Alexander Coggin- On Authorship
I start this discussion with a digression to reflect on what went through my mind during this exercise. The focus on my opinion is important here for indicative and reflective purposes.
Before listening to this podcast I viewed Alexander Coggins work on the internet and I was genuinely unimpressed. His overuse of on-camera flash in every shot gave me the impression that he never developed a proper skill. I was, and maybe still am, very judgemental. Yet Coggin owns it by proclaiming: “I love flash!”
The main reason for my reaction is that I am predominantly an available light photographer that rarely use flash, only in times that it is really needed and with a definite purpose. Like him, I am self-taught, and I developed my skill over many years but we seem to have taken different paths. I seek technical perfection… try to perfect exposure in-camera under many difficult conditions and then make fine adjustments in the digital darkroom. I was taught the skill by reading the books by Ansel Adams, Michael Freeman, and Chris Wesson and hours of work perfecting it in practice, learning and applying the zone system and exposing to the right, and then learned how to to use over and underexposure for creative purposes. And yet Coggin gets accolades because he consistently overexposes his images blowing out details he so vehemently says he wants to keep.
Due to my wedding photography work, I have learned to perfect the use of on-camera flash and off-camera flash, high key and low key photography and he can blatantly talk in disgust about others that use artificial light such as tungsten light. I often make use of the artificial lights in the room and adjust white balance. I use flash to fill in or augment the available light in the way that Annie Leibowitz does or sculpt my subject as Monty Zucker did. And Coggin use uncontrolled overpowering daylight flash all the time!
I did not develop these skills to copy the work of others but to learn how to use the skill to tell my story or present my aesthetic. At the age of 20, I was taught by Axel Bruch (in his book) how to compose simple and complex pictures in those and break the rules when I have a purpose. Ansel Adams taught me pre-visualisation and adjusting perspectives using lenses. I always look at composing my photographs in my own unique way. I even let intuition allow me to do so under rapid shooting opportunities such as street photography. I don’t know whether people see my work as authentic, but I know that it is my work, my visual language and my story. Sometimes good, mostly not good enough and occasionally perfect.
Michael Freeman taught me how to use aperture and exposure times. I have learned how to use a shallow depth field with hair with accuracy to direct my reader’s eyes to what I want them to see and how to use motion blur for a sense of movement. And Coggin always uses a closed down aperture and short exposure times to get everything in sharp focus as he wants to be able to view the photograph in all its detail.
I must admit that due to all of the aforementioned factors, Coggin’s use/abuse of flash made me deaf to his visual language. I did not want to even listen to this podcast and eventually convinced myself to listen to it. I am glad I did, and now need to eat humble pie. This technical flaw is deliberate and he can explain it. I still believe his use of flash, which he attributed to the use of cannabis in his initial photography years and the association with the spotlight on stage, equates to someone identifying the author because he uses red ink. But it is his view on authorship and his eloquence to describe it that impressed me.
Whether one person writes stories for one-year-olds or a classic Novel. They’re still authors and both works of Art. As long as they share their vision. But would both be called masters in their craft?
In Coggins case, he is a master! A master of his own vision, his own identity, his own selection of assignments. He has a certain discipline to stay with his vision. As he would put it: “He has his sh*t together”. He knows and owns who he is. And people see it and take note. He gets assignments based on his viewpoint and aesthetics.
While listening to his podcast I reviewed his photographs and started seeing it with different eyes. I discovered a person with authenticity and an original and unique point of view on photography and in his photographs. Someone that can teach me many things in terms of storytelling. His theatre background taught him to see things that I don’t.
While I need to agree with both Coggin and Thatcher about the influence of higher education always comparing your work against masters, I have found great value in the master’s techniques. But I say this carefully, as it is has been proven that the ability to think out of the box is inversely proportionate to education. Our creative work is always influenced by the works we study.
Hermeneutics in Photography
The exercise made a connection in my mind with another discipline I learned in my theological studies, Hermeneutics. In Biblical interpretation, I was taught that context is everything. What I have discovered this week is that photography is exactly the same. You need to know the author (photographer), know what type of literature it is (genre), for whom it was written ( the intended viewer) and how they would interpret it ( how original viewers read and understood the picture), how the current audience interpret it (how the current audience view it). In his case, it made all the difference in how I interpreted his work.
In terms of authorship and the interpretation of the work, this makes a lot of sense. And I want to explore this hermeneutic approach with every future photographer’s work I look at and in future blogs. It’s not about me approving his work or make judgement calls whether it is good or not. He has his own story to tell and own. I must just seek to understand their work and see if I can learn something of value, photographic or even better about life.
Fletcher, G. (2019). Alexander Coggin – On Authorship. [podcast] The Messy Truth. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/alexander-coggin-on-authorship/id1459128692?i=1000438147597 [Accessed 21 Oct. 2019].
Making Pictures. (2019). Alexander Coggin | Making Pictures. [online] Available at: https://making-pictures.com/artists/alexander-coggin/%5BAccessed 21 Oct. 2019].
Coggin, A. (2019). Alexander Coggin. [online] Alexandercoggin.com. Available at: http://alexandercoggin.com/ [Accessed 21 Oct. 2019].