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She'snot two months into her new post as the Voice's "Press Clips"columnist and already Cynthia Cotts' copy glows with the sweaty sheen ofdesperation. Not that I keep myself up nights worrying about the careers ofVoice writers, but she seems to be struggling. You wouldn't havethought her predecessor Jim Ledbetter's shoes would be so hard to fill;all he did his last couple of years was hold one-man seances to channel thespirits of Communist schoolmarms for their prudery and disgruntlement with thereal world. But the early indications are that Cotts may not live up even tothat legacy.
A few weeksago she complained about John Podhoretz's stacking the Post'sentertainment section with conservative writers?as though the Voice'sarts and entertainment writing has always been known for its political neutrality.Then she came along about a week behind Adam Mazmanian's piece in NYPressabout The New Yorker grabbing copyrights from contributing artists withher own piece about...The New Yorker grabbing copyrights from contributingartists. Did she disclose, conscience-of-all-media that a "Press Clips"columnist is supposed to be, that she'd read about it here the week before?

Last weekshe was really floundering. In her first item she dipped back into the Ledbetterschoolmarm tradition and broke the shocking news that men's magazines areobsessed with tits and like to put beautiful, big-titted women on their covers.Her third item was another blinding news flash: a Voice writer prefersPBS' Frontline to the "scaredy-cat" mainstream media.(Scaredy-cat?)

Betweenthese moldy tidbits she sandwiched yet another old-news item, comparing "zineking" Jim Goad to journalist Gary Webb. Beyond being rejected by majorcommercial publishers in New York, which puts them in the same large camp withsome thousands of other non-Ivy League non-domestic-novel-writing writers, thetwo couldn't have less in common. But worse was how square and out of itCotts appeared to be in retelling their tales for the umpteenth time. Of Webbshe wrote that he "caught a tremendous amount of flak for 'Dark Alliance,'his 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News, linking the CIA with contras who sold coke in L.A. Was it accurate? We'll see. The series was debunkedin The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The LosAngeles Times, and the editor of the Mercury News apologized forit." Thanks for the thumbnail history lesson, but we've read muchbetter coverage of all that in NYPress over the last year, Cynthia. Don'tmention it.

And worse:"You may not have heard of Jim Goad," she wrote, which I take to beher way of implying that she only recently had. Never mind that Answer Me!was the most talked-about zine of the 90s, that Goad also wrote severalpieces for Cotts' competitors over here at NYPress, that his RedneckManifesto was widely reviewed and that his more recent troubles with the law were just laid out in a huge article in the December Spin. Nevermind all that, you never heard about him until "Press Clips" came along. Discussing how Simon & Schuster rejected Goad's secondbook, which will now come out from Adam Parfrey's West Coast small pressFeral House, she also seemed completely unhip to who Parfrey is, what FeralHouse is, Parfrey's long role in the world of fringe and extremist publishing,why it makes total sense that Parfrey and Goad would know each other or justhow big a step it is for Goad to move from having Simon & Schuster do hisfirst book to Parfrey doing the next.

Last Friday,Binyamin Jolkovsky, who reproduces MUGGER's columns in his online magazineJewish World Review, got this e-mail:

Dear Mr.Jolkovsky, I am the media reporter for the Village Voice. I am writing to ask for a commenton your decision to publish a truncated version of Russ Smith's columnfor the New York Press.Please respond ASAP. Cynthia Cotts Press Clips columnist The Village Voice Phone: 212-475-3300 x3208 Email:

I know howI'd respond ASAP to such a high-handed approach, but Binyamin's probablymore of a gent than I am. Cotts must have learned this surefire method for warmingup a source at the Joe Conason Charm School. Shouldn't it have occurredto her that if Binyamin likes MUGGER's column enough to run it on his website,the first thing he'd do with her e-mail would be to forward it to us? Thisis one savvy media reporter.
Photo Journalism There'sno art-making process more "democratic" than photography. Anyone cando it. Everyone does. With billions of photographs produced every year, somehave got to be decent. And since everyone's gotten lucky once or twice,it looks easy.
That'swhy people who don't know better might have trouble accepting A.D. Coleman'sargument that a photograph can be just as much an original work of art as anoil painting.

