Van Deren Coke

Experimental photographer and teacher and collector of photography as art
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The Independent Online

Frank Van Deren Coke, art historian, photographer and curator: born Lexington, Kentucky 4 July 1921; Professor of Art and Director, University Art Museum, University of New Mexico 1962-70; Director, International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House 1970-79; Curator of Photography, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 1979-87; married first Eleanor Barton (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second 1983 Joan Gillberry; died Albuquerque, New Mexico 11 July 2004.

In 1999, the photographer and curator Van Deren Coke showed a self-portrait at Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe. This colour photograph, of the artist in his late seventies, is a powerful and melancholy study of ageing, as uncompromising as the man himself.

Frank Van Deren Coke's fascination with photography was lifelong. He made his first images as a teenager, in Lexington, Kentucky, where his parents owned a hardware company. Unlike many photographers of his generation, he studied art history, gaining an MFA at Indiana University. His interest in the wider history of art would profoundly influence his later work - unlike many of his contemporaries, he looked far beyond the documentary realism which dominated US photographic thinking in the Sixties and Seventies.

Coke was intrigued by photographers who practised as artists, using all the techniques which science could provide. In his own work he experimented with solarisation and chemical staining techniques, making photographs which explored the wide possibilities of photographic method. Though he admired the documentary stance of Ansel Adams (even working as Adams's assistant in the late Thirties) and the light-filled simplicity of Edward Weston, his own practice encompassed Xerox, montage and screen-printing.

But it was as a curator and teacher, rather than as a photographer, that Van Deren Coke would be celebrated, laying the foundations for the great photography collection at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (where he became Curator in 1979) and becoming a powerful member of the photography faculty at the University of New Mexico, where he was founding director of the University Art Museum. So eager was Coke to see photography flourish at the museum, he donated to its collection over a thousand photographs from photography's early history as well as important images by photographers such as Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Coke entered the US curatorial and academic arenas at one of the most exciting times in photography's institutional history. In the Sixties and Seventies, the photographic art world was small and intimate. Photographs now worth many thousands of dollars could be bought, direct from the photographer, for very little. Coke travelled to Europe to buy pictures, combing the archives of photographers to find the experimental work which he so admired and bringing countless treasures back to the United States.

Astute at predicting which work would retain its place among the icons of photography, he bought photographs by Brassai, Bill Brandt and August Sander, as well as the photographic experiments of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy.

Coke's curatorship at San Francisco and his academic work at New Mexico put the West on the photographic map. For so long dominated by East Coast institutions, primarily the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Moma San Francisco became, and remains, a key player in the making of photographic taste, and photography at the University of New Mexico is distinguished by its free-thinking radicalism. Coke's acquisition policy at New Mexico and SF Moma influenced generations of West Coast collectors, photographers and academics, who rejected the orthodoxy of documentary realism and continued to expand photography's technical and aesthetic boundaries.

For many British photographers and museum curators in the early Seventies, when photography was still an unwelcome intruder in the art establishment, Van Deren Coke was an inspiration, even a guru. The University of New Mexico at Albuquerque became a recognised stopping-off point for European curators, writers and image-makers eager to witness the teaching of photography as art rather than craft.

Although Van Deren Coke was never to achieve fame as a maker of photographic images, his legacy, preserved in the archival boxes of SF Moma and in the work of the students he taught and mentored throughout their careers, will be as long-lasting as the images which he so assiduously collected and preserved. Photographs, he asserted, were not for quick consumption, but were objects worthy of intense reflection and study. "Stop," he insisted, "and see what you're looking at."

Val Williams