Thursday, 15 May 2014

Criticizing Photographs Terry Barrett

A well battered copy arrived in the post, I don't mind that it is rather thumbed; the information is just as valid and informative.

I totally agree with Barrett's statement that one of the best ways to appreciate an image is to observe, think and talk about it. This is why I value study days or going to exhibitions/galleries with others, talking about images help establish my opinions or alters them. Maybe not even at that moment in time, but when I come to do a review and talk about images in my blog I am forced to think about them, why they appeal or not, what I like or dislike. Harry Broudy* is mentioned, one of his beliefs is that it is important to learn through self-discovery. An interesting debate was raised on a Facebook forum with regards to spending time "justifying" images. I argued that this surely cannot be a bad thing. In evaluating your own images, trying to be less subjective and breaking them down saying why they made they cut, why they were processed in a certain fashion etc you are learning about how you create an image, not just technically, and finding your own style or "voice". It is an ongoing process, mistakes will be made, or an image may be polysemous even if that was not the photographer's intention. It is important to recognize that others may glean a different inference. He coined a phrase "enlightened cherishing" a concept that combines thought (enlightened) and feeling (cherishing) both required to achieve understanding and appreciation.

(*A synopsis of Dr. Harry S. Broudy's viewpoint of Education: 
Dr. Broudy said  education is basic to all other forms of inquiry, because there is none that does not involve learning and some teaching(Broudy 1972). He also believes teaching sensitivity to the appearance of things, the expressive properties of color, sound, texture and movement organized into aesthetic objects, and the perception and construction of images that portray intimations of reality in he form of feelings(McNeil 1990). Dr. Broudy also wrote a book entitled Truth and Credibility: The citizens dilemma to support his thoughts on citizenship being part of the educational curriculum.)

Susan Sontag's On Photography is highlighted as a point of reference for articles of criticism of photography, a book I possess and sometimes dip into, probably should do more so now. Another point I picked up on was the brief given by the New Art Examiner to its reviewers that "the writers opinion of the work is the backbone of a review. Set up your thesis by the third paragraph and use the rest of the space to substantiate it"

Critics hail from many backgrounds being writers, artists, photographers et al. A.D.Coleman, a full-time freelance critic, was not formally schooled in photography and likes to think of himself as "a voice from the audience" which I find quite comforting -  in that he would not come to the subject forearmed with a set artistic bias...possibly ;o) People ( as in critics) will come to the table with their own agendas; Grace Glueck hoped to "inform, elucidate,explain and enlighten" wanting to "help a reader place art in a context, establish where it's coming from, what feeds it, how it stacks up in relation to other art." This statement made me also see why it is important to reference own own work against other practitioners when completing assignments. Some of the comments in the book made me smile, the criticism of critics, Lippard's writing "straightforward political propaganda"  Szarkowski accused of "aestheticizing photographs", Sekula of being "suspicious of photography. Made me feel better that you don't have to agree with what you read just because the writers have a "name," sometimes I scoff at what I read, maybe this is because I need to be educated a little more and eventually may see what they are trying to say and alter my own stance, or possibly because I have found my own defensible position? Who knows? Donald Kuspit countered that "not all criticism is good criticism" with the best critics realizing that they couldn't be "dogmatic" in their views because "they can always be corrected."

The section which described the different viewpoints of an Avedon exhibition "In the American West" was also of great interest, reading the different descriptions, vocabulary used (I may have to write my own descriptive word bank) and how slightly different aspects were reviewed  depending on the critic, publication and audience. Another point that made me think about how we can compare and contrast photographs was that comparisons don't necessarily have to be between just photographers, especially if telling a narrative comparisons can be made between storytellers.

Joel-Peter Witkin is a photographer mentioned who I have vaguely heard of before, he uses borrowed imagery, ideas and reproductions of famous paintings in  some of his work...most seems rather obscure but each to their own I guess!

I enjoyed the vibe given by different descriptors of his work either with edges being "the usual fuzz" or "syrupy" as to opposed to a more positive view that insists he shows an "incredible range of form definition"... so next time I make an out of focus exposure I know how to put a positive spin on it ;oD

Part of our marks are to do with communication, reading these chapters has certainly given me food for thought as to how I should be communicating through both imagery and words. On interpreting photographs Barrett tells us that even simple ones "demand interpretation" to be recognized as "pictures about something,,,,some communicative and expressive purpose." We must also recognise that people's knowledge, beliefs,. values and attitudes will impact on the image they take, photographs will only show a partial truth. I loved the Nelson Goodman quote which I had never read before:

there is no innocent eye. The eye comes always ancient to its work, obsessed by its past and by old and new insinuations of the ear, nose, tongue, fingers, heart and brain. It functions not as an instrument self-powered and alone, but as a dutiful member if a complex and capricious organism. Not only how but what it sees is regulated by need and prejudice.

Barrett also tells us that photographs should be regarded as metaphors in need of deciphering with qualities of one thing being transferred to another and as having two layers of meaning. He mentions Barthes, <involuntary groan> who identified two signifiers; denotations and connotations. What an images shows and what it implies...see Barthes you CAN say it in English that everyone can understand without resorting to the thesaurus!

I skim read the section on different interpretations, and valid and educational as they are it's something I will return to. Rather, I looked more closely at interpretation and the artists intent and Minor White's philosophy that placed the responsibility of interpretation on the viewer, and I think he is right. It doesn't matter most of the time what you think you have captured someone always comes along and thinks of a different way of looking at the scene. Cindy Sherman is quoted as saying "I've only been interested in making the work and leaving the analysis to the critics."

In my essay I discussed if photography is made or taken and does it matter, I wish I had read this quote 1861 C.Jabez Hughes* declared "If a picture cannot be produced by one negative, let him have two or ten; but...the picture when finished must stand or fall entirely by the effects produced and not the means employed."

*(Cornelius Jabez Hughes (1819-1884), Photographer, writer and lecturer
Artist associated with 38 portraits
Born in England in 1819, Hughes began his photographic career in 1847 as an assistant in the studio of J.J.E. Mayall in London. After a brief stint working in Glasgow, he returned to London in 1855 to assume ownership of Mayall's studio. Hughes later built his own studio on the Isle of Wight, where he often photographed Queen Victoria. Toward the end of his life he teamed up with his assistant, Gustav Mullins, to form a new partnership, Hughes & Mullins. Hughes was popular both as a portrait photographer and as a writer on the subject of photography. He died in 1884. The National Portrait Gallery holds over 30 of his photographs.)

Missing out huge chunks, again to be devoured with delight, (I really am enjoying this book) we move on to talking about photographs and how our initial comments are evaluative along the lines of "this is a great show" or "I don't like this stuff" this made me chortle as I think to some of the less publishable asides made when wandering about the exhibitions <koff>. Mine are usually "what ....the....are's total....." Then sometimes on reflection and actually thinking about it I'm not so scathing or can see the merit in where at least they were coming from even if I don't appreciate the final result. I remember one observation we made when looking at a scantily clad woman in  a bathroom was "you know the first thing we discussed was the fact we couldn't see the camera reflected in the mirror rather than the fact she had her tits out? Shows we must be photography students ;oD"

To help me as a student critique work Barrett recommends you:
Describe what you see
Consider subject matter and form
Let the interpretation be a communal effort
If present the photographer should remain silent
Avoid hasty judgment (ooops!)
Be honest and open (see above oooops)

But in any discussion actively listen and acknowledge, respond and build upon it. Even if you disagree. Interesting exercise I undertook once was to turn negatives into positives, people in the group (nothing to do with photography) were not allowed to say "but" they had to say "and"...amazing how it worked!

So much more could be said but for now I shall end this post be reiterating that I think it is a really good purchase, written in simple English, easy to read and comprehend, loads of quotes and pointers for further research...can I have my promotional cheque in the post please :o)

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