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Week Eight – Critiquing Photography

“Aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the bird”

                                                                                  — Barnett Newman

 SOUL OF ATHENS (Ohio University School of Visual Communications)

HOPE ON HOLD  (Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Thinking Critically 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

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.

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 his or her photography? Is it a strong subject for the photