Friday, March 23, 2018

Coleman on White

The reliably sycophantic Colberg tweeted a link to this review A.D. Coleman wrote in the early 1970s of Minor White's project "Octave of Prayer". You can admire the three parts here, here, and here.

Minor White curated an exhibition, and did a book based on it. The summary is that Coleman doesn't like it. Boy does he not like it.

On the one hand, I will always love Coleman for using the phrase "a fucking seagull" in this piece. Serious writing needs more cursing in it.

On the other hand, there are... problems.

First of all we have Coleman's fairy tale about quitting because some substitute editor got shirty with him. Having quit a few jobs in my time, I can assure you, there's more to this story. Coleman is simply painting himself as a hero utterly devoted to his criticism, willing to literally die on that hill over one piece that a temp editor asked for some revisions on.

But this isn't the really tasty part.

Hop on an internet forum and propose the idea that anyone can shoot a meaningful picture, and insist on talking about what a meaningful picture might be. Odds are, you'll get panicked angry pushback. The various nerds will go on about the importance of "craft" and insist that meaning is all subjective and and and they'll crack jokes and generally do a vigorous dance to make the bad man with ideas go away. I dare say that in the 1970s you could have extracted precisely the same performance from most Camera Clubs.

Coleman cannot be accused of rejecting the idea of meaningful pictures, but on the idea that anyone can shoot, that a good dose of mysticism and raw emotion might be a good idea, he is quite clear: angry, panicked, rejection.

In his review of the pictures, he says that all the pictures are subsumed to White's vision, no artist retains a voice. Well, except for the ones that do. Only one, Coleman says, really stands out. But that artist he cleverly eliminates from his thesis by claiming that White clearly just didn't understand the pictures. Let that soak in for a bit. Does that make any kind of sense?

While I get his point, his argument comes down to "there's only one kind of cheese in the world, cheddar, I looked around and all the cheese is cheddar except the ones that aren't, Q.E.D."

Coleman thrashes around some more, angered that White merely curated this thing, didn't shoot anything in it, and even works in what appears to be a swipe at White's homosexuality.

But what really gets him going is the writing, that mystical, "inane", writing. Well, ok, it looks a little out there to me too (although I am sure A.D. is picking out the best bits) but mysticism is kind of like that, bro. It's gonna get lyrical, it's not going to hold together logically, rationally. It seems clear to me that A.D.'s beef here is with the mysticism itself, not the writing per se.

In the end, what we have is the cerebral guy deeply upset that a major player is proposing the idea that maybe cerebration isn't the answer. Maybe raw feelings and a little magic are a good idea.

As someone who fancies himself a bit cerebral on good days, I gotta go with White here, at least in broad strokes. The book and the show might have been utter crap, but I agree that a little emotion, a little magic, would do photography a lot of good. Today as much as any other day, the technicians, the Masters Of Craft, are dominant and could use taking down a peg or two.

In fact, I will put this statement out there: a photograph that doesn't have a bit of the mystical in it is probably shit.


  1. Clearly, Coleman was a cranky young man before he grew into the cranky old man he is today.

  2. Indeed. I feel a certain warmth toward him purely on the basis of his consistent crankiness. But I nontheless disagree with him from time to time! Although, to be fair, it's possible that Octave of Prayer really is shit.

    1. For just $6, including shipping, you can buy a used copy of the book on eBay and see for yourself!

  3. "In fact, I will put this statement out there: a photograph that doesn't have a bit of the mystical in it is probably shit."

    Amen, brother! I'll have a T-shirt with that as a mission statement.

    Best, Thomas