Annotation: Depth of Field

After reading Critical Focus, a book which I took great delight in and found particularly insightful, I felt conflicted on whether to read another by the same author, A.D. Coleman. On one side, I really enjoyed the author’s insights on photography, art, and the world in general. On the other side, the scope of the topic at hand (photography) really suggested that I should try to not focus on any one author, so that I can gain more perspectives. In the end, I decided that “diversification” could take a long walk off a short pier–damnit, I could TELL Coleman had more to say, and had already earned my respect with his writing. To satisfy my conscience, however, I did not go for his earlier work, Light Readings, which is apparently much more similar in nature to Critical Focus, whereas the book I selected, Depth of Field, is more serious and scholarly in nature.

A collection of some of Coleman’s more scholarly essays (namely longer, more focused, with more citations and lots and LOTS of footnotes), this book was extremely informative and enjoyable to read. It started with an essay on criticism and the function of the critic, entitled “The Destruction Business”. This was interesting to read, and provided some insightful views that certainly I found useful, and would think that would be useful to anyone entering the critical mode of thought. Being “nice” to someone’s work serves no purpose (likewise, attacking the artist is counterproductive as well). If they do not receive VALID CRITICAL THOUGHT, it becomes very difficult to grow and improve as an artist. He also attacks the concept of “constructive criticism” as an oxymoron, since criticism, in its purest definition, means to take apart. This might be a bit myopic, however: by the definitions he lays out in this essay, all critical thought directed at the work (not at the artist) could be considered constructive (much in the same fashion a forest fire can be viewed as constructive, or an earthquake leveling a city… it gives the option to improve and grow from the remains).

The next essay, “On Redaction” was a more in depth examination of a recurring topic for Coleman, namely the process of editing and refining a body of work. This was incredibly useful, and really caused me to pause and think about my own redactive process. I’ve collected those thoughts in a separate piece, so I won’t go into them here beyond saying that I agree with his comment that for a body of work to truly be the ARTIST’S WORK, the artist must have the final word in the editing process. Though not all of them (extenuating circumstances in some cases, such as when the artist makes a conscious decision to release their archives after death), these “post-mortem” collections that keep on popping up are what amounts to grave-robbing. Many of those images were not released to the public because they were either of a personal nature, or because they were not up to the standards held by the photographer. To then turn around and release them after they are dead is highly disrespectful, and devalues their actual intended work.

The next two essays, “Documentary, Photojournalism, and Press Photography Now” and “The Image in Question”, were interesting, but felt vaguely like a rehashing of material I’d read in Critical Focus. The first essay was an attempt at delineating for the reader the differences between three common modes of photography that often get mixed up with each other. It also brings up another term, “Reportage”, a term which was elaborated upon in another book I read by Bill Jay and David Hurn (On Being a Photographer). The next essay went more in depth on the “directorial mode”, a recurring topic for Coleman. The directorial mode is the process of arranging the image before taking the picture, “directing”, if you will, the image. This is strongly related to pictorialism (which is essentially acting directorally, taken to a more extreme degree).

“Mutant Media”, Coleman’s next essay, discussed the topic of photocollage and photomontage, and the differences (and similarities) between the two mediums. This was extremely useful, and helped to validate photomontage as a worthwhile art medium for me personally. The difference between photomontage and photocollage (a point which is constantly blurred and misused) is that photomontage is generally done in the darkroom, and as such usually requires two or more works (or at least access to the negative or a facsimile thereof), whereas a photocollage is generally done to the print after it has been made (and as such generally uses other “finished” materials to create the desired effect).

The next essay, “The Vanishing Borderline” is one that I found particularly pertinent and useful towards my goals for this study. The topic that the essay was discussing was the “democratization of art” generated by the current level of computers, the internet, and technology in general. Coleman also went back and described other “popular breakthroughs” in the realm of photography, such as Eastman Kodak’s early camera, which made it affordable and effective for the average man on the street to take photographs, putting the creative process into the hands of everyone, instead of an elite few “trained artists”. His opinion (which I am inclined to agree with him on) is that the current trend in computers and technology not only expedites the creation process, but also takes another step toward giving the creative process to the everyday person. This is both a good and a bad thing: it means there is more “bad” art out there, because it raises the number of people with the technology but not the mastery to fulfill the desired effect. BUT, it also reduces the amount of elitism possible in the field (a GOOD thing!), and raises awareness of the medium among others outside the “art community”. It encourages a shift in the art community away from “made with the hand” to “made with the mind”. While not devaluing technical mastery, this shift encourages strong visualization and creativity, something personally I find a bit lacking in “traditional art study”. This I felt was really the seminal work of the collection.