Not thatColeman, one of the country's preeminent photography critics, doesn'tunderstand the problem. "Popular interest in photography," he oncewrote, "is at best a mixed blessing. The very familiarity which resultsbrings with it not only acceptance but, perhaps inevitably, a curious form ofcontempt. The importance of photography in our lives is so frequently acknowledged that we have become numb from repetition, while the increasing technical sophisticationof modern cameras (coupled with our escape from formal visual inhibitions) hasmade it easier to take good (though not great) pictures. Despite or becauseof all this, the significance of an original photograph?as a statement,a work of art, a Ding an sich?is usually overlooked..."

At 55, Coleman'sbeen thinking about the photo as art for roughly 30 years now, and his writingis as eloquent as his opinions can be flinty and disputatious. By his own estimatehe's written more than 1700 essays and articles, but as prolific as heis, the average Coleman essay is also long ("I like a long runway,"he smiles), methodical and thoughtful. He rarely writes a critique for its ownsake, but connects the topic at hand to larger social or cultural issues. Andhe can be uncompromising on his principles. He once began a column with thedeclaration: "I herewith declare my refusal to review Untitled,the new book featuring previously unpublished and unexhibited photographs byDiane Arbus, which has just been issued by Aperture." He then clearly arguedhis objections to the book, which included: "I believe that public presentationof this imagery?a set of pictures of developmentally disabled people madeduring the period 1969-71, the years just before the photographer's suicide?exploitsits human subjects in ways that I find morally reprehensible. I refuse to contributeto that process in any way."

As one measureof his output, not one but three new book-length collections of his essays havejust come out. There's Light Readings, a revised collection of essaysfrom 1968-'78 that was originally published by Oxford U. Press in '79(U. of New Mexico Press, 310 pages, $19.95); a collection of more recent essays,Depth of Field, also from U. of New Mexico Press (198 pages, $19.95/$45hardbound); and The Digital Evolution: Visual Communication in the ElectronicAge (Nazraeli Press, 192 pages, $24.95).

And thoseare just the new ones. His other books include The Grotesque in Photography(1977), his first, and still the standard text on the subject, Critical Focus('95), Tarnished Silver ('96) and one for kids, Lookingat Photographs: Animals ('94).

A nativeNew Yorker, Coleman started writing for the Village Voice in its goldenage, May 1967, when he was in his mid-20s. He stayed until '73. Meanwhile,in '69, an editor at The New York Times invited him to take overa photography column there. Coleman was 27 and "utterly flabbergasted.You gotta understand, when I was growing up in the bohemian lefty Village, there was nothing to aspire to more than to write for the Village Voice. Weas human beings didn't write for The New York Times?gods wrotefor The New York Times... So to land at the Village Voice wasfantastic. It was unbelievable. And it was a fluke?I just wrote a pieceand sent it in cold and Diane [Fisher] called me up and said hi... So when theTimes called, I had only been writing for three years. I had no formalgrounding in photography, no credentials of any kind. But then again, they didn'thave many choices. There were like two photo critics out there, and one of themwas me."

He leftthe Voice in '73 over an editorial dispute. He'd written along, two-piece essay panning a new photo book edited by Minor White?anearly but characteristic show of intellectual brio on his part, since Whitewas an archon of the photography establishment. The Voice published thefirst part, then his editor "refused to publish the other unless I modifiedthe tone. Which was so unheard of at the Voice at that time... I hadno idea what this was all about, and I still really don't know...It wasn't White bringing pressure to bear... The Voice basicallyoffered an ultimatum, that I either change the tone of the piece or they wouldn'tpublish it, and I did what was probably the big stupid act?or one of maybetwo stupid acts of my professional career. I held a gun to my own head and threatenedto resign, rather than demand the editor's resignation. And they acceptedmy resignation!" He laughs ruefully. "Which surprised me and chagrinedme of course, but what could I do?"

