Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Words and Photography

NYC, 2005                        Mike Connealy
Useful critical thoughts about photographs are a fairly rare commodity.  In general, one does not expect to find them in on line forums or at photo sharing sites like Flickr. Visitors to such sites typically dispense brief assessments of the displayed work, in the process telling us more about the viewer than the work in question.

What generally goes unrecognized is that real critical thinking and expression regarding photography or any other art form is a craft that can be exercised proficiently only with practiced dedication.  One good place to start the study of the craft is a book by Terry Barrett, Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images.  Here is something I wrote on the subject about eight years ago at PHOTO.NET:

Making meaningful and substantial statements about visual art including photography is a very difficult undertaking. Our brains seem to be organized to jump from immediate visual impressions directly to judgment without conscious analysis. That is probably a good strategy for survival under primitive conditions, but it doesn't form a solid basis of dialogue about art.  A book that has been very helpful to me on the art of criticism is Terry Barrett's Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. In this small text Barrett lays out the elements of good criticism and provides many well-executed examples. As he says in the introduction: "...the four activities of criticism -- describing, interpreting, evaluating, and theorizing -- can be thought of as seeking answers to four basic questions: What is here? What is it about? How good is it? Is it art?" He goes on to convincingly show that the element of evaluation (including judgments and ratings) is the least important of the basic critical tasks, and it may not be necessary at all.  I have found an effort to first just systematically describe what I see in a photo is extremely helpful, both to my own understanding and to communicating meaningfully about a visual experience. Only after the descriptive step has been taken am I able to begin real critical interpretation and evaluation.

Rick Poynor published a fine example of photo criticism this week on the Design Observer blog.  The subject was the work of Saul Leiter, with specific reference to Leiter's incorporation into his street work of fragments of lettering.  Poynor illuminates the subject with his own experience in design and typography, but he also recognizes the specifically photographic aspects of Leiter's techniques and vision.  In addition to his sensitivity to the appearance of lettering in our day-to-day existence, as Poynor shows, Leiter was also very expert at incorporating the typographic fragments into his compositions using selective focus and muted colors to weave very complex patterns in a mere instant.  Poynor's analysis incorporates all the basic principles of useful criticism laid out by Barrett, and is well worth study.

1 comment:

robert said...

Thank you for this post, I read Poynor's piece about Leiter and thoroughly enjoyed both. Definitely inspirational.