A.D. Coleman, Tarnished Silver: After the Photo Boom

JTF (just the facts): Subtitled “Essays and Lectures 1979-1989”. Published by Midmarch Arts Press in 1996. 236 pages. Includes 27 essays and an introduction by James Enyart.

Comments/Context: This is the third book of photography criticism written by A.D. Coleman that I have read in recent years and I continue to find his voice a refreshing change from the dull monograph essays and clever newspaper blurbs that dominate my photography diet. Writing this blog has given me a significant appreciation for just how hard it is to develop a consistent voice like his, one that can be both open and familiar, while at the same time diving into meaty topics and asking hard analytical questions.
This particular volume forgoes much of Coleman’s “disposable” day to day writing about photography shows and books in favor of more reasoned arguments in the form of essays or lectures on specific and often abstract topics. These pieces have a heft to them that is slightly different than the other work of his I have read, and they have a stronger tone of dissent that runs throughout. I can imagine that over the years he became somewhat tired of the grind of staying current on every new trend in the medium, and instead opted to explore some topics that were less time sensitive, more personally interesting, and that required a broader, more step by step approach to logic and analysis.
Many of the essays here deconstruct the process of photography criticism itself; others touch on the state of photography education at the time and on the life of a free lance writer. Many others make an effort to get out of the weeds and up to more over arching themes that merit attention: the photography book as a distinct form, a framework for thinking about color photography, and in depth studies of the still life tradition, photo based art/photo hybrids, the autobiographical impulse and sexually explicit material. All of these writings are succinct, insightful, and well crafted.
For the first time in these essays, I also detected an undercurrent of frustration, a subtle feeling that Coleman had concluded that people weren’t thinking about the issues of photography in the right ways and that he needed to work harder to show that the emperor had no clothes. The dissent here is therefore a bit more acute, a little bit edgier than in previous collections I have read. Given Coleman’s biting wit, there are some succulent arrows slung in a variety of unexpected directions.
What I have come to appreciate most however, beyond his creation of a durable and unique voice, is that his essays fight the tendency to be overly clever and instead actually deliver a wealth of new ideas. I find myself coming back to certain essays again and again, finding real insights and applications related to the building of this Web-based collector’s community. It’s as though he went down this same road long ago, and left a detailed map with lots of landmarks and pitfalls to avoid for those of us that have chosen to travel this road again.

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