Posts Tagged ‘A D Coleman’

Davidson & Goro

Friday, April 10th, 2020

Two photographers (at least) made extensive documentary studies of blocks of low-income housing in New York in the 1960s. One of them you are probably familiar with, Bruce Davidson’s ‘East 100th Street’, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and published by Harvard University Press in 1970 and now featured on the Magnum web site.

The other you may well be unaware of. New York photographer and journalist Herb Goro (1937-2019) lived for over a year in the East Bronx around 1966 working on a project about which he wrote:

The Block I have chosen is within fifty-five square blocks designated as one of the city’s worst health areas. It’s population is approximately 50’000 with 48 percent Negro, 48% Puerto Rican and 4% elderly white. This section has a significantly high infant mortality rate (29 deaths per 1’000), a tuberculosis rate three times higher than the city average, and a significantly high venereal disease rate. As high crime area it ranks among the worst in New York City.

The Block by Herb Goro, its subtitle ‘Human Destruction in New York City‘ was published in 1970 by Random House. As well as his pictures it contained “slightly edited transcripts” of the tape recordings that he made with the people who lived there, as well as a block worker, a landlord, policemen and Sanitation Department employees who worked in the area.

You can get a good impression of the book in a post made in 2008 on the Artcoup blog, which has half a dozen double page spreads, and on Google Books from the book Mag Men: Fifty Years of Making Magazines. Another of his stories, ‘The Old Man in the Bronx‘ is reproduced from the 1972 New York Magazine (the fifth result featured) and a 2014 blog from Oi Polloi, Through The Magpie Eye: The Block By Herb Goro has a good set of reproductions as well as text and some comments worth reading. Someone did buy the film rights to the book but I don’t think a film was ever made.

One of the comments on the Oi Polloi blog comes from someone whose family featured in the book, some of whom went to the Supreme Court seeking a permanent injunction and damages against publishing their “pictures, names or biographical accounts of their lives, or purported first person narratives“. Goro had releases from some of those in the pictures (and had paid them adequately) but had been unable to obtain them from others, and some he had paid disputed what they had been paid for.

The court denied the motion for a temporary injunction and commented “What appears to be really sought here is money damages.” You can read more details here.

You may be lucky and find a cheap copy of ‘The Block‘ and I almost bought one on the web for £2.91, but just before I clicked found the postage was over £30 and I decided against it.

The two photographers methods were very different, and their pictures make an interesting comparision. Though Davidson’s was in some ways an exemplary and highly admirable documentary project, Goro’s are far more visceral and apparently truer to life.

I got the urge to find out more about Goro after reading the repost by A D Coleman of the review of Bruce Davidson’s “East 100th Street” which he wrote for the New York Times, first published on October 11, 1970.It remains well worth reading and was among the first to broach in a national platform the issues around “the power dynamic inherent in the act of representation, and the difference between representation created from within a given community and representation produced by an outside observer — the politics of insider vs. outsider representation, and the ramifications thereof” as they relate to photography.

In the comments Coleman clarifies the position that he took in the review which have often either been misunderstood or ignored.

At the time of first publication he suggested to the New York Times that they should publish a second review by someone from the LatinX community along with his, and But Where Is Our Soul by Philip Dante, son of Puerto RIcan immigrants and some-time assistant to Gene Smith, appeared alongside his. Although I’m not a subscriber to the NYT, I was able to access this, a damning critique of Davidsons approach – “Davidson’s one-sided preoccupation with the vile is a damaging oversimplification.”

Dante concludes:

The work will doubtlessly be praised and applauded by photography’s esoteric circles, but it would be ironic and unfortunate for a photographer who has produced such commendable achievements in the past to be lifted into a state of eminence by an accomplishment so devoid of feeling. “East 100th Street” is an essay so contrived and demeaning that it can in no way endure as an art—unless it is the function of art to desecrate.

I wonder what Dante made of ‘The Block’.


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage : Flickr


Homage or appropriation?

Friday, December 6th, 2019

As so often A D Coleman got me thinking with his look at The Waters of Our Time in his post Three Weeks in Bookworm Heaven (3), one of a short series about his recent 3 week residency on a Teti Photography Fellowship at the Institute of Art and Design at New England College in Manchester, NH, USA.

The book by photographer Thomas Roma and his writer and musician son Giancarlo T. Roma is very clearly based in its concept and design on the ground-breaking 1955 publication The Sweet Flypaper of Life in which photographs by Roy DeCarava were accompanied with a fictional text inspired by the images written by the poet Langston Hughes, who edited a larger selection to fit his writing. This was the first monograph by a Black photographer, and the publisher had been reluctant to publish it simply as a book of photographs but accepted the work with the much better-known poet’s name as co-author.

If you don’t have a copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life you can get an idea of the book in another page turning video which shows not the original but the 1984 Howard University Press edition, and even the music is rather better and more appropriate than the Roma book linked above.

Not that Richie Havens version of the Jerry Merrick song “Follow” which accompanies that page-through is bad; it’s a great song but pacing the view of the book to it just doesn’t work, and the words are an unfortunate intrusion into the viewing of the pictures. Sentences from Merrick’s lyrics are also quoted at intervals in the text of the book – which accounts for the pacing of the video which more or less keeps up with there use. It’s quite hard to keep up with the pace reading the rest of the text, and I had to pause the video a few times both to look at the pictures and to read it.

Unfortunately, although there are some interesting images, too many fail to have much interest to me, and the juxtaposition with the images seldom seems to really make sense. Even the layout of the images and text, a feature of the original work, seems shoe-horned into an inappropriate format. Coleman has clearly studied the work at greater length and depth than I and in book form rather than the video, and it is hard to disagree with his conclusions.

Fortunately for those of us who lacked the foresight to buy the 1955 original of The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a near-facsimile edition with an afterword came out in 2018 and can still be bought new as well as second-hand.

You can also watch several short clips about De Carava on You Tube as well as a lengthy panel discussion of ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life’ moderated by Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem -has an introduction to the book at around 19’12”, after which each of the panel, including A D Coleman, talks about their favourite image from the book. There is a set of his images on NPR, along with some links.


A D Coleman on Frank

Monday, September 30th, 2019

Although A D Coleman wrote his “Robert Frank, a Retrospective: The Reluctant Reference Point” for his column in the New York Observer of December 4th 1995, it remains worth reading, and is included in his post Robert Frank (1924-2019): A Farewell on Photocritic International.

Among other things it includes a more sensitive and positive discussion of Frank’s later photographic work than I’ve given. I think I found it too annoying to give it proper consideration.

As well as Coleman’s thoughts, in the comments there is a link to an online version of the 1977 book ‘Photography Within the Humanities‘ where Frank’s April 1975 interview at Wellesley College was first published. The book is an interesting record of a series of talks when ten people connected with photography were each invited to the college on a different day to speak. Among the ten as well as Frank were John Morris, Paul Schuster Taylor the partner of Dorothea Lange, John Szarkowski, Gene Smith, Susan Sontag and Irving Penn.

Whose face in the surf?

Friday, May 17th, 2019

The detailed and forensic investigation of Capa’s D-Day pictures by A. D Coleman and his co-workers continues to come up with fresh information and insights. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be much interested in the precise events of Tuesday, 6 June 1944, or indeed of any other day of World War Two, but two things make it of great interest.

The first is that whatever the precise circumstances (and we now can be sure what with remarkable accuracy what these were) Robert Capa produced on of photography’s most iconic photographs there, and one that has accreted to itself a remarkable body of largely incorrect legend in writing and film, and secondly that in a couple of weeks time the events of that day will be the subject of major celebrations, which will doubtless parade much of the imaginative inventions around the ten or eleven pictures Capa made duing the landing.

The latest addition to our knowledge comes again from ‘combat veteran and amateur military historian Charles Herrick’ and gives us some insight into about how legends about such events arise, through what Coleman has called “borrowed glamour”.

Apparently quite a few ex-soldiers over the years came to believe that they were the ‘face in the surf’ in Capa’s most famous picture, and in the first of three parts of his latest investigations Herrick examines the claims made by two of the men who actually took part in those D-Day landings .

The best known of the contenders is Huston “Hu” Riley, who landed with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment in the first wave of infantry, and claimed that a man wearing a war correspondent’s patch on his shoulder helped him up out of the surf. Herrick points out that Capa didn’t wear the patch and wasn’t on the beach at the time the first wave arrived. Whover helped Riley up, it wasn’t Capa.

The second account he discusses is by Charles Hangsterfer, Headquarters Company commander and adjutant of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, who claimed to have met Capa on the beach, but Herrick shows the details of his story and Capa’s movements on the day make this impossible.

These memories of “borrowed glamour” from the stories recorded by those who took part in the landings usually 50 or 60 or 70 years later are not a case of deliberate deception, but as Herrick writes “When memories fade, it is human nature to reinterpret events in more favorable lights, or place oneself in slightly more important or significant circumstances.” Retelling our stories we always add a little, often confusing our own memories with what others have told us, and with what we have read in books and films (and for D-Day veterans particularly ‘Saving Private Ryan‘) , and bit by bit our memories shift from experience to fabulation.

I don’t expect it will ever be possible to make a positive identification of the face in that surf. Capa’s picture isn’t clear enough to really recognise anyone and too much time has passed. Although we can be sure that whoever it was made it safely onto what was by then a relatively safe beach, he could have been killed minutes, hours or days later during the war; even if he made it safely back to the USA he may well have forgotten the incident and would probably have been unable to recognise himself in the photograph.

But perhaps among those who have put themselves forward as that man, there may be one – or more – who could possibly have been that man. I await parts two and three of Herrick’s post to see if he can cast any more light. But in the end it perhaps doesn’t matter. Like the grave of the unknown soldier, Capa’s picture perhaps gains from his anonymity, the photograph of an unknown man.