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Letters to an Emerging Critic (2)

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

Prompted by a query from Dan Abbe, who states at his blog Street Level Japan that he “dream[s] of becoming a photography critic,” I began to write these letters of advice with an eye to helping him move toward that goal. Some of my suggestions fall into the nuts-and-bolts area, others concern strategic thinking, and yet others have to do with methods of sustaining one’s energies over the long haul.

Rainer Maria Rilke, ca. 1894. Photographer unknown.

Rainer Maria Rilke, ca. 1894. Photographer unknown.

My models for this are neither Rainer Maria Rilke at the spiritual end of the spectrum nor Niccolò Machiavelli at the tactical end, but an absent one. I found nothing like this to read when I started out, so I had to construct my own practice from scratch. Perhaps I can save Abbe, and some others, from a few missteps I made, so they can make a different set of errors and discoveries.

In my original title for what I saw as an ongoing series, “Letters to a Young Critic,” I deliberately echoed Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” In his response to that first missive, Dan indicated that this left him with some trepidation, the possibility of someone interpreting “young” as “immature.” I didn’t intend it that way (nor, truly, did Rilke), but in the interest of avoiding anything that smacks of patronization I’ve changed that designation to “emerging critic,” which would apply to anyone at any age starting out in that role. — A. D. C.

Dear Dan:

A. D. Coleman, Hotshoe lecture poster 2011

Just to be clear — I’m not looking for a “foil,” someone to play Robin to my Batman, Tonto to my Lone Ranger, or Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote. I haven’t had many emerging critics ask me for advice. And while, as I usually say, free advice is worth every penny you pay for it, I do have some experience that I’m happy to distill and pass along to anyone who might find it useful.

Your two posts subsequent to the first of these letters raise some good questions, but we need to put a finer point on at least one of them. In “Short note about online criticism and the lack of a middle ground,” datelined February 8, you quote one of your commenters, Daniel Campbell Blight, who wrote in response to your first post about my “Dinosaur Bones” lecture,

I think the issue I have is that the middle-ground you and A. D. Coleman want to occupy doesn’t exist, and neither of you are doing anything to define it or lay out the terms in which you think it justified. Until that happens you won’t develop a language or a practice that people are willing to buy into.

It’s not clear to me what “middle ground” Blight thinks I (and perhaps you too) “want to occupy” that “doesn’t exist.” If he refers to “develop[ing] a language or a practice that people are willing to buy into” as a middle ground then, by my own lights, I’ve managed for some 44 years to do exactly that — to engage diverse readerships in the U.S. and abroad by casting my prose in an accessible form, thereby achieving publication of close to 2000 essays in dozens of periodicals, some of them narrowcast to readerships specialized in art, photography, and technology, some of them broadcast to more generalized readerships. Other of my colleagues, a number of whom I identify in my talk, have done the same.

New York Observer logoSo the middle ground of that kind of writing, as both a language and a practice, verifiably did exist in the last third of the twentieth century. And if by “middle ground” Blight means viable platforms for professionals generating such writing, and a readership that sought them out, then those also existed. (My bibliography from 1968-95 is available online to anyone who wants to certify that.) Although I’m uncomfortable with Blight’s locution, maybe it’s exactly to the point: “people” were demonstrably “willing to buy into [it]” — we had editors who paid us to provide it to their publications, we had readers who purchased those periodicals in order to read us. I believe that such writing still does exist, and I’m not convinced that there’s no audience for it. But the type of forums I and other of my peers sought and found for it, and the editors and publishers who supported and subsidized it therein, have started to disappear.

In “Dinosaur Bones” I lament what I see as the steady erosion of a certain kind of ground in the serial-publishing world that some photo critics (myself among them) got to occupy for a limited period of time: space in the “arts & culture” sections of general-audience publications, mostly weekly and bi-weekly newspapers and magazines, in which criticism of photography coexisted with criticism of the other arts and, in some cases, with other kinds of political and social commentary, all provided by working critics and commentators. I think I define this with great care and precision in that lecture, “lay[ing] out the terms in which [I] think it justified.” So I can’t tell which part of that Blight didn’t understand.

