it seems to me. What they’re interested in is mainly their own work. They’re out there, perfectly happy to reinvent the wheel.”
Still, he hasn’t given up on the academy. Recently, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, which houses the Ansel Adams archives, announced that it will be archiving A.D. Coleman’s 27-year bibliography, some 1600
pieces he wrote between 1968 and 1995.
The latest attempt to revive the Lampoon legacy is called Harpoon, which is an indication of how subtle its humor is. Too bad. The premiere February 1999 issue does not bode well: It read less like a new Lampoon than the terminally clunky junior-high level jokes of today’s MAD. I didn’t find a single genuine laugh in an interminable cartoon feature about Bill Gates
as “Frankengates,” much utterly predictable political satire about Clinton and Starr, et al. If it’s not very well written, though, at least it looks great, and a lot of the cartoons and illustrations are very nicely drawn–by NYPress’ Mike Wartella, Rick Parker, Howard Cruse, Colin Huff and others.
Two other NYPress illustrators have new publications of their own out. Fly’s CHRON!IC!RIOTS!PA!SM! from Autonomedia (128 pages, $10) interleaves comic strips drawn in her recognizable Furious George style, but telling her own stories, with some pure old-fashioned East Village squatter-punk anarchist prose rants and manifestos.
And Mort Todd’s put out the second issue of his comics zine Weird Menace. It’s kind of a punk rock Tales From the Crypt, with strips like ”Death Battle of the Bands,” “The Stripper, the Zombie & the Alien” and “The Devil’s Haircut,” by guest artist Cliff
Mott of Cracked.