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PRC Founder’s Talk (3)

A. D. Coleman selfie, 8-7-16[Long, long ago (1976), in a galaxy far, far away (the New England region of the United States, specifically Boston), in collaboration with Chris Enos and Jeff Weiss, I helped to found an organization that, amazingly, still exists: the Photographic Resource Center. This included serving as the founding editor of its long-lived but, alas, long-defunct journal, Views: A New England Journal of Photography.

This year the PRC celebrated its 40th anniversary. In 1996 the PRC celebrated its 20th anniversary with a series of events, one of which involved my giving a talk. As usual in such situations, I used the opportunity provided by the occasion to make some trouble, as you’ll see.

This is the complete text of the “Founders’ Lecture” given at Boston University on the night of October 9, 1996. I’ve divided the text of this talk into three parts, the last of which appears below. Click here for Part 2. — A. D. C.]

Do It Yourself:

Towards a Responsible Audience (Part 3)

(cont’d) … I don’t tell you all this to evoke your sympathy for me personally, or to wallow in autobiography, or to hold you accountable for what happens to me and my colleagues in other cities far away. I simply use the experience closest to hand, my own, to try to give you some sense of what it’s been like to function in this community as a working critic of photography for many years.

Nor do I propose that this is typical for my colleagues in the field. Because I’ve maintained a fairly high profile, I’ve probably had more success than most of them in sparking public response. From what they tell me, they feel themselves operative in a vacuum greater even than the one I’ve encountered.

A. D. Coleman, Apeiron Workshops, Millerton, NY, ca. 1973

A. D. Coleman, Apeiron Workshops, Millerton, NY, ca. 1973

A few of us don’t mind that too much, or at least say they don’t. A few of us may be satisfied with just hearing ourselves talk, or talking shop to each other. But many of us (myself, certainly, among these) are concerned principally with instigating public discussion of relevant issues, an open scrutiny of positions, active argument — you know, democracy in action. Why are you letting us do all your talking for you? Look at the results of that bad habit. What happens when you call a referendum and nobody votes?

I’ve heard all the rationales for non-participation, everything from the “I’m, like, visual” line of defense to “I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone in my position to comment on such matters.” A lot of folks feel insecure about talking or writing in public, and while my heart goes out to them — I used to suffer from terrible stage fright myself — I say to you now: Get over it.

I have spent a goodly part of my adult life not only writing to but speaking with people like yourselves — people involved in photography, or seriously interested in it. I have found you, on the whole, intelligent, opinionated, perceptive, passionate, articulate, and not infrequently eloquent on subjects dear to your hearts, photography among them. All of which brings me to ask a difficult question quite bluntly: What’s wrong with you folks? Cat got your tongue? Cats got all your tongues for thirty years? That’s quite a plague of witchery, even for New England.

I don’t mean to pick on any of you individually, since for all I know you there in the third row may write letters to the editor every week. And of course everyone has his or her reasons for keeping mum on this or that occasion. But doesn’t three decades of collective silence in which you’re implicated raise a few questions you need to ponder?

VIEWS: Journal of Photography in New England, Vol. 5, no. 2 (1981), cover

VIEWS: Journal of Photography in New England, Vol. 5, no. 2 (1981), cover

To put a finer point on it, the particular bone I want to pick with you tonight concerns Views: A New England Journal of Photography, which the PRC published for sixteen years. I served as its founding editor in 1981-82, tried to assist it on a consultancy basis through some subsequent difficulties, and was delighted to watch it blossom into a serious, full-fledged quarterly journal over the ensuing years.

This was a period in which the critical dialogue around the medium was expanding rapidly, and the need for additional vehicles for that discourse was great. There was nothing in New England available to serve that purpose at that time. Along with The Photo Review, San Francisco Camerawork, and The Center Quarterly, Views formed part of an invaluable chain of “little” photography magazines in the U.S. serving as both forums for serious debate on photography-related issues and as regional journals of record for activity in the medium. A lot of people — Jon Holmes, Arno Minkkinen, too many more to mention — deserve credit for their efforts in keeping it going.