He stoppedfreelancing for the Times the following year, when a change in editorialregimes made him feel unwelcome.

His longestrun in any paper, however, was more recent: He had a column at The New YorkObserver from the summer of 1988 until Nov. '97. He left there overa dispute, too: a very late-90s argument over electronic rights. The onlineart magazine he edits and maintains ( reproduces his resignationletter to Observer president Brian Kempner. It's a classic Colemantext, written with daunting clarity and a precision of scruple you just don'tsee too often in this equivocal world.

In the fallof '97 Coleman and all the other freelance columnists?Rex Reed, MollyHaskell, Hilton Kramer, Todd Gitlin, all of them?were informed that theObserver was going online with AOL, and sent contracts to sign. "I'dhave been happy to have my column go online," Coleman wrote Kempner, "butnot at the cost of signing all my electronic rights over to Arthur Carter, the Observer's wealthy publisher, as you insisted I do... You demandedthat I sign over to the Observer, in perpetuity and for free, all ofmy electronic rights to all of my writings to appear there after October 15of this year, and told me I couldn't write for the paper any more unlessI agreed to make this mandatory donation to Observer publisher ArthurCarter's business enterprise. I refused to succumb to that blatant blackmail;you thereupon terminated our relationship. So I'm no longer writing foryou. Period."

Colemanwas the only holdout, which still surprises him. "You were going to signaway?you did sign away, because everybody except me signed?allof your electronic rights in perpetuity," he says. "In fact, initiallythey put it out as a complete work-for-hire contract, so you were signing awayall rights, including print rights, and I negotiated them out of that...I was talking with Rex Reed, who had a website going up, and he said, 'Howdoes this affect my website?' And I said, 'You will not be able to use your column at your website, period?that's how it affectsyour website.' Oh, it's amazing. People still don't get thisidea of electronic rights."

Colemaninsists that he would have signed a limited, one-time-usage contract for temporarilyreproducing his column online?which was all that was needed anyway, sincethe online columns are wiped after one week, and there's no online archive.But he wouldn't sign away reprint and reproduction rights forever because,as he wrote Kempner, "I own all the rights to all but two of the 1700-plusarticles I've published in my 30-year free-lance career, and intend tokeep it that way. Those rights constitute my health plan and my retirement fund;moreover, I generate roughly $6500 per year through the licensing of subsidiaryrights to my writings."

Althoughhe admits that the paper had been grinding down his column anyway?it wentfrom weekly to biweekly to more like monthly by the end?he tells me, "Ihated to leave that column. I'd spent almost a decade developing it anddeveloping a readership and would have loved to feel I had some other alternative."

It'snot like he hasn't been writing in the year since. "I've gotcolumns going in the Czech Republic, in Spain, in Germany, in Hungary, on theWest Coast here; I send stuff out not as columns but as one-shot articles ona regular basis to a number of other publications. I have things happening inLatin America." He does "Visual Literacy," a book review columnin the gallery guide Photography in New York, and writes regularly forArt News. He writes essays for museum catalogs?which, he happily tells me, pays better than the journalism?scholarly things, lectures. He'sgot the website, the three new books to push and plenty of ideas for futurebooks.

Colemanhas written about all the major issues in photography of the last three decades,from the NEA and censorship to digital reproduction. "Nothing I write goesout that is not in the very least useful," he says. "There'sreally no assignment I take that I'm not asking myself on some level howcan I make this hot for myself and my colleagues, ask the difficult questions. How can I make it hot for my readers? How can I further my ideas and push thereader a little bit?" He cites Miles Davis' answer to Herbie Hancock,who asked how he could have stopped playing the beautiful bluesy ballads hecranked out in the 1950s. "He said, 'Herbie, you know why I had tostop playing those ballads? Because I loved them so much.'" Unless you keep pushing yourself and your readers, he says, the familiar can becomeeasy, and a trap.