After “The Vanishing Borderline”, the later essays simply weren’t quite as… poignant? Pertinent? While well written, and giving some interesting information and coming up with some fascinating commentary, they simply weren’t as relevant to me. An interesting essay on William Mortensen detailed the nearly complete erasure from the history books of this influential pictorialist photographer. He and Ansel Adams had heated debates in an old magazine called Camera Craft. While Mortensen seemed more well written (at least in the excerpts provided), he did not have as many friends where it counted – namely, curatorial and authorial positions at influential places such as the Museum of Modern Art. (It is a little scary to realize that so much of our ideas about photography and its history revolve around the Newhalls, particularly Beaumont, who was both original curator of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art as well as author of the still considered definitive history of photography. Relying on only one individual to define the history of a medium leaves much to be desired, since it is really only the views and opinions of one man.) Ansel HATED Mortenson. He on more than one occasion described Mortenson as the antichrist, and felt that his theatrical pictorialist style was a travesty to the medium. I found the whole debate particularly ironic, since it has resumed recently due to digital photography and programs such as Photoshop making it easier to manipulate images.

Skipping ahead an essay or two, Coleman also wrote about Edward S. Curtis, who achieved some acclaim photographing Native American tribes around the country. It falls back to the discussion of pictorialism versus straight photography, as apparently the Curtis collection has gotten some flack lately about whether or not he made the native americans dress up and pose. This seemed silly to me: of course some things were reenactments and not actual events. Of course he paid his models to wear “native garb”. He was trying to enlighten about a time gone past, and so was doing as best he could. It wasn’t a reportage or photojournalistic effort, it was a documentarian effort, documenting what he could of the past. Given that he was doing this before documentarian practices and philosophies were really created, I think a little leeway should be given here. Sure, some pictures are clearly contrived and thus ineffective. But the body of work as a whole should not be judged on those few.

Returning to the essay I skipped, “Lentil Soup” was an interesting meditation on how we are a lens culture, and how we got there. It provided some valuable insight and historical information, and hit upon a recurring theme for me: spontaneous invention and adoption of a new idea by society as a whole, shifts in paradigm by what I (and Fredrick Law Olmsted, where I first heard the term) call the “genius of civilization”. Where the collective intellect comes up with an idea, where people all over the place “invent” the same thing of their own accord, where that idea is very quickly and nearly universally adopted in order to make peoples’ lives happier and fuller. It is Coleman’s hypothesis that the lens was such an event. While lenses existed for centuries before, it wasn’t until Galileo’s time that they really became accepted and used for varieties of purposes. We are in the midst of a lens culture. It was around Galileo’s time that we shifted in our mindset away from theoretical sciences more towards verifiable sciences (getting hard data to prove the theories). From there, more and more uses of the lens have been found, until it has become a focal point (no pun intended) of our society. Glasses, contacts, telescopes, binoculars, microscopes, magnifying glasses, tv screens, cameras (moving and still), street lamps and headlights, all these things that are so integral in today’s society are all based on the principles of the lens.

The next essay was interesting, though nothing new – a topic that has been discussed around me for years. “Private Lives in Public Places” was discussing the ethics of street photography. Many journalistic photographers feel that if one is in a public space, then they are fair game to be photographed (though most are willing to concede to having model release forms if it is to be used in a publication). Personally, I feel this type of behavior is reprehensible: just because you CAN take a photograph doesn’t mean that you SHOULD take it. It is up to the photographer as to when a photograph is appropriate or not, but it seems like so many have abandoned moral integrity in favor of getting a “strong image”. The example Coleman used in his essay was that of a man who was photographed by a photographer for Time magazine without his knowledge or consent, and was then misrepresented by Time on the front cover of the magazine. This is just plain outrageous, and unfortunately happens quite often. Sometimes, even if the photographer has some ethics about misrepresentation, often they are working for someone who does NOT have those same ethics. Coleman used two examples from his own life of the lack of ethics in street photography. The first example was one of his son. He, his son, and a photographer friend were out horseback riding, and the saddle came loose on his son’s horse. He slipped off and broke his arm rather severely. He was taken to the emergency room to be treated, crying, bruised, and broken. The photographer, when not busy being helpful, took pictures of the whole thing (as he was wont to do). However, he worked for an agency who held rights on his work, so naturally these images ended up in his archives. Months later, Coleman received a call from the agency asking if they could use an image of his son all bruised and battered in an upcoming campaign against child abuse. Coleman of course said no, because it would be misrepresentational, and would paint both he and his son in an incorrect light. It was then that he realized that he was a special case: if he hadn’t known the photographer, it was distinctly possible that they would not have called. The next example was when he and a photographer friend were driving through New York, and came across a bit of traffic congestion. Soon they found why there was congestion: a car had broken down, and the driver had gone for help, leaving a young woman in a wheelchair sitting outside to guard the car. The photographer told Coleman to slow down so he could take a picture of it; instead, Coleman gunned it and got passed the site before his friend could take the shot. Why didn’t he let his friend practice his trade? Because he had no wish to be an accomplice to abusing a situation already bad enough for the subject of the proposed picture. There are some things you DO NOT DO, even if they would make a strong picture. Sometimes, your own humanity is more important than portraying someone else’s on film.

