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Letters to a Young an Emerging Critic (1)

A. D. Coleman, 2010. Photograph copyright by Willie Chu.

To my surprise and delight, “Dinosaur Bones: The End (and Ends) of Photo Criticism,” a talk I gave at the Hotshoe Gallery in London on November 8, 2011, has evoked several thoughtful and substantive online responses. Not from any participant in the two forums where it became the subject of mostly vapid group discussion, but from Peter Marshall at his blog, Re: Photo, and then from one Dan Abbe. Heretofore unknown to me, and still unmet in person, Abbe describes himself thus: “I’m a writer focusing on photography.  I live near Araiyakushimae, Tokyo, Japan.”

A. D. Coleman, Hotshoe lecture poster 2011Abbe posted his commentary on my talk at his blog, Street Level Japan, on December 27, under the title “After Death: Picking up the pieces of photography criticism.” Endearing himself (to me, at least) by starting out “I’ve never heard anyone else say this, but I dream of becoming a photography critic,” Abbe goes on to weigh a number of the issues I raised in my lecture from the standpoint of someone looking to enter the field today — a most germane perspective. (You’ll find the text of that talk here.)

At the end of his commentary, Abbe issues a challenge: “The audience is already out there: really, who doesn’t want to read clear and intelligent writing about photography? The only question is how to create a platform to support the writing. Coleman doesn’t seriously engage with this question.” He’s right; the time allotted to the “Dinosaur Bones” lecture as a performance didn’t allow for that. But it’s a fine question, exactly to the point. Herewith further thoughts on some of the open questions posed, explicitly and implicitly, in that talk. — A. D. C.

Dear Dan:

A preamble . . .

Dinosaur fossil

Dinosaur fossil.

I hope it’s clear from a reasonably careful reading of “Dinosaur Bones” that I do not consider myself the best or the only substantial writer on photography, nor do I think good writing about the medium is vanishing. My concern has to do with such writing’s viability today in both the marketplace and the agora, where I view it as, at best, an endangered species.

I assume it’s understood that my concern about financial support for my writing, and the research underpinning it, comes from the fact that it is (or was) part of the way I pieced together my living as a freelance critic. Without support for the writing (and research) that results from the writing and publishing itself, I have to do something else to subsidize the writing (and research) — which cuts into the time I have in which to do the writing (and research), which converts me from being a working writer with some other revenue streams to a full-time teacher or curator (or real-estate agent or whatever) who’s at best an occasional writer. Nothing against occasional writers, nor amateur bloggers, but I’m committed to publishing professional-level material on a steady basis, and it’s gotten increasingly hard to maintain that commitment in my area of specialization, my attempts at broadening that territory notwithstanding.

I gather that you aspire to becoming a working photography critic — which might mean that you would piece together a revenue stream from some different activities, as I have (some writing, some teaching, some lecturing, some curating perhaps), but that you’d get paid for all of them, including the writing. In which case the writing would be done vocationally, not avocationally, meaning that you’d take it on as part of your daily job, not as a hobby or sideline.

generic U.S. passportSo, since we’re talking about creating a platform that would sustain such a commitment financially, let’s start with some hard facts. I’ve run this blog, Photocritic International, since June 2009. During that 2-1/2 year period I’ve published 150 posts there, all but the first few of them lengthy, deliberated essays, written to the same standards as the work I’ve published in print and online periodicals that have paid me for my efforts. My blog has a prominently featured Paypal donation button at the top of its right-hand column. Total reader/subscriber donations to date: well under $1K. Let’s round it off at $1K, however, and (rounding off the results upward to the nearest dollar) here’s the math: These posts, which takes hours and sometimes days of writing and research apiece, have earned an average of $7 apiece. (Not even factoring in running the risk of a whopping lawsuit threatened by Sotheby’s and the Polaroid Corp. trustee for my digging into the Polaroid Collection mess.) And that’s the only revenue that readers of my hundreds of essays published online since 1995 have provided.

A. D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995

A. D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995

During that same period, 1995 through the present, my revenues from writing for print publications — newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and some other clients — also dropped dramatically. In 1995 I grossed $19,707 for my writing, including 57 pieces in print periodicals and books and $555 in book royalties. In 2011 my writing earned me $6898 for 61 publications: $412 in Paypal donations to my blog, for 45 posts; $350 for print-periodical reprints of two blog posts; 6 columns for a U.K. journal; 3 features for a U.S. journal; 5 exhibition-catalogue essays; and $18 in book royalties. Round 1995’s revenue off to $20K, and 2011’s to $7K, and the numbers speak for themselves. I’m not producing less; indeed, I’m producing considerably more, since many of those 1995 publications, and much of that 1995 revenue, came from licensing reprint rights. I’m making considerably less per piece, and the gross has fallen off by some 60 percent.

That’s the consequence of a cluster of intertwining factors. Let me try to disentangle them, so I can offer you my first two bits of concrete advice.

New York Observer logoBy the time I made a space for myself as a columnist at the New York Observer in mid-1988, I had thoroughly professionalized my practice, including an understanding of copyright law, subsidiary-rights licensing, and self-syndication. My arrangement with the Observer — never a contract, just a handshake deal — gave them first print serial rights only for my columns; I retained copyright and all other subsidiary rights.

So I could license other uses of those articles. And I did, to periodicals and book publishers around the U.S., in Canada and Latin America, and all across Europe — western, eastern, northern — right up into the Nordic countries. Some of those pieces appeared upwards of a dozen times, in half a dozen languages. Some turned into book introductions (just as some essays that began as book introductions turned into magazine features and columns). Others I transformed into radio broadcasts for NPR. Some of them I gathered in books of my own writing.

The first two guidelines, then:

Copyright symbol and dictionary definition1. You can publish the same piece of writing more than once — and thus get paid for it more than once. So, as you conceptualize a given writing project, even a very specific assignment from a publisher, you have to think about what else you might do with the results of that effort, because the way you go about it from the outset will determine how you can multipurpose it later on.

2. You can only do that if you retain copyright and subsidiary rights for your work. This makes it worth your while to fight to retain copyright and subsidiary rights in your negotiations with clients, and to protect those rights from infringement once the work gets published.

I’ll come back to both these ideas in greater detail.

(To be continued.)

This post supported by a donation from photographer Harry Wilks.

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