DURING THE '60s when most art critics were perplexed as to what all the fuss was about, and a few actually strained to understand photography, the young A.D. Coleman, inspired by reading Marshall McLuhan and William Ivins, Began to review photography.
Light Readings is a selection of Coleman's work over the last 10 years. Although he is at times extremely insistent or righteous, the book doesn't read as a collection of immutable or unarguable opinion. It resembles more a diary tracting the development of one very passionate writer's thoughts.
Coleman defined his role in criticism as a "synapse." Because so much was going on, and so few were writing about it, I was leery of functioning as an intentional filter -- that is, I was reluctant to exclude from my consideration anything that seemed even remotely pertinent." His earliest work, begining in 1968, appeared regularly in The Village Voice in the column "Latent Image" where the "embraced and tried to deal with almost everything that came may way."
Coleman did little tiptoeing. He once decribed his approach proudly, with only a touch of chagrin,, as that of a "bull in a china shop." An example is his justified attack on Thomas Hoving and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 1968 exhibit "Harlem On My Mind," a title taken from an Irving Berlin song. He remarked, "'Harlem On My Mind' may be Humanism to Hoving, but to me it's a staggering display of honkey chutzpah. Blacks who have lived in Harlem are entitled -- though assuredly not prone -- to sentimentalize this ghetto. The white cultural establishment and its individual members . . . are not." Likewise he was less than sympathetic to Bruce Davidson's exhibit [and eventual book], "East 100th Street." Suggesting one of the paradoxes of the photograph, he felt that Davidson had "transmuted a truth which is not beautiful into an art which is."
In the early '70s it was unthinkable to question the importance of Diane Arbus who, shortly after her death, had been given the imprimatur of a Museum of Modern Art retospective, Now her work is being reassessed. Coleman represents the kind of critic who was paying homage to Arbus then. Thus, Light Readings is also useful for providing a stage for demonstrating the changing attitudes towards photographers of the last decade.
Dialogue with Photography, valuable as a single collection of interviews with so many who have had a profound impact on the medium [Cartierbresson, Kertesz, Brassai, Paul Strand, minor White, etc.], is sometimes irritating for its brevity. The authors seem more intent on scanning the lives of these artists in one interview than picking up cues and pursuing answeres in greater depth. Nevertheless, there's a good deal of information. We learn, for example, how Imogen Cunningham both raised a family and became a photographer. "We had a big yard with lots of places to play and they [the children] would be allowed to go free in the garden, but I didn't go in the darkroom when they were on the loose. I photographed them, at the same time I did most of any flower things."
Minor White discusses his long interest in combining poetry with photography; his early conversion to Catholicism; mysticism and the begining of Aperture, the quarterly of photographs and photographic writings. He also has some thoughts on the critic who "should be the photographers best creative audience and know when a photographer is slipping. He should be able to come to grips with a photographer's most sophisticated, and even his obscure, meanings."
Given the long and often senseless debate as to whether photography is art, it is illuminating to ponder Marius De Zayas' two essays on this subject written in 1913 and collected in Volume I of The Camera Viewed. De Zayas was a member of Alfred Stieglitz's cilcle and also wrote about the influences of African art on modernism in the West. He probably resolved the photograph/art question as well as anyone since, although his ideas are too often obscured by hyperbole.
Also in Volume I is a fascinating interview with Walker Evans done in 1971 by Leslie Katz. Given Evans incisive, never overstated description of the qualities, mysteries and contradictions peculiar to the photographic medium; it's not surprising to learn he originally had writing ambitions. For Evans' own work, he acknowledges a debt to the naturalism and realism of Flaubert and to the spirit of Baudelair whom he calls the "father of modern literature."
It wouldn't be inappropriate to call Evans, who broke with the self-consciously artistic photography of Stieglitz and others before him, the father of modern photography. Asked about the documentary nature of his photographs, Evans responds that it's more a matter of style. "An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless." CAPTION: Illustration, no captian, from The Camera Viewed'.