The other publications I just mentioned have survived. But, as you know, Views has gone into suspended animation since late 1994. I mourn the closing of Views, not only (or even primarily) because I was its founding editor and felt a parental relationship to it but because that journal, and a baker’s dozen like it, have proven essential to the recent literature of photography. They provide the historical trace of what’s gone on in various parts of the country, they serve as testing grounds for younger writers and editors, and they function as stages for thoughtful commentary from all of us.

Of course they published some fluff, and some trendy junk, and some impenetrable academese. Did you do your job as readers by writing in to tell them so? They also ran some first-rate essays. And they offered you a space in which to voice your own ideas and opinions and responses.

PRC logoWhy were the pages of Views not filled with your comments? And how did you allow Views to go under? It wasn’t replaced by anything else serving those purposes. A sizeable polity without a newspaper is like a stroke victim, stripped of memory and organs of speech. If Boston suddenly found itself without a daily newspaper, the shock would be heard around the world. Yet the photography community of New England has been without a journal of record and a printed forum for several years now, and I believe that this talk of mine represents the first public discussion of that unsettling fact.

Of course, it’s possible that you no longer constitute or represent a community, perhaps even conceivable that you never did. I don’t happen to believe that. I prefer to believe that you remain a community, but simply need a wake-up call, and that, in conclusion, is what I’d like to give you.

Thirty years ago, when I began reading and thinking about photography, there was no substantial critical dialogue on the medium, and no ready network of venues in which to conduct one. Minor White, in the pages of Aperture, did everything he could to provoke and support such discourse, and urged others to pitch in.

I heeded that call, and have never once regretted it; the rich life experience it led to for me represents, among other things, a debt to Minor that I’ve tried to repay in many ways. Public contest with him was one of those, strange as that may seem to some of you; setting an idiosyncratic example of a lifetime commitment to critical thinking and writing about photography was another.

Aperture magazine anthology 1952-76Minor used to emphasize the importance of creating what he called “the educated audience” for the medium to which he devoted himself. By this he meant that then-small mix of people who had spent some time studying how to make photographs, and how to research them, and how to present them to the public in instructive ways, and how to look at them, and how to respond cogently and deeply to them. I think we have that audience now, have in fact had it for some years. Many of them, of course, are committed photographers — some of them professionals, some teaching artists, others serious amateurs.

But an increasing proportion of that educated audience doesn’t make photographs now, if it ever did. However, they collect thoughtfully, serve on museum boards and committees, help to preserve endangered bodies of work, write biographies of photographers, staff art and photography institutions, curate shows, teach the medium’s history, buy monographs and subscribe to journals, go to shows and pay intelligent, informed attention to work made with lenses and light-sensitive materials.

They talk among themselves about what they encounter and what they think of it. They even read critical and historical essays and sit through lectures on the subject. And there are enough such folks out there across the nation that on a crisp Wednesday evening in October in Boston you can find a sufficient number of them willing to forego the pleasure of a fall stroll around town in order to listen to a cranky critic that you can half-fill a decent-sized auditorium.

This is a good thing, I think, and not only because it keeps me from just talking to myself in an empty room. Its implications go far beyond that. It vindicates the commitment made some decades back by Minor White and Carl Chiarenza and Nathan Lyons and various others to help generate that audience. Indeed, around that core of educated audience — radiating out from you, here, in the Boston area, across New England and much further, like ripples in the lake — there’s nowadays a much, much wider audience, perhaps not quite so educated or sophisticated as you but no less drawn to photography. They attend exhibits, buy photography books and sometimes prints, help make decisions about what gets included in the curricula of their local schools and placed on the shelves of their local libraries.

If you, as the medium’s most serious audience, need the example of myself and my colleagues, as a kind of tacit permission to speak passionately and publicly about photographers, photographs, and photography, then they need you to model for them the next stage in their evolution as audience.

