Van Deren Coke, 83; Advocate of Experimental Photography

Times Staff Writer

Van Deren Coke, an influential writer, educator and photography curator who was credited with making the collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art one of the finest in the country, has died. He was 83.

Coke died July 11 at a hospital in Albuquerque after a period of declining health, said his son, Sterling Van Deren Coke.

A widely exhibited photographer in his own right, Coke went beyond the traditional thinking that advocated a straight approach to landscape, portraiture and street photography, an approach that meant no distortion or manipulation of the image for artistic effect -- what the photographer saw though the lens was the final image.

Colleagues said that, while Coke had great respect for the traditional, he also felt a deep kinship for the experimental.

"People tend to gobble down images," he once told an interviewer for the New York Times. But if pictures have some mystery, "they have to stop and see what they're looking at."

He used a number of effects in his photographic work, including solarization and montage. For several years, he also used a darkroom technique in which he flashed a white light as the print was developing. This tended to blur the literalism of the image while retaining its link to reality.

"Van was an iconoclast. He understood the canon of straight photography, but he also really appreciated the experimental approach," Robert Sobieszek, chief curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, told the Los Angeles Times. He said Coke broadened the field to include photography with Xerox, lithography, silk-screen, collage and montage.

"The overriding contribution he made -- and it was stupendous -- is that he kept alive an interest in experimental photography, alternative photography, photography as printmaking, photography as an expansive rather than an exclusive medium," Sobieszek said. The two worked together in the early 1970s when Coke was director of the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

Born Frank Van Deren Coke in Lexington, Ky., he was known throughout his life as Van. Coke was drawn to photography as a young man and for a time worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams in Carmel, Calif. But Coke was more interested in the work of Edward Weston and later in that of Paul Strand.

Coke graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in history and art history. He earned a master of fine arts degree at Indiana University and did additional graduate work at Harvard. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Lexington, where he ran his family's prominent hardware supply firm for several years. But hammers, nails and invoices were not for him.

He settled on a career in academia, teaching at the University of Florida and then at Arizona State. He later became chairman of the art department and founding director of the art museum at the University of New Mexico, which would be his academic home for much of his life.

He left the Southwest in 1970 to take the job at the Eastman House, where he broadened the museum's focus beyond mere photography to be more inclusive of film and technology.

"His legacy was an insistence on historic as well as contemporary images at the museum," said Anthony Bannon, current director of the Eastman House. "He saw the business side of the picture as well, realizing the museum needed to establish a higher level of fund-raising."

But that lasted only a couple of years before Coke returned to New Mexico and his various posts at the university.

Coke's most significant endeavor came in 1979 when he was hired as curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He oversaw the establishment of a department of photography, and during his tenure, more than one-third of the museum's exhibition activity became devoted to photography.

He embarked on an aggressive acquisition program, expanding the focus of the museum's holdings to include highly experimental, design-related images produced in Germany, France and Czechoslovakia. He also purchased important works by such noted photographers as Bill Brandt, Brassai, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and August Sander, nearly doubling the size of the museum's collection during his tenure.

Coke also organized influential touring exhibitions, including one in 1980 that was considered a landmark in photography circles: "Avant-Garde Photography in Germany, 1919-1939."

His views on photography affected other museums in the West, and private collectors as well, at a time when photography prices were still relatively low in relationship to other art forms.

After retiring in 1987, Coke returned to New Mexico, where he taught occasionally and continued to write. Notable among his books are "The Painter and the Photograph: From Delacroix to Warhol" and "Secular and Sacred: Photographs of Mexico."

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Joan, and daughter, Eleanor Browning Coke.

A memorial service will be held at the University of New Mexico on Sept. 18.

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