Returningto our initial point, he acknowledges that photographers themselves don'talways help his case for the printed photo as unique art object. On his goodside there are the Edward Weston types who make artistic choices at every step,from setting up the tripod to the exposure, developing, dodging, cropping andthe paper the photo's printed on. Think of it "on the level of beinga printmaker," he suggests to me. "But I would construe this term'printmaker' very broadly, in the sense that I would think of Weegeeas a printmaker. Weegee's printmaking medium was newspaper halftone andthe magazine. He made his negatives and determined his exposures on the basisof what he knew would render effectively in those print mediums. So Weegee'soriginal prints, from my standpoint, are the Daily News pages, his bookslike Naked City, Coronet and magazines like that.

"Andthat's vastly different from a Weston print made at the same time. [Weston]really wanted you to see how he handled the nuances of silver, as an interpreterof the negative in the darkroom. Ansel Adams?bless his heart, I have nota high regard for his work, but he gave us the perfect metaphor. He said, 'Thenegative is the score. The print is the performance.' And for someone whois a committed performer of their work, the original print is a significantartifact. Someone who uses the darkroom in a significantly interpretive way,you need to see how it is they rendered it, just as you'd want to hearStravinsky conduct The Rite of Spring."

John Sexton,"a very fine classic landscape photographer who worked as Ansel Adams'assistant for years," gives a slide lecture on Moonrise, Hernandez,New Mexico, a famous Adams landscape. "He shows you a straight, undodged,unmanipulated print from the original negative, and it's boring as dogshit.Then he shows you the envelope [that held the negative] with all Ansel'svaried instructions written on it, and shows you what happens when you affectthe negative that way, and then he shows you three or four variants of how Anselprinted that negative over time," and hopefully you begin to understandjust how much thought and work go into making one of Adams' very cleanand "natural"-looking works.

None ofthis talk about the negative and the print, Coleman adds, is "a matterof being a precious objects fetishist. It's a matter of seeing and hearingthe work the way the maker meant me to see it."

Which iswhy on Coleman's bad side are photographers like critics' favoriteGarry Winogrand, who portrays himself as basically just another snapshot-takerlike the rest of us. Coleman wrote in 1989: "Garry Winogrand once describedhis approach to photography in these words: 'You see something happening,and you bang away at it. Either you get what you saw or you get something else?andwhichever is better you print.' No credo could be more self-indulgent oruncritical, especially since statistical probability is on the side of the small-cameraphotographer who 'bangs away at it.'"

Adding to the confusion for many people, he concedes, is that photography is the infinitely reproducible medium.

"They'renot wrong [to think that]. There's just another level to think of. Youcan infinitely reproduce or print a negative if you're careful with it.No one has destroyed a negative by printing it. The negative does not becomeexhausted like a litho or an etching."

Of course,this whole issue of reproducibility has taken a quantum leap in the age of thedigital image, the computer and the Internet, all of which he addresses in TheDigital Evolution.

"Digitalis really curious," he says to me. "Initially I predicted this kindof absolute schism, with digital on the one side and analog on the other side.I was wrong... [D]igital is infiltrating everything. Some fields it's infiltratingdramatically. I would suspect that photojournalism is going to be almost entirelydigital in the next five years, max... Even people who are working to a largeextent in what we consider to be traditional analog ways are finding uses fordigital as a kind of intermediary document. I know people who are traditionalblack-and-white landscape photographers who will take their analog negatives,scan them, do any necessary tweaking and corrections on the screen, generatea new analog negative digitally and take that corrected negative into the darkroom,rather than doing all the burning and dodging that's traditionally necessaryfor negatives..."