You can probably see where I’m heading with this. I’m here tonight to tell you that it’s time for you to take your next step, to graduate from the now-comfortable status of membership in the educated audience for photography and accept the challenge of becoming part of the medium’s responsible audience.

"Latent Image" column logo, Village Voice, ca. 1968.

“Latent Image” column logo, Village Voice, ca. 1968.

When I began publishing my critical writing on photography in 1968, there was, as I said, no active public dialogue about the medium; I had no models, no colleagues, and no competition. Now that debate is international, and imminently global, and there are loons like me scattered across this country and others.

I’m often asked nowadays if photography as we knew it is dead, or at least over — murdered or replaced, presumably, by electronic communication. My answer, emphatically, is: No. So long as our primary visual media depend on lens-derived imagery and light-sensitive registration thereof — and for centuries after that, if it ever ends — an understanding of photography will be essential to any scrutiny of world culture, and the questions provoked by this extraordinary medium will remain urgent.

The past three decades have seen issues that once were the sole concern of thoughtful photographers brought to the foreground of contemporary debate, not just in relation to art and photography but in connection to a wide span of cultural issues. The credibility of photographs; the distinction between literal subject matter and content; the photograph’s problematic relation to what’s before the lens; the subjectivity of photographic picture-making; the political implications of representation; the social function of different forms of photography — my first discussions of these matters came in conversation with photographers, or in reading their writings. Nowadays, we find everyone from Susan Sontag to Jesse Helms clamoring to put their two cents’ worth into that debate.

Instagram logoSo that argument is far from over; perhaps it never will be. The emergence of digital imaging has not terminated it, only sharpened it and somewhat reconfigured it. Critics can serve as the spearhead and instigators of public debate, but they cannot shoulder the entire burden of it for long. Nor would it be appropriate or healthy for them to do so. In the last analysis, we serve best as exemplars of the possibility — and the necessity — of thoughtful contention within a community.

I believe that my colleagues in the field and I have managed to create a framework for such discourse: a vocabulary, a set of questions, several strategies of inquiry, an assortment of theories and positions. Unquestionably all that has its flaws, but I hope you’ll agree with me — especially those of you who remember the terrible void that preceded us — that even bad writing about photography is better than no writing at all. Surely imperfect at best, we critics nonetheless function as models of citizenship. But we do not, cannot, constitute a citizenry by ourselves. That takes all of us — and that’s where you come in.

So, in memory of Minor White, on behalf of my colleagues and myself, but mostly for your own sakes, I ask you to transform yourselves from being merely part of the medium’s public to becoming a segment of its electorate — that is, to considering yourselves entitled to vote on the issues, and to exercising that right on a regular basis, by putting your own ideas, opinions and positions on the record. If you do that, you’ll begin the process of creating the responsible audience that this pervasive, complex, difficult, engrossing medium desperately needs as we and it enter the next century together.

If you are to be an electorate, a genuine citizenry, you will require a Hyde Park, or a Union Square, and a polling place. You can establish a new one if you so choose, start it from scratch. Fortunately, you also an alternative at hand: Thanks to some of you and to John Jacob and Robert Seydel and the current staff, and all those who came after Enos and Weiss and myself, the Photographic Resource Center lives and sometimes thrives and survives through hard times.

Chris Enos, Boston, MA, ca. 1975. SX-70 by Carl Siembab.

Chris Enos, Boston, MA, ca. 1975. SX-70 by Carl Siembab.

By the way, go right ahead and transform the PRC itself whenever that proves necessary. Help it move into the new millennium as a vital force and a flexible resource for this region. Shape it to your needs. Trust me when I tell you that Enos, Weiss, and I did not intend it to be a static monument to anything — not a monument to one or another approach to photography, not in any way a monument to us, and definitely not a monument to itself.

