John Coplans (1920 – 2003) described his work approach 1984 as follows: I remember that in Akron I had taken photographs of myself in the nude with a timer; it has taken me these couple of years, trying this and that subject matter, to look at the nude self-portraits and recognize I had already struck gold and I didn’t know. I daydream. In one dream, I travel down my genes and visit remote ancestors, both male and female. Inspired by these journeys to the past, and the earlier nude self-portraits I had made of my body in Akron, I begin directing an assistant as she takes photographs of my body. To remove all references to my current identity, I leave out my head. I don’t know how it happens, but when I pose for one of these photographs, I become immersed in the past. The experience is akin to Alice falling through the looking glass. I use no props; I pose against a neutral, white background, and before I know what has happened, I am lost in a reverie. I am somewhere else, another person, or a woman in another life. At times, I’m in my youth. Sometimes (but very rarely), it seems that a contemporary event triggers the image, but when I think about it, I realize I have merely relived an episode that happened long before. The process is a strange one. I never know from one moment to the next if this power to time-travel will dry up, or what the next set of photographs will be. In the beginning, I make very few images, no more than nine a year, on the average.
Coplans grew up between London and South Africa. After the Second World War, he applied for an arts education grant and began painting. In 1957 his paintings were included in Metavisual, Tachiste, and Abstract Art, the first survey of British post-war abstract art. Coplans moved to San Francisco in 1960, and began teaching basic design at the University of California, Berkeley. He was one of the founding editors of the magazine Artforum (1962) with Phil Leider and gradually became involved in art criticism. In 1963 he organized the exhibition Pop Art USA at the Oakland Art Museum. Between 1965–1967, he was the director of the Art Gallery, University of California, Irvine, where he organized the exhibition Abstract Expressionist Ceramics and later became senior curator at the Pasadena Art Museum where he organized the exhibition Serial Imagery. He curated a series of exhibitions with accompanying catalogues between 1967 and 1978, most importantly James Turrell (1967), Robert Irwin (1968), Roy Lichtenstein (1968), Andy Warhol (1970), Richard Serra (1970), Donald Judd (1971), Ellsworth Kelly (1972), and Weegee: Täter und Opfer (1978). In 1971 Coplans moved to New York to take over editorship of Artforum. Stepping down from Artforum in 1980, he became director of the Akron Art Museum in Ohio. At Akron, Coplans organized the first American exhibition of Brancusi’s photographs and the first American exhibition of John Heartfield’s montages. Coplans moved back to New York in 1981 and began his career in photography. He immediately received widespread acclaim, his works shown in and acquired by museums in Europe and the United States.
Portrait: John Coplans, Self portrait, Sideways, No 3, 2001, silver gelatin print, 127×203 cm (ed. 2/6).