Google Analytics stats for Photocritic International, 2/12/2011-2/12/2012.

Google Analytics stats for Photocritic International, 2/12/2011-2/12/2012.

As this blog of mine demonstrates, I’m in a position to make my work available to as wide a readership as the quality of my writing and word-of-mouth publicity can attract and hold. Google Analytics informs me that over the past year Photocritic International had 42,501 “unique visitors,” who looked at an average of two pages apiece. That’s almost certainly more readers than my columns at the Village Voice (1968-73 — ’67-73, if you include my stint as a theater critic) or the New York Observer (1988-97) reached, and quite possibly more than did my column at the New York Times (1970-74), though of course the paper’s overall circulation far exceeded that number. Surely it’s more than have read me over the course of a given year in any of the photo-specific or art-specific print periodicals for which I’ve been a regular contributor or columnist.

generic U.S. passportWhat then do I have to piss and moan about, one might ask? Why not just celebrate the fact that, at extremely low cost in financial terms, I now have a vehicle through which I can put my work before a certifiably larger number of readers than ever before, without having to please editors, publishers, and other gatekeepers? Why not simply accept the reality that I’ll have to provide the content for this blog without compensation (or drum up any revenue myself), instead of getting paid for it, as the trade-off for the complete editorial freedom and direct writer-to-reader relationship that self-publishing on the web allows? Do I think the readerships of the Voice, the Times, or the Observer are somehow better than the visitors to this blog?

Of course not. But I do believe that there is a benefit to the medium of photography — to any medium — in having knowledgeable discussion thereof share editorial space in reputable publications with knowledgeable discussion of the other arts and even with knowledgeable commentary on politics, culture, and a broader range of issues. So while I can manifest at this blog a critical “language and practice” that makes my ideas and opinions available to a wide readership, just as I’ve done in print for many years, and can subsidize and make available this internet vehicle for that content, what I can’t do is create the respected, influential, multi-author, multi-subject periodical in which my writing on photography coexists with and gets contextualized by writings on different subjects from a flock of equally informed others, as it once did. That’s a publishing enterprise far beyond my scope, requiring pockets much deeper than mine and an editorial/managerial skill set I just don’t have.

New York Times logoWhat we see around us is a decentralizing of what was once the authoritative mass media. Not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps even a good thing, that, let’s say, the New York Times ceases to be “the paper of record” and becomes just another newspaper — and that, in its online life, it carries no more weight than the Huffington Post. There are benefits to the redistribution of communicative power — a form of wealth — that comes with the web.

But this necessarily leads to the diminution of the reach, and thus the power, of the voice of the individual critic or journalist or op-ed columnist for whom that now less potent publication serves as a platform (if it still does). Also, a level of credibility comes with one’s acceptance as a contributor by a periodical’s editorial staff. And the solo blog as a form doesn’t effectively substitute for any of that, in terms of its impact. One advantage for me as a writer on photography to appearing in the Village Voice was that in going through the paper readers saw my column literally, physically, next to the columns of Jack Newfield, Nat Hentoff, Richard Goldstein, jill johnston, Jonas Mekas, John Perrault, writing about politics, jazz, rock, experimental dance, experimental film, art . . . I don’t mean this to sound mystical, but having my words become part of that physical mix in a physical periodical gave them a certain kind of (dare I say this) not just gravitas but physical weight.

Village Voice logo

When I go to a periodical’s website I don’t leaf through the issue as I did leaf through the Voice and Times. I click here and there, I read selectively. I can even bookmark a certain section, or feature, and never look at what surrounds it. In many cases I can have that feature alone delivered to me as a stand-along email. Context, even if it’s there, doesn’t impinge as it once did.

I’m not arguing that this is good or bad. It just is what it is. I miss the previous situation, and have not yet accommodated to the new one. I see some of the benefits it brings with it, but certainly also the problems that come along as inevitable baggage.

(To be continued.)

This post supported by a donation from photographer Walter Crump.

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