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Earl Coleman (1916-2009): A Farewell

Earl M. Coleman, ca. 1970

My father, Earl Maxwell Coleman, passed away on October 12, 2009. He died just a few months before his 94th birthday, coming up January 9. A suspected pulmonary embolism took him, quickly and painlessly, while he was discussing with his wife Ellen the short story he planned to write next.

Here’s the obituary that appeared in the New York Times, emphasizing what Earl accomplished as head of Plenum Publishing Corporation, the scientific-technical house he co-founded with my late mother Frances in 1946. Plenum still exists and, indeed, thrives, on a scale he did not envision when he sold his interest in it in 1977 (much too soon, he later concluded ruefully).

Paul Strand, Mexican Portfolio (1967)

Paul Strand, Mexican Portfolio (1967)

Earl was known to the photography community as the publisher who founded Da Capo Press, a humanities division of its parent company that began by issuing reprints of some significant photo publications, but soon moved into the production of new works as well. This came primarily at the instigation of that division’s EIC, Alan J. Marks, a prescient collector of photographic prints, but Earl participated ambitiously in all of Da Capo’s diverse ventures. (Full disclosure: I worked for a year as a sub-editor at Da Capo, 1967-68, under Marks, before striking out as a full-time freelance writer; and without the exposure to photography that experience afforded me I don’t think I’d have set forth as a photo critic. I’ve written about this experience in “Feeding the Lake,” my preface to A. D. Coleman: A Bibliography of His Writings on Photography, Art, and Related Subjects from 1968 to 1995, published by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 2000.)

Upon publication of the Times obit in November I heard from a number of people in the photo community who’d crossed paths with Earl, and remembered him fondly — even when he’d turned down their proposed projects, as happened frequently. (My thanks to those who sent condolences and reminiscences.) He was never less than forthright in his opinions, and always wholehearted in his enthusiasms. Most of what he chose to publish in the field of photography, whether reprint or original, succeeded from a business standpoint, and made a contribution to the literature. Some of those books became classics, and most are now rare and expensive collector’s items.

Here are some of the publications that Da Capo undertook in this area during Earl’s years at Plenum/Da Capo (1963-77):

  • Paul Strand, The Mexican Portfolio (1967). Second edition of Strand’s Photographs of Mexico (1940), limited to 1000 copies, with hand-pulled gravures. Printing supervised by Strand; co-produced with Aperture, Inc., in collaboration with Michael Hoffmann.
  • Benedict J. Fernandez, In Opposition: Images of American Dissent in the Sixties (1968). Fernandez’s first book, an original publication, with an introduction by Aryeh Neier.
  • William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (1969). Facsimile edition, with an introduction by Beaumont Newhall. (Don’t know why no one since has produced a reasonably priced facsimile edition. I’ve subsequently published the complete text, and the illustrations, as part of the Photography Criticism CyberArchive.)
  • Walker Evans, Photographs for the Farm Security Administration, 1935-1938 (1973). Subtitled “A catalog of photographic prints available from the Farm Security Administration collection in the Library of Congress,” this book, also a Da Capo original, was the brainchild of Alan Marks, who merited a credit as editor but modestly didn’t take one. Arguably the first catalogue raisonné ever produced of any body of work by any photographer. Introduction by Jerald C. Maddox of the Library of Congress.
  • George Alpert, The Queens (1975). A Da Capo original.
  • Adál Maldonado, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1975)

    Adál Maldonado, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1975). A Da Capo original.

  • George Alpert, Second Chance to Live: The Suicide Syndrome (1976). A Da Capo original.
  • Peter Hujar, Portraits in Life and Death (1976). Introduction by Susan Sontag. A Da Capo original.
  • Valerie Wilmer, The Face of Black Music (1976). Introduction by Archie Shepp. A Da Capo original.

During Earl’s last years running Plenum/Da Capo, I edited a small series of reprints for that imprint:

Upon leaving Plenum Earl tried to take Da Capo with him; it had always been a labor of love, for his real interests lay in the humanities, not the sciences. That proved impossible, and a non-compete clause in his sales contract pretty much concluded his involvement with publishing in the arts. (Da Capo still exists, and also thrives, as an imprint of Basic Books; they occasionally publish a reprint of a photography book.) After exploring several other publishing options, Earl returned to creative writing, where he’d concentrated his efforts prior to becoming a publisher.

Over the last quarter-century of his life, Earl wrote prodigiously, approaching the process of seeking publication with the same determination and systematic thinking he’d applied to his activity as a publisher. (“Creativity is fungible,” he often insisted.) As a result, he published over 300 poems and some 50 short stories in print and online literary magazines. He received two nominations for the prestigious Pushcart Prize (in fiction) and three collections of his poetry appeared during those years, including one on which we collaborated, Like Father Like Son (Villa Florentine Press, 2007). We did our first joint readings ever — which were also his last — to celebrate its publication.

In 2001, to support the publication of his first book of poems, I dedicated a section of my website, The Nearby Café (which also houses this blog), to Earl’s creative work: Stubborn Pine: The Writings of Earl Coleman. We added material to it periodically over the years, so it now contains an extensive and representative selection of his poetry and short fiction, plus sections of two novels, several polemics, and other material. I’ll keep this online permanently at the Café, in his honor. As his widow and literary executor, Ellen Schneid Coleman, sorts out his manuscripts, I’ll enhance it with more of his published work (and some unpublished pieces as well), to create as complete an online archive as possible of Earl’s creative work.

From 1992 until just a week before his death Earl also taught creative writing to gifted and talented young people, in a program he originated that was sponsored by the Arts & Culture Committee of Greenburgh, New York. Many of that program’s graduates have gone on to write successfully; in fact, a number of them published (in adult literary magazines) while still in the workshop. It’s the only one of his legacies not mentioned in the Times obit, and the only one of his achievements whose omission I know he’d have regretted — because he was particularly proud of his students.

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