The final essay was really just a bunch of collected notes and thoughts on the stupidity of our current academic-centered art community (“What? You don’t have a master in fine arts? Away with you, I will not buy your art!”), and how it really only serves limited use. Just because you know the difference between a Monet and a Manet doesn’t mean you are capable of creating good art yourself, nor does it prove your ability to think enough outside of the box to decide your own opinions on an artwork. The whole “Academy” encourages elitism and lack of originality. (With proper irony here: Coleman and I seem to agree on this, yet he’s taught art at the university level, and I’m currently IN school for liberal arts, studying art right now.) His commentary on the art community’s current reliance on grants and funds to do their work was also both scathing and spot-on. The National Endowment for the Arts has become what amounts to little more than the dole. Many modern artists are aghast at the thought of doing the art out of their OWN pockets. It makes you wonder how committed they really are.

I’m going to close this with a rather lengthy quote from the last essay of the book. It is a list of items for an agenda towards anyone interested in becoming an artist. I found this book particularly useful, and a delight to read, like so much of Coleman’s other work.

– If you would be an artist whose work truly matters to any group of people, you must live as one of them, speaking their language, sharing their experience, their air, their food, their water, addressing your mutual concerns. Therefore, the first rule is: Stay put. Grow roots; allow the soil to feed you.
– Dig in your heels. Do not accede to any system that would shunt you aimlessly, constantly, from one context to another. Such systems are hostile to your survival. Develop versatility; there are alternative means for supporting yourself. Learn to thrive in the cracks.
– If you live in an art ghetto, you will think like a herd animal; if you live as a hermit, you will make hermetic art. Find some middle ground where there is room to breathe and time to think, where no one knows of any reputation you may have acquired. Try to keep it that way.
– Make a home for yourself. Heed the rhythms of intimacy. The artist must learn to be at home in his or her own work, to invite others in and make them feel welcome.
– Know history, especially your particular history, that of yourself and your people, whoever they are. You must be aware of all that has brought you to this moment. Only then can this moment, or any other, be truly yours.
– You are a worker, a producer of objects, a citizen in the polity. Be aware of your class origins, your class position, your class aspirations. Never allow yourself to believe – as did Ernest Hemingway – that the only difference between the rich and the poor is that “the rich have more money.”
– Speak – and make art – when you have something to say. Otherwise, teach yourself to shut up. Accept the natural rhythms of your own fallow and fertile cycles. Do not produce work merely to prove or reassure yourself. Artists are artists even when not making art.
– Put your own work on view in your home and studio, where you must live with and confront it daily. If your images cannot nourish you and sustain your own interest at length, they are unlikely to be of use to anyone else.
– Hone your craft. There is always a deeper level of communion with your tools, materials, and processes to work toward. You must find ways to make even pain and ugliness engage the senses; otherwise who will be persuaded to look at length – and why else make a picture in the first place?
– There are many ways to learn your craft. Be neither proud nor ashamed of the sources of your knowledge. But no matter what form your education took – the academy, apprenticeship, self-teaching – you must recognize your student work as such and put it behind you; otherwise you will make student work all of your life. Only then can you begin to build a poetry of your own. This will take years. Be patient with yourself.
– With perseverance and good fortune, you will find your true subjects – or they will find you. In either case, be prepared to be surprised: one does not choose one’s obsessions.
– If economic security is your goal, you are in the wrong profession. Frugality is one of the artist’s tools. If you’re lucky, such economic success as comes your way will arrive in increments that enable you to go on working without ever forgetting the experience of hunger. In that way your work may continue to speak to the hungry, who form the largest audience in the world.
– If recognition – or, even worse, fame – is your goal, you are again in the wrong profession. Modesty is another of the artist’s tools. If you’re lucky, any recognition you gain will be merely commensurate with your achievement, and any fame that afflicts you will pass quickly, leaving your sense of self undamaged, so that you can get on with your work.
– And, finally: Get on with your work. (Coleman, 174-175)

Coleman, A. D. Depth of Field. University of New Mexico Press, 1998.