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A.D. Coleman

Taking Pictures: Photography and the Territorial Imperative

from Coleman A.D. (1998) Light Readings. (2nd edn.) Albuquerque: University of Mew Mexico Press

The cover image is Lucas Samaras' Photo-Transformation 7/15/76

Back - Up


[7Mar21] This essay was published in the second edition of Light Readings as part of the Appendix that constituted the difference between the 1st and the 2nd and comprised four additional essays, this plus pieces on Walker Evans, Sue Sontag and John Szarkowski (he likes Evans, the others, not so much).

I was initially drawn to the essay's title and thought it might be relevant to my examination of the gaze in I&P Part 3. It is not, but interesting and worth reporting, nevertheless.

The essay concerns some of the ways photographers deceive themselves about what they do and aim to deceive their audience about what they have done, and why, and what it means.

He first draws attention the exaggeratedly active verbs of the craft, shooting, snapping taking [1] and the tendency for self-aggrandisement amongst some of the practitioners, Diane Arbus 'crawling on her belly through a battlefield', and even critics, as Sue Sontag spoke of 'troops … advancing on me'. Coleman makes no mention of photographers who actually court danger as part of their dayjob, which might be considered a little strange as this essay was written in 1974 when the Vietnam War was reaching its end (for the U.S.) and news photographers were still risking their lives, though it was not published until December 1976. He quotes Tod Papageorge, 'A craftsman uses only the sharpest, most dangerous tools' and points out that this is not so, craftsmen use the most suitable tool for the task at hand, sometimes sharp, often blunt.

So the terminology of photography can be inappropriate and exaggerated, but that hardly merits particular concern, especially in the world of the arts.

Of far greater interest is Coleman's second theme, photographing other lives. Once the photographer develops beyond recording family events, they often explore the lives of others and Coleman describes their using the camera 'as a probe' but also as a 'shield'. The chosen subject is often the lives of the underprivileged, the photographer 'sometimes alone and on foot, but often in groups and from cars'. He analysis their purpose as 'not to investigate the causes and/or solutions to their plight' but to demonstrate their courage in engaging with social issues and their concern for others.

Coleman regards this acquisition of stereotype images and the faux concern as 'grotesque'.

This brings Coleman to his third point, that this process might derive from urbanisation and overcrowding: by 'capturing' images of other places, the photographer seeks to compensate for the physical limitations of their own living environment, to expand their perceived territory. Intuitively, I do not agree with this notion, although perhaps that is because I live in a pleasant suburb.

Two relatively unimportant suggestions then, but at the heart of this essay is an interpreting and significant idea.



1. Dawoud Bey's objections to these terms have been noted elsewhere,

I discourage my students from talking about photographing as "shooting" or "capturing" or "taking," because it's really about trying to figure out a way to describe with the camera, to make something. Dawoud Bey, on Photographing People and Communities, p.29

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Bey, D. (2019) on Photographing People and Communities. NY: Aperture

Coleman A.D. (1998) Light Readings. (2nd edn.) Albuquerque: University of Mew Mexico Press

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