So, thinkingof that Sexton lecture, he says that "it would not at all surprise me thatif Ansel Adams were alive today he might very well decide to digitize that negativeand print from an altered version that did not require those seven or eightor 10 darkroom operations... I think you are going to find people using digitalfor everything from darkroom management and record keeping to this kind of negativecorrection onto digital photo-montage, keeping the generation of images completely through digital means that look photographic but that have no photographicreferents..."

When youdo that, where's the original work of art? Is there one?

"Idon't know," he shrugs and grins, one of those critics who'swilling to admit he hasn't thought everything through yet.

When itcomes to the NEA and public arts funding, Coleman?who was the first photographycritic to get an NEA grant in '76, and has picked up a few other grantsover the years?is scornful of artists who act like they've got somesort of innate right to public support, with no public oversight. He calls therelated issue of censoring photographers and photography exhibits "the hot-button issue" of the 90s, citing the tsouris that's been handedAndres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sally Mann and Jock Sturges.

"Photographyis a problematic medium in this regard for a lot of people. If someone had writtena book version, as it were, of Sturges' images [of nude adolescent girls],or someone wrote a poetic version of Sally Mann's work [including portraits of naked children], it wouldn't raise the kind of hand-wringing and book-burningimpulses that photography does. Photography disturbs people on some very deeplevel, because people have a hard time accepting the photograph as a fiction."As a leading critic in the field, Coleman's often called in to testifyin court cases, where the courts are struggling still to define the legal and moral distinctions between, say, Sturges' naked 13-year-olds and kiddieporn. They're issues that won't be resolved soon.

Along withthe writing, Coleman's always taught?at NYU for some years, at theUniversity of the Arts in Philadelphia and, at one point, commuting back andforth every week between his home on Staten Island, the Tyler School of Artin Philadelphia and the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.

Asked whathe thinks of today's college students, he replies without a tic of hesitation,"They're just getting dumber. It's not that I'm gettingolder. They don't really have writing skills, they don't really havereasoning skills?which go hand in hand to some extent?they'remuch more narrow in their focus, they're basically concerned only withtheir own work, they have no historical reference points... I started teachingin the early 70s, and I was visiting schools before that, and I just remember brighter, more avid students. Not that they weren't concerned with theirown work, but they just were hungry for anything about photography?history,criticism, theory, ideas, interdisciplinary connections. And now they'remore narrow, it seems to me. What they're interested in is mainly theirown work. They're out there, perfectly happy to reinvent the wheel."

Still, hehasn't given up on the academy. Recently, the Center for Creative Photographyat the University of Arizona, which houses the Ansel Adams archives, announcedthat it will be archiving A.D. Coleman's 27-year bibliography, some 1600 pieces he wrote between 1968 and 1995.
Afterwords Thelatest attempt to revive the Lampoon legacy is called Harpoon,which is an indication of how subtle its humor is. Too bad. The premiere February1999 issue does not bode well: It read less like a new Lampoon than theterminally clunky junior-high level jokes of today's MAD. I didn'tfind a single genuine laugh in an interminable cartoon feature about Bill Gates as "Frankengates," much utterly predictable political satire aboutClinton and Starr, et al. If it's not very well written, though, at leastit looks great, and a lot of the cartoons and illustrations are very nicelydrawn?by NYPress' Mike Wartella, Rick Parker, Howard Cruse,Colin Huff and others.
Two otherNYPress illustrators have new publications of their own out. Fly'sCHRON!IC!RIOTS!PA!SM! from Autonomedia (128 pages, $10) interleaves comicstrips drawn in her recognizable Furious George style, but telling her own stories,with some pure old-fashioned East Village squatter-punk anarchist prose rantsand manifestos.

And MortTodd's put out the second issue of his comics zine Weird Menace.It's kind of a punk rock Tales From the Crypt, with strips like"Death Battle of the Bands," "The Stripper, the Zombie &the Alien" and "The Devil's Haircut," by guest artist Cliff Mott of Cracked.

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