I’ve been enjoying a series of posts this summer by A D Coleman, Trope: The Well-Made Photograph, in which he has explored at some length  “the stupefying similarity of much contemporary photography, especially certain endlessly reiterated image structures and project formats.” It is a series of posts that explores in detail how a particular approach to photographic image-making has dominated much of the published and exhibited photography in recent years.

This is a subject that I’ve touched upon myself, though never in the detail and thoroughness  that Coleman brings as always to his work. There is a good summary of what he means by the ‘well-made photograph’ in the first few lines of the sixth article in the series, Defining the Trope, and the previous link has a list and brief synopsis of all the articles.

Occasionally I might disagree with some of the detail in his analysis, and certainly among the photographers he lists are those I (and I think he) admires, as well as much I find rather ordinary and tedious. There are photographers who manage to produce work that is visually exciting and new while to some extent working within the confines of the  ‘well-made photograph’, and I think what usually distinguished them is their subject matter.

I first met a primitive example of this trope many years ago, in one of the few classes that I ever attended when beginning in photography, an evening class run by my local authority. I think I’d worked out before the end of the first lesson that I was likely to learn little from it, but I’d paid up front for the 10 week course and it was occasionally amusing, often unintentionally so.  Our teacher one evening gave a slide show of his work, mainly close-up images of flowers, technically fine, but by the time we had seen the 50th rose, admittedly of different colours, gradually appear as the previous faded, every one with the subject dead central I was unable to keep a straight face and had to make a desperate rush out of the lecture room to collapse in giggles on the corridor around the corner.

Minutes later, after a visit to the loo to calm myself and as an alibi, I returned to the class to find the show still in progress  – but at least it had moved on to other species of flower even if the composition had not changed.  Mercifully it was almost at a close, and afterwards we were invited to ask questions, though I think not the kind of questions I had in mind. I tried to raise the question of composition tactfully, but was met with incomprehension – the idea of placing the main subject anywhere else other than in the central focussing aid helpfully provided in the SLR viewfinder was just too weird to contemplate.

I went home and read the copy of ‘Notations in Passing‘ by Nathan Lyons (b1930) that I’d just bought, and thought for just a moment about taking it to the class next week. In the end I didn’t bother. I’ve never thought of Lyons as a great photographer, but certainly it was a book I learnt a lot from, particularly about composition. He was certainly an important figure in photographic education, and I took quite a few bad pictures under his influence. (And there is probably always more to learn from making bad pictures than good ones.)  It seems strange that photographic education would appear to have turned away from the path he set and  bowed to worship the false god that Coleman has recognised and described.

You can see a continuation of his work in Riding 1st Class on the Titanic! on the ICP web site (and there are also pictures on the Silverstein site. In his introduction to the recently published Nathan LyonsSelected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews, edited by Jessica S. McDonald, (which I’ve yet to read) another Coleman, David Coleman starts by writing “Few people have had as much impact on American photography in the latter half of the twentieth century as Nathan Lyons. As a photographer, curator, theorist, and educator, Lyons has influenced generations of professionals in these fields” and near the end of his piece comments, “Lyons’s name is now generally familiar only to specialists in the field.” Perhaps contemporary photography still has something to learn from him.

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