Photographer Arthur Coleman has lived in the Coachella Valley for more than 50 years, and his stunning work is known throughout the area and the world. He’s also known for helping develop the tantalizing dining section of Palm Springs Life.
“This is the place with the best light in the world,” he says. “I call it ‘sweet light.’”
Born in Seattle, Coleman—he prefers not to disclose his age (“The number is too big now!” he says)—had what he calls “an interesting childhood,” albeit a good one. Coleman’s father ran a hotel, while his mother was “a true housewife.”
“She was involved in Scouts, coaching, everything I did,” he recalls. “She was charismatic and knockdown beautiful—kind of Betty Boop beautiful. My dad worked nights, so (my younger brother and I) got him during the day.
“You know, I’ve had all these people in my life with horrendous childhoods. Not me. If I’ve had problems, they’re my own,” Coleman says. “My mom taught me what it’s like to grow up knowing you come first with someone. My dad always backed me, whatever the situation was. They raised me to know I could do anything I wanted. There were just a few rules: no guns, no motorcycles, no bartending and not a bellman—nothing requiring tips.”
The motorcycle rule was broken when Steve McQueen became Coleman’s next-door neighbor after the family moved to Los Angeles.
“I wanted a motorcycle, and my mom was willing to compromise for a Vespa scooter,” Coleman says. “McQueen came over and told my mom, ‘The Vespa has such little wheels. It’s dangerous. I’ll pick him out a motorcycle.’ She said, ‘Well, I guess it’s OK.’ I think she was blushing. Hey, it was Steve McQueen! She even cooked him some breakfast.
“He taught me how to ride the bike out in the desert, and he was also the one who got me into ‘guy’ stuff, like pumping iron to get some muscles.”
Coleman got started in photography when he was about 8 years old. “My mom was a gambler. She’d go to a country club where once a month, they’d bring in machines, and they could gamble. She won a camera and gave it to me. Also, my dad’s hobby was photography, so it was an easy fit.”
Coleman’s one marriage produced a daughter who is also a photographer.
“I’m pretty much self-taught,” he says. “I’ve worked with world-class photographers, and I’ve picked up things like a sponge.
“I’ve always worked. I started at about 11 or 12 with a little business going door-to-door selling Cub Scout stuff. I sold handmade Christmas gifts, wooden address signs, and even did asphalt on driveways. The city once came to find out who was running this company doing asphalt work, and I showed them my two buckets and three brooms.”
Coleman found himself in Las Vegas in his late teens working for Red Skelton. “My mom had met him once, and I got a job as his assistant entertainment director. It was amazing,” he says. “My dad had hit some hard times earlier on and had to sell an expensive camera, so when I got the job in Las Vegas, I bought him a really good camera. When I graduated from high school, he bought me the same Rolleiflex.”
The work with Skelton wasn’t all fun.
“I was only 18 when I found his ex-wife after she killed herself,” says Coleman. “It was so traumatic. But, hey, I’ve been in the Enquirer four times!”
Yes, Coleman has a wicked sense of humor.
Coleman attended the University of Washington and also took classes at College of the Desert, but says he was bored. “I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do. I studied architecture and a little law. But my whole thing was to be working,” he says.
By 21, Coleman knew he wanted to start working for himself. “I had been hanging out at CBS, and people asked me to do some photos, so I just started playing around with it.”
Coleman came to the desert from Los Angeles, rented a building and began using the small amount of equipment he had.
“I was dating a gal who worked for the brand-new convention and visitors’ bureau, the first one we had down here,” he says. “I suggested that they could pay for part of my studio and use my darkroom; in return, I started shooting for them, and some of my pictures went international. I’ve been really lucky.”
Coleman is realistic about the profession he loves.
“Still photography is dying,” he says. “Everyone can take pictures on their phones and make their own movies and send them around. I’m working now on time-lapse and using drones. The main thing is that I can do anything—architecture, landscapes, fashion, food, still-life, portraits. I’ve developed techniques for all of them. I’ve even been working on a musical film. I don’t ever want to be pigeonholed.”
Coleman’s home studio in Palm Desert is quite impressive. Tall cabinets contain carefully curated images, and everything is laid out with a distinct space for each piece of equipment, no matter how small.
“Everything has to be in its own place, and I don’t like extension cords or messy wires,” says Coleman. “I’m kind of ADD, but I’ve learned to work with whatever is there when I get there. When I started, I’d stop a project if everything wasn’t just the way I wanted it. I once drove all the way back to L.A., because when I looked at the prints, I realized I had punched a pillow, but hadn’t creased it to get just the right angles. Now, I feel accomplished with making it work, whatever the situation.
“My driving principle is that I finish things: If I start it, I finish it.”
Arthur Coleman can drop names with the best of them, from McQueen and Skelton to Sinatra, but it’s his craft that most delights Coleman.
“What I see is 180 degrees of whatever the view is. When I’m looking at something, I’m seeing the whole thing ‘eye to eye,’ peripherally, not just the middle,” he says.
Coleman, however, has diverse interests beyond photography. He is currently learning about prickly pears and organic tequila. He serves on the board at Sandpiper, a classic Palm Desert development, and is developing low-water xerography. He reads, but not for escape or relaxation: “I read to learn things, for information.”
Coleman is somewhat philosophical after several health scares within the past few years.
“Life itself makes me happy now. I get up, make some coffee, and get ready for the day,” he says. “I just want to be alive, breathing, eating fine food, seeing friends and doing my work. Most of all, I want to be thankful.
“I don’t consider myself highly intelligent. What I do comes from my gut. I love to create. However short the time I may have left is, I want to do my work every day with passion.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.