- Hide menu

Week Four – Talking about Photography

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts. But if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.”

— Francis Bacon

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

— Thelonious Monk

Early on in the Barret book the author makes a distinction between two general types of art/photo criticism:

Argumentative Criticism — As the name suggests argumentative criticism about a work or a body of work seeks to assess its merit, either good or bad. The critic judges the work and through argument seeks to persuade others of his or her opinion
Interpretive Criticism — This is a more of an exploratory kind of criticism. The critic is trying to interpret or understand the work and relay his or her aesthetic interpretation to others.

In reality most criticism blends the two or builds from the more interpretive to the argumentative. So what’s my point in presenting this? It is very important that you develop a vocabulary with which to think and talk about your work and the work of others.  You may need to write an artist’s statement. You may have to explain your work for the purposes of a grant proposal. You may have to articulate your vision for an editorial shoot to an editor or group that includes editors, art directors and designers.  All of these will require that you be able to articulate a clear vision for why you shoot the way you do and what you want to achieve or express.

You will also need to talk and think intelligently about the work of other. “That’s a really pretty picture” or “I like the way the light is shinning through the stained glass window” is not enough. You need to be able to deconstruct an image or series of images in a way that is informative for other photographers and for you about why and how the image was made.

What we’re talking about here is developing your critical thinking skills related to photography. Good critical thinking is about developing an informed, clear set of ideas that can be articulated. The key to this is research and observation.

By this time you all know a bit about one another and each of your work. You need to be highly critical of each other’s work in a structured way.

For our or purposes I am only interested in a more interpretive approach to criticism. Let’s define it this way:

  • * Our criticism is more about helping  understand photographs rather  than say good or bad
  • * Our criticism should seek to contextualizes the photographer’s work by comparing it to previous work and what we know about the photographer and his or her ambitions. Does this latest work represent a technical or creative improvement? Does it represent a departure from the norm?
  • * Our criticism should seek to help the photographer develop their work by ask questions like: What is the photographer trying to do? What might you do confronted with same material? What might make the image more successful?

Art critics and scholars scholars writing about photography and art in general will often address the five issues below in their criticism. They offer a further road map for how you might discuss your own work and the work of others:

  • * Subject – Why has the photographer chosen the subject for their photography? Is it a strong subject for the photographers purposes? Is it visual? Does it relay a story?
  • * Form – Has the photographer’s choices about how to render the subject — lighting, background, depth-of-field, focal length, moment — served the photographer well?
  • * Medium – Do the photographers’ choices about color or black & white work or ISO work well? (NOTE: for scholars this is often about camera type — film, digital, medium format, etc. — but we’re all shooting dSLR)
  • * Style – Is the photographer’s style represented clearly in this work? Does it represent growth or improvement? How do they help give expression to the concept? What schools or influences are evident in the work?
  • * Subject Matter – As distinct from the subject itself, what are the broader contextual or thematic issues the photographer is address with these image? Is this a more documentary or artistic project? What might it help viewers to know to better understand the image?