Criticizing Photographs – An Introduction to Understanding Images by Terry Barrett

This is an amazing little book – so jam packed with crucial and helpful information and I was so luck to purchase it for $0.01 plus shipping (which amounted to $6.50). The edition I purchased was not the latest edition, but the third edition is still entirely relevant in my mind.

Barrett first defines what art criticism is – the process of describing the work, interpreting it, evaluating it and then theorizing about it. “Criticism is informed discourse about art to increase understanding and appreciation of art” (p.3). He then goes on to explain where sources of criticism can be found – books, art magazines, exhibition catalogs, press. A few of the photography criticisms can be found in Artforum, Art in America, Afterimage and Aperture and even Time to name a few.

According to Ralph Smith (Journal of Aesthetic Education), there are two types of criticism:

  • exploratory aesthetic criticism – judgment is concentrated on the aesthetics of the image to see if it will fit within the confines of a work of art
  • argumentative aesthetic criticism – this is where critics evaluate the aspects of the work against certain criteria and standards and try and persuade others that the manner in which they have interpreted and evaluated the art is the correct way.

Andy Grundberg argued that there are two approaches to photography criticism:

  • applied criticism – practical, immediate and directed at the work (used more often in journalism)
  • theoretical criticism – philosophical attempts used to define photography (geared towards aesthetics).

Barret then takes the reader along the correct journey of learning how to describe photographs. Describing a photograph is a data-gathering exercise. This process involves:

  • describing the subject matter (identifying persons/objects/places or events in a photograph). Of importance here is also taking note of what is not included in the frame.
  • describing the form (this is how the photograph is composed). Attention to how the photograph is composed, looking at the elements of design within the photo.
  • describing the medium (what is the art object made of). Some photographers texturize their photos using embroidery, textiles or paint, or different processing techniques e.g. cropped, cyanotype and so on).
  • describing style (recognizing an art movement e.g. surrealism, paying attention to subjects that a photographer chooses to photograph, learning to spot individual tropes).
  • comparing and contrasting one work with another is extremely important. This is something that the OCA tutors are endlessly encouraging us to do as this helps us find our voice.
  • apart from looking at internal sources, it is also important to look at external sources of information (the background information coming from the photographer’s history, press releases, interviews, exhibition catalogues and learning the back stories).

Photographs need to be interpreted. “Interpretation occurs whenever attention and discussion move beyond offering information to matters of meaning” (p. 37). Photographs are not as straight forward as we seem to think. There is always something left out of the frame (or included) purposefully by the way the photographer composes the image, creating a tone or mood and imparting his/her cultural or philosophical/psychological frame of mind to the viewer however subconsciously this process occurs. An interpretation should be a logical argument that has substantiating points which culminate in a logical conclusion. There are various interpretative perspectives which I will just name, but won’t go into detail otherwise this post will be too long.

  • archetypal interpretation
  • feminist interpretation
  • psychoanalytic interpretation
  • formalist interpretation
  • semiotic interpretation
  • Marxist interpretation
  • interpretation based on stylistic influences
  • biographical interpretation
  • intentionalist interpretation
  • interpretation based on technique

The important thing to remember is that there is no specific right or wrong interpretation. Sometimes more than one interpretative perspective can be used – it all depends on the image.

Types of photographs: the early days of photography grouped photographs into two categories: pictorialist (modern day terminology = manipulated) and purist (modern day terminology = straight). The pictorialist photo is one which is judged by its effects (or Photoshop techniques) while the purist image is judged purely by aesthetics through realism.

John Szarkowski in The Photographer’s Eye identified five characteristics unique to photography:

  • the thing itself (the actual)
  • the detail (the facts)
  • the frame
  • time (exposure)
  • vantage point

New categories of classifying photos are:

  • descriptive – all photos are descriptive as they all offer up visual information about people, places and objects to the reader. some photos are not meant to be anything more than descriptive e.g. ID photos, x-rays, surveillance images.
  • explanatory – there is a slight difference between explanatory and descriptive photos. Time-motion studies like those undertaken by Eadweard Muybridge would be an example of an explanatory classification. Szarkowski’s theory on photos being windows would also fit here. “Most explanatory photographs deal with subject matter that is specific to a particular time and place and that can be dated by visual evidence within the photograph” (p. 64). See Larry Clark’s Tulsa as a prime example.
  • interpretive – also explain but don’t offer any scientific evidence. They are personal and subjective and fictional in nature. These fit Szarkowski’s theory on mirrors in that they reveal something personal of the photographer and are frequently more self-expressive – see Duane Michals’s work.
  • ethically evaluative – these images make ethical judgements, praising or condemning society. They are passionate and frequently politically motivated and underlying there is a call to action being sought from society.
  • aesthetically evaluative – this is the category most people would consider “fine art” – the beautifully photographs of landscapes, aesthetically light bodies (Mapplethorpe) or nudes (Irving Penn), still lifes and street photography. Of importance here is also how these photos are printed and presented.
  • theoretical – this category includes photographs about photography. These comment on issues about art, politics of art, representation and other theoretical issues. Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills are a good example here. Conceptual art/photography also fit this category – see Jeff Wall’s work.

When interpreting a photo it is important to acquire some prior knowledge of the work if possible, namely who created the photo, when, where, how and for what purpose. This is contextual information.

  • internal content – the subject matter, medium and form – consider the resulting relationship.
  • original context – knowledge of applicable theory and back stories can add to our understanding of the photograph.
  • external context – the place/situation where the photograph is viewed. The reading or meaning of a photograph can change quite dramatically if it is hung in an exhibition or presented in book form or online.

Evaluating photographs: “the terms evaluation and judgment are synonymous” (p.116).¬† Barrett states that “a judgement is a what that demands a why. Judgements … depend on reasons” (p. 117). Sound judgements have three components: appraisals that are based on reasons that are founded in criteria (p. 119). Appraisal statements usually contain words such as “strong”, “remarkable”, “lacking” or “weak”. Reasons are statements that back up the appraisal statements (the why). Criteria are the rules upon which the appraisals are made. These usually have foundation in art theory and aesthetic theory. The criteria are often derived from common art theories, which I will mention very briefly:

  • realism – one of the oldest theories. Also known as Mimesis or mimeticism. This again corresponds to Szarkowski’s “windows”.
  • expressionism – also known as expressivism. Respect for the artist’s individuality and creativity (pictorialism fits in here). This corresponds to Szarkowski’s “mirrors”.
  • formalism – associated with modernism. “Formalism insists on the autonomy of art … “art for art’s sake” – and on the primacy of abstract form rather than references to the physical or social world” (p. 123).
  • instrumentalism – the rejection of the idea of art for art’s sake and appropriation of art for life’s sake – concerned with the consequences of art.

Finally Barrett wraps up the book with a chapter on writing and talking about photographs. He gives very helpful tips on observing the work and note taking, and provides a few examples of evaluative essays and outlines the process of writing a critical essay. Finally he finishes by providing helpful pointers that can be followed when talking about photographs in various scenarios.

Reference List

Barret, Terry (2000) Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. (3rd edition) Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company

Landscape Stories (2011) Larry Clark “Tulsa” [online] 3 mins 9 secs. Available at: https://vimeo.com/14551828 (Accessed 25 April, 2017)

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