So by all means close it down or let it wither if it outlives its usefulness, but — forgive the mixed metaphor — don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. This place, with Views a part of it, was created as a resource, hence its name — a tool for all those interested in photographic imagery. The number of such people has not shrunk in the past two decades, but grown. This place, its possibilities, are yours. I know I speak for Jeff and Chris too when I say: Treat it like you own it.

Jeff Weiss, Goddard College, VT, ca. 1972. Photo by Jonathan Sharlin.

Jeff Weiss, Goddard College, VT, ca. 1972. Photo by Jonathan Sharlin.

Finally, I want to emphasize that Views has neither been given its last rites nor formally interred. I believe now, as I always have, that the PRC needs Views, or something much like it, and that New England and photography need it also. Its revival or rebirth will require financial assistance, volunteer labor, and creative midwifery. I am convinced that among those of you here tonight, and the wider group of concerned citizens of the photography community you represent, the means and the energy necessary for that task can be found.

A critical journal and paper of record for this part of this country is not a luxury, but a necessity. So I call on you to join with the PRC’s John Jacob and Robert Seydel — the latter a former student of mine, I’m proud to say, and no slouch as a writer himself — in either resuscitating Views or giving birth to an entirely new forum for discourse, both in print and as an aspect of the PRC’s website. And I ask you also to then keep its editors and its contributing writers honest by prodding and pushing and arguing with them in print, filling the “Letters” column of every issue with your responses, agreeing with them only when absolutely necessary.

That would gratify me deeply, of course, but that’s not an important reason for undertaking that task. What matters is that, one way or another, you do it. Don’t do it for Minor, or the Gipper, or Jeff or Chris or me. Do it as a means of establishing, or reestablishing, participatory democracy and public debate in the New England region of the North American photography community. Do it because it needs to be done. Do it for yourselves.

(Part 1 I 2 I 3)

[Postscript: My entreaties notwithstanding, the PRC never resuscitated Views, and New England still lacks a regional journal devoted to photography. — A. D. C.]

Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, entrance

Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, entrance

A. D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995Special offer: If you want me to either continue pursuing a particular subject or give you a break and (for one post) write on a topic — my choice — other than the current main story, make a donation of $50 via the PayPal widget below, indicating your preference in a note accompanying your donation. I’ll credit you as that new post’s sponsor, and link to a website of your choosing. Include a note with your snail-mail address (or email it to me separately) for a free signed copy of my 1995 book Critical Focus!

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7 comments to PRC Founder’s Talk (3)

  • A very interesting talk, and a series that i’ve very much enjoyed reading – thank you for publishing it.

    I wonder how you feel about the matter now, considering the dominance of the internet and, more specifically, social media? There is surely more public discourse on photography (& every other subject under the sun) than ever before, but, as you’re also no doubt aware, these spaces can be very tribal – dissenting opinions can be quickly gunned down by the crowd, or even just ignored by the algorithms (Facebook & Twitter often act like feedback loops). Furthermore, they rarely favour considered, long-form discussion, instead promoting a reactionary attitude to everything.

    Personally, i’ve mostly kept my head below the parapet so far, mostly due to thinking along the lines of, ‘Well, who cares about my opinion…’, but perhaps it’s time to stick my neck out a little more.


    • A. D. Coleman

      At the time I delivered that lecture, fall of 1996, I had established my first website and begun to publish online. I mentioned that as an option for the PRC to consider, at the very end of my talk. Alas, they never pursued it seriously.

      The internet, more than any preceding medium, enables long-form commentary on any and all subjects. I can publish as much material here as I care to — millions of words of it — for the same low annual cost. Yet, ironically, the internet seems to encourage the publication of short-form commentary, and to habituate its users to producing and reading casual chat and passing thoughts.

      Does what appears in most “personal” blogs, unmoderated forums, articles and reviews by uninformed “cultural journalists,” anonymous/pseudonymous comments appended thereto, Facebook posts and tweets, etc., constitute anything truly resembling a “discourse”? Not in any sense of the word as I employ it. It has some sociological value as evidence of the attitudes and concerns and knowledge level of (mostly) amateur photographers and casual members of the medium’s audience. That’s all.

      It’s certainly possible to publish serious consideration of photography online — in blogs like this, in online general-audience periodicals concerned broadly with culture, and in web-based journals devoted to photography, art, media studies, communication, etc. And it’s possible to moderate the responses thereto, ensure that they’re substantive and to the point, and eliminate the trolls.

      Along with print publications, those websites represent the platforms for what I consider the discourse about photography — meaning simply that they present material that informs what I write, that I would quote from and refer others to for a deeper understanding of the medium. It’s by no means pedantic, not even necessarily scholarly, but it’s informed, articulate, and substantive.

      In my experience, photography attracts more than its share of people who prefer to keep their heads below the parapet, as you put it. That’s sad, and surely doesn’t either benefit the medium or speak well for it.

  • Dear Allan,
    Thanks for bringing back these thoughtful essays. I find a parallel but quite different experience in assessing my years with the 20×24 project. It’s beginnings are in tandem with the PRC, both in location and contributions of the New England Photographic communities. The same “taken for granted” scenario applies to some extent as the photographic public always assumed and in these late years continues to assume that we will always be doing this because this is what we have done, despite the lack of adequate compensation to sustain the operation. I get asked all the time now “why don’t they just make more film”? Never realizing that there no longer is a “they”, their expectations are that surely someone will take care of it.

    • A. D. Coleman

      This is why I no longer speak of the “photography community,” a concept I’ve come to consider illusory. I don’t think it’s a community now, or that it ever constituted one. It’s better understood, I believe, as a “user group,” sharing common interest in a particular technology but with no genuine communitarian impulses — not even the “enlightened self-interest” that enables any community to endure.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

    As you say, blogs now are most often one way traffic, with a writer broadcasting their opinion to a largely silent audience, and perhaps interacting with their audience in short form via social media. I think the ‘comments section’ has, in general (& I’m certainly not referring to this space), become a place for people who are too sure of themselves to have their say, and this has put off many who aren’t so dogmatic – I wonder if the poor ‘comments sections’ out there negatively impact participation in the good ones.

    It’s so easy to ‘retweet’ or ‘like’ someone’s post (or not), and consider that ‘enough’ to display your opinion, then quickly move on to the next thing, rather than take the time to engage properly and perhaps write a considered reply. I’m certainly guilty of that.

    The main barrier to my engagement with any online community has often been the lack of confidence in my own opinion. Everyone else usually seems so sure of themselves, whereas I can’t help wondering if I might be ‘wrong’. Of course, I know what I like (photographically) but articulating it can be tricky, and whilst I’m aware it is ok to be wrong, I also don’t wish to embarrass myself, or worse, expose an underlying lack of intelligence and understanding of photography, art and life in general – especially when the internet is so good at keeping a record of things!

    I’ll try harder.

    • A. D. Coleman

      My suggestion: Look around for moderated forums that require commenters to use their real full names, not pseudonyms, and blogs that do the same (such as this one). For me, that’s the baseline for any serious discussion of any subject. (I’d make an exception for commenters who request anonymity because they’re whistle-blowing or otherwise need shielding.) Every print publication for which I’ve written had that as a rule for letters to the editor, and I agree with it both in print and online.

      Such publications, in any format, and those who write for them will most likely treat the comments you find there with respect, which means you can expect the same.

      Editors and writers particularly appreciate responses that — regardless of whether or not they agree with a particular article — push the discussion further: by seeking to put a finer point on some issue, or raising a relevant question that got elided, or adding a relevant reference. It may look like a monologue to you, but any serious article is actually an attempt to start a conversation. If you have something to add, don’t hang back — jump in.

  • Better late than ever, I really think that the PRC Founders Talk series was one of the most beautiful things I have read in the two years I have been following your blog.

    I take the chance to wish you a great holiday season and a happy new year for 2017.

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