Notes on Criticizing Photographs

Reading Terry Barrett, Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images, 5th ed., Mc-Graw Hill, 2012.

Given the task for class to read through this book and then write a response paper outlining how some of the topics raised in the book relate to my project, I decided to make notes on everything first. These are those notes (roughly 3k words worth), which get less structured (and more irritated) as they go along. I actually use the term “lazy-ass”. In short: It’s a flabby book, but has some utility.


Chapter 1

This introductory chapter introduces several people known for photography (and some other) criticism. Barrett’s point is that there are several types of criticism, and even critics don’t agree on what is “right.” However, Barrett suggests all criticism is a considered response to an artwork, rather than simply a “snippet” of judgment.

The book will be discussing photographic criticism using Morris Weitz’s analysis of critics and criticism as a framework. “Critics… do one or more of four things: They describe the work of art, they interpret it, they evaluate it, and they theorize about it.” (p. 2) Not all critiques involve all four parts; it depends on both the critic and her audience which parts end up in the critique.

Chapter 2

Using Richard Avedon’s In The American West 1985 exhibition as a framework, Barrett brings together multiple critics and reviews to show how to go about making a critique. The critiques he uses include the first three parts of Weitz’s analysis: description, interpretation and evaluation. The primary focus of the chapter is on description, and Barrett explains that description starts with a factual report of what the viewer will see if they are looking at the work. As the critique progresses, the critic may include other information about the work and the artist that is gleaned from other sources.

He also includes digressions about other photographers (some long, like the one on Cindy Sherman) at each point to give a flavor of how different critics respond to and review different artists.

Barrett then lists the various ways of describing a work: its formal properties (what are its visual characteristics), its medium (how was it made, and with what tools, techniques, and materials), and its style (what is the subject matter, and how is it presented). One can compare and contrast and bring in other sources to help describe the work, but at this point critiques tend to be more subjective and interpretive rather than strictly factual. The language a critic uses can be a signpost for how they evaluate the work. Is the color in a piece “joyful,” or is it “over-wrought”?

Concluding with a checklist of how to describe photographs, Barrett reiterates that “description, interpretation, and evaluation are interdependent activities” (p. 42) and “are meaningfully circular,” much like the content and arrangement of the chapter itself.

I have two issues with this chapter, and while they are minor, nit-picky, copy-editing type problems (Roland Barthes did not write The Name of the Rose, but another semiotician, Umberto Eco did; it’s ‘Evel’ not ‘Evil’ Knievel), I wonder how many errors of fact remain.

Chapter 3

In discussing “interpretation,” Barrett uses multiple critics as examples of different methods of how to interpret a photograph. Each critic brings their own experience and worldview to each act of interpretation, and Barrett is careful to set a moderately relativist goal for reviews. To paraphrase: “Your interpretation will never be true but it must be well-reasoned and draw on all of the available information. Do not lapse into the weak argument of deferring to the artist’s intent.”

Chapter 4

To place a photograph into a category and show that it fits in a strong sense, we have to figure out what it does most, what it does best, or how it is most clearly being used. (p. 70)

After spending the first part of the chapter talking about how various sources have created categories for photographs, Barrett describes his own categories. Then he dumps a lot of pictures into the chapter under his categorization without any real reasoning. He said right at the beginning of the chapter that this is what he would do, but it’s still unsatisfying. First of all, after spending Chapter 3 telling us that the artist’s intent is a “weak” signifier of how to interpret a photograph, he defers frequently to artists’ statements to categorize the images he shows.

Next, he weasels out of making final statements about photographic categories by saying that they “overlap” and the reader is “invited to disagree and to provide evidence for more accurate placements.”(p. 72) While I appreciate the pedagogical thinking behind his plan to “encourage and facilitate interpretive discussion,” simply dumping a bunch of pictures with only a sentence or two about each is lazy. I’d rather have fewer images with more in-text discussion about Barrett’s reasoning for how he placed the images in his categories.

Obviously over the years and editions, images come and go, but the copyediting between editions SUCKS. An unnamed image “Color Plate 17” is referenced twice for Zeke Berman (p. 100), but doesn’t actually appear. Color Plate 17 is the picture Wedding, Sergeant Ty Ziegel and Renee Kline by Nina Berman.

Chapter 5

Sound interpretations are not willy-nilly responses, nor are they dogmatic pronouncements. They are reasonable arguments built by critics, and they are always open to revision. Some interpretations are better than others because they better fit the photograph, offer greater insight, and are more compelling. Because there are so many critics with so many worldviews and ideological persuasions, there will be multiple interpretations that are reasonable and compelling, even though different. (p. 124)

This chapter supplied (partly) what I was missing in Chapter 4: a thorough examination of one image against the various categories. I would have preferred, however, to have the example actually be a photograph. Not that I dislike Kruger’s work, I appreciate and respect it but I don’t think of it as photography. She is an artist, but appropriating images and placing your own text on them makes you a collagist not a photographer. I may be in the minority in this view.

Barrett’s prose style really makes this book difficult to read. I appreciate that it’s not full of art-historical or art-theoretical jargon, but it seems to me that he’s continually repeating himself. Looking back through my notes, I think I am, too! Plus, I find it frustrating that he seems to say at the end of the chapter (to paraphrase), “I deliberately didn’t come to the point so you could draw your own conclusions.” Lazy-ass.

The list of “succinct principles for interpreting photographs” (p. 125) is too long and repetitive. It could be boiled down to: 1) Photographs are a construct of the photographer, her environment, her intention, and her knowledge; 2) Photographs have intrinsic and extrinsic properties; 3) Critics have their own biases, knowledge, and facility with language. Understanding the interrelations between these three points are what make “good” (i.e. plausible, convincing, informative) interpretations.

Chapter 6

Judgments of photographs are usually based on worldviews broader than aes­thetic views. (p. 154)

In this chapter, Barrett uses Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1989 show “The Perfect Moment” as the basis for exploring how the same (body of) work can be subject to various judgmental outcomes, depending on the critic. I wonder if the backlash to Mapplethorpe would not have been as severe if these images had been paintings rather than photographs. Is photography criticism different from other types of art criticism? This question isn’t really explored in the book.

Chapter 7

Who needs theories of photography? Do photographers? Critics? Curators? Collectors? Historians? Photography teachers? Theories of photography guide practices, and practices of photography influence theory, but are theories necessary? Photographers could make images for random reasons or no reason at all; critics could criticize photographs based on their idiosyncratic impulses; collectors could collect whatever suits their fancy and budget at any given moment; historians could canonize any image they liked for any reason or no reason; and photography teachers could teach whatever they individually believed their students should know about the medium and perhaps show some randomly selected images from the past or ignore photography history altogether. (p. 156)

I’m untrained in logical fallacies, but I believe this is a hyperbolic straw man.

Theory also influences what photographs are ignored. (p. 158)

Yes. More’s the pity.

This chapter could be the first of the book rather than close to the end of the book: Theory pervades all thinking about photography—its history, criticism, making, and teaching. Theory is placed here because the book proceeds from simple to complex critical procedures in the order of describing, interpreting, evaluating, and theorizing. This sequence is suited to teaching criticism because it moves from easier to more difficult ideas. We can now refer to earlier examples of photographs and criticism used in the book with a new eye toward theoretical presuppositions embedded in those photographs. (p. 159)

The boiling frog method of textbook structure.

At first blush, Barrett seems to say that critics can agree that a photograph is “art” but whether or not it is “good art” depends on the theoretical framework of the critic.

Indexical quality: That is, a photograph is a sign that is caused by what it shows. (p. 161)

If I wasn’t already aware of Pierce, the Pragmatists, and the idea of indexicality, I would be pretty confused.

Joel Snyder insists that photography is no more privileged than painting or language in getting us to the “really real.” (p. 161)

I agree with this, having manipulated more than one photograph in my life to make it appear more like I wanted it to look, than how it really looked when I snapped the shutter. However, and this may be due to Barrett’s simplification of Snyder’s argument, I don’t believe that the camera “was invented to match the ways of picturing developed by Renaissance artists”. I prefer a modified version of David Hockney’s view (that Renaissance artists ‘learned’ modern perspective by using lens-based imaging aids), and believe that these methods and aesthetics coevolved. It was not “this and then that” but rather “this and this other thing and then some more something mixes in et voilà! That.

This material basis of the [chemical] photograph has long been industrially produced. [Quoting Martin Lister]

The randomly granular field of the chemical photograph is now reconfigured into a precise numeric code, and the image can be changed by altering, adding, or removing pixels. (p. 165)

Yesss…. but. Pixels are square by convention, are industrially produced, and can usually only be manipulated by software that is also industrially produced. I don’t agree that digital photographers have a different amount of control from analog photographers. There are still constraints, just in different parameters.

Arago promoted photography on the basis of its … faithfulness to reality. (p. 165)

In reference to the state of photography in the 19th century (when Poe, Arago and Daguerre were all claiming that photography was ‘truer’ than painting), it is amazing how we’ve convinced ourselves that an image made of shades of gray is being faithful to a presumably color reality. This implies that to these men, form and tone was more important than color. Is it any wonder that people of our century imagine that the 19th century existed only in black and white?

People have inherited a cultural tendency to see through the photograph to what is photographed and to forget that the photograph is an artifact, made by a human. (p. 166)

Perhaps this should be a marker of cultural literacy.

By the time all the conditions are added up we are positing the rather unilluminating proposition that, if our vision worked like photography, then we would see things the way a camera does. (p. 169)

A quote from Joel Snyder. I should try to read him. Also, this reminds me a bit of Vilem Flusser, who suggests that it is the camera that decides the picture, and maneuvers the human to do all the work to put it into the position to do so.

The introduction of computer technology into photographic practices is cause for alarm to realists because they see it as threatening the reality base of photography, which for them is the optical and chemical relationship between the camera and what it photographs. If the photograph’s reality base is compromised, realists fear that the photograph’s truth value is weakened or lost altogether. For conventionalists, the introduction of computer technology into photography is not alarming but merely a continuation of practices that artists and photographers have invented and used throughout history to make expressive photographs. (p. 171)

I never quite thought of this way. I suppose that in these terms, I am a conventionalist.

Discrepancies continue between prices for what are identified as “photographs” versus prices of photograph images designated as “artworks.” (p. 184)

Yeah. This is why I want to be “an artist” rather than “a photographer.”

Modernists believe the straight photograph to be the embodiment of what photography does best. Modernist prints are precious, signed, numbered, and archivally processed. (p. 187)

And this is why I’m not a modernist. As a participant in the Ann Arbor Art Fair, where I was required to have limited edition signed and numbered prints, I realized that I don’t necessarily agree with this stance. I don’t think that “art photography is … superior to commercial photography.” (p. 187) I do believe art and commercial work can be different, if the photographer has that in mind as she makes her images. Perhaps I am “art-historical-fluid” if I can coin an awkward term.

I’m sad that this book has spent so much time discussing “art” photography to the exclusion of almost everything else, with short excursions into scientific and documentary imagery. Even though in Chapter 4 Barrett says that his category system can be used for any type of photography—“It covers all photographs, art and nonart, family snapshots and museum prints.” (p. 70)—he doesn’t follow through in his examples. This implies there really is a critical difference in the varieties of photography.

As we get into the “ethics” portion of this chapter, the going gets heavier and more jargon-filled. It’s like we’ve gone from a freshman-level text to a junior-level one. Is it because of the sources Barrett uses? That since they’re (typically) writing to a knowledgable (and usually academic) audience, they speak in the argot of their fields?

Theories of photography are important and valuable, even if they are sometimes contradictory. They are important because they affect practice. They are valuable because they help us understand more about photography and photographs and increase our understanding and appreciation of the medium, individual pictures, and the world.

I would posit that most photographers make pictures without ever reading a single word by Barthes, and people can write about photographs without having read Derrida. After reading this chapter, I think the common complaint about “art photography” (it is too full of itself, too self-aware, too inwardly-focused) seems to be well-founded. Maybe I should just make the pictures I want to make, and leave the theorizing and pigeonholing for somebody who likes to do that.

Chapter 8

This is the least interesting chapter of the book. I don’t really need to read examples of how other people write about photography. Here are some notes…

Hey, I went to high school with one of the students quoted!

COPYEDITING. Brent or Charles Hirak?

Writing in active voice is also a more responsible way to write than using passive voice. (p. 245)

OMFG. He’s kidding, right? I really despise this sort of bombastic “advice”. I’m not going to read any more of the “how to write” section, is that ok?

If viewers go through life only able to appreciate realistic and conventionally beautiful works, they will have a very limited repertoire. (p. 264)

FINALLY A GOOD QUOTABLE STATEMENT! There had to be one, right?

After reading various excerpts from student essays critiquing Sally Mann’s work (as well as a “metacritical” review of Nikki S. Lee), we’re all of a sudden reading about Artist Statements, and then all of a sudden we’re talking about writing a paper on a photograph. Not exactly a smooth transition, and I wonder why there is an Artist Statement section in this book at all. Barrett hasn’t spent any time at all discussing how photographers see their work, in fact, he has already implied that the photographer is probably the least capable person to critique their work. Why have this very section at all?

I finished the chapter by skimming the “Talking About Photographs” section. It is another section I’m not sure belongs in the book. After spending seven chapters and half of the eighth explaining what written criticism is to a general (college student) audience, tacking on a bit about “Studio Critiques” just seems like an afterthought. Perhaps it was requested by the publisher to make it more like a photography textbook rather than an art history one.

In any case, this is the most irritating chapter in the book. Would I have felt differently if I was a young student, not knowing quite where to begin writing a paper? Maybe. I think that other books are better suited for that task, such as Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art.

A Conclusion, of sorts

We assume photographs need no interpreters, because most of us have experience with interpreting what we see in the world. We do it every day just by walking around. Criticizing Photographs reminds us that the photograph of the thing is not the thing, and gives us a basic vocabulary to use when talking about photographs beyond “I (don’t) like it.”

Barrett did a reasonably good job explaining photography’s art historical idiosyncrasies (e.g. reality vs. construct). However, I am disappointed that so little mention was made of photography’s other facets. Are commercial, scientific, or vernacular photographs not worthy of critique? Even considering Barrett wrote mostly about “art” photography, there were few mentions of the other visual arts. Barrett didn’t place photography in the broader art/culture context very well, and merely rehashed the decades-old discussions on whether or not photography can be art.

Given that this is a textbook, I imagine that many classes read only a chapter or two to support some notion of the instructor. For instance, we read an excerpt of the Sontag-on-Wall essay (Chapter 3) for our advanced digital photography class. I could see a Studio Art class reading portions of Chapter 8 on how to conduct a critique.

It would be interesting to see what other textbooks covering photographic criticism are like, though I’m not sure they exist at the undergraduate level. All in all this is probably a reasonable book for a low-level text, especially at the beginning. Unfortunately, by trying to cram too much other stuff in (e.g. “how to write”) and by atrocious copyediting, what could have been a good book is merely a flabby, okay one.