Posts Tagged ‘A D Coleman’

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.