I’m Your Man
I’ve entered the production phase of a two-volume set of my collected columns for the New York Times, 1970-74, which I plan to self-publish later this year in both print-on-demand and ebook formats. During the editing process I came across a short review from August 1974 of a monograph by John Max, then little known outside his native Canada (and still gravely under-recognized), which I republish here in its entirety:
John Max’s Open Passport, a double issue of Impressions magazine … serves as a complete statement in itself and as a catalogue of an exhibit with the same title held in Ottawa. Open Passport is a personal journal and extended-family album with roots in Robert Frank and Dave Heath, but Max has a distinctive and independent vision. This is small-camera work, impressionistic and full of a rushing energy, rarely ― except in the sequencing ― reflective or explanatory.
Max’s images are fairly exclusively concerned with people; the “open passport” of the title would appear to offer access to other beings rather than to geographical territory. He sees them with a peculiar, almost jarring combination of ferocity and tenderness, revealing both the skull beneath the skin and an almost child-like vulnerability. These are not stolen moments by any means, despite the format. Almost all are close-ups, and many are transactional portraits; these seem to be people Max knows, and knows well. This is a very strong body of work, one whose integrity compensates (though that is surely not its intent) for the frequent abuse of the snapshot mode. (See “The Photography Book as Autobiography,” New York Times, August 11, 1974, p. D25.)
You Don’t Know Me from The Wind
Perusing it after a considerable interval reminded me that, thirty years after I wrote it, this passage about John Max’s book would undergo a bizarre misreading by the Canadian scholar Penny Cousineau-Levine. To wit:
“In a 1974 New York Times review of John Max’s book of photographs, Open Passport, photography critic A. D. Coleman, while praising the book’s photographs for their distinctive vision, takes Max to task for his ‘frequent abuse of the snapshot mode.’ In the same year, reviewing the National Film Board’s publication of Judith Eglington’s Earth Visions in Afterimage, I wrote that if the photographer had sought to underline the beauty of the natural landscape she might have done better to use a large format camera.
“These two statements share a misunderstanding of Canadian photography. Both betray the reviewer’s presumption that there is no reason not to apply established critical precepts like the ‘snapshot’ aesthetic and the ‘appropriate’ use of a view camera to the work under consideration just because that work happened to have been made by a Canadian photographer. And on one level this attitude may have been correct, if one assumes that criticism is about applying a standardized (which is to say, ‘international’) system of evaluation that ascertains how a given product ‘measures up’ to abstract, idealized, and currently fashionable notions of what constitutes an acceptable work of art. …
“The problem is, of course, that this monolithic approach almost guarantees that enormous chunks of the work under consideration will slip through the critical cracks, that whatever exists in the work that cannot be mediated through the ‘universal’ terms of discourse the critic employs risks being missed altogether. And if not much in the work does lend itself to being discussed in these critical terms, the work may be barely seen at all, with the conclusion that nothing exists in the work to be seen.” (See Cousineau-Levine, Penny, Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination, Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003, pp. 15-16.)
That Don’t Make It Junk
Quite a burden for a little 200-word book review from 1974 to bear. And nothing in the above bill of particulars resembles in the slightest either that review or any beliefs or practices of mine, now or in the past.
Yet surely insidious, hegemonic U.S. cultural imperialism (e.g., Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Dudley Do-Right) has done grievous, perhaps irreparable harm to Canadian culture, far outweighing the damage that agents of Canadian cultural imperialism like Drake, Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, John Candy, Jim Carrey, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Stephen Leacock, Marshall McLuhan, Douglas Coupland, Lorne Michaels, Norman Jewison, Pamela Anderson, David Cronenberg, Margot Kidder, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, Pamela Anderson, William Shatner, Rae Dawn Chong, and Ryan Gosling have done to us in turn. Doubtless we owe some reparations, payable even by those who did not perpetrate the injustices. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said, “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”
Still, I’ve personally done none of the things of which Cousineau-Levine has accused me, and she knows it. Which makes me just a target of opportunity. Though I’ll tolerate the flogging, I do feel the need to set the record straight.
Sorry, Baby, Doesn’t Look Like Me At All
Far from being an “established critical precept” in 1974, the term “snapshot aesthetic” was at that point newly minted and the subject of considerable debate in photography’s still-small circles. Furthermore, that comment about the “frequent abuse of the snapshot mode” did not refer to Max’s work, which I’m differentiating from assorted failures presented with that rubric as their validation. (Note, please, that I referred to the “snapshot mode,” not the “‘snapshot’ aesthetic.” Note also the precision of the locution: I wrote “the frequent abuse of the snapshot mode,” not “his” ― Max’s ― or “its” ― his work’s ― abuse thereof.)
The reference here, which my regular readers back then would have found clear, was to previous, then-recent New York Times and Village Voice columns of mine in which I had discussed vernacular photography and various usages by contemporary photographers of what was becoming known as the “snapshot aesthetic,” whose premises I’d questioned and some examples of which I’d evaluated as superficial and self-indulgent. Hence I wasn’t “taking Max to task” in any way, but instead praising his work as a corrective or counterbalance to that of others.
So, chancing upon Cousineau-Levine’s volume at a book party in Montreal when it came out, I was amused to open it back in my hotel room only to find it had as its jumping-off point this extreme misinterpretation of my work by a Canadian ― a grammatical misreading that serves as the partial foundation for her entire book-length argument, converting something intended as a U.S. critic’s respectful acknowledgment of Max’s achievement into a slight (even if unintended) directed against Canadian photography and Canadian culture.
This elementary error invalidates the author’s claim that I “share a misunderstanding of Canadian photography.” Thus, in her opening paragraphs, Cousineau-Levine undermines her own subsequent argument and impeaches her own scholarship.
Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
The decontextualization and misrepresentation of my comments about Max serves a purpose. It provides Cousineau-Levine with the necessary example of a high-profile non-Canadian (c’est moi) in a high-profile non-Canadian publication (the Times) purportedly misunderstanding Canadian photography as a consequence of “assum[ing] that criticism is about applying a standardized (which is to say, ‘international’) system of evaluation that ascertains how a given product ‘measures up’ to abstract, idealized, and currently fashionable notions of what constitutes an acceptable work of art.”
Branded thereby as someone imposing “‘universal’ terms of discourse” on all and sundry, I become the straw man standing in for all those from elsewhere who somehow don’t get Canada — another cultural imperialist from the States, however well-meaning.
To take some of the sting out of this accusation, Cousineau-Levine follows it immediately with her own confession to committing the same sin of subscribing to a “monolithic approach” to the critical act. I don’t know if she deserves her self-castigation, but, having recently re-read not just the Max review but all my 121 columns for the Times, I can say with confidence that what I actually wrote during that period, including that review, does not in any way support the attitudes and methods she projects onto me.
This post supported by a donation from photographer Peter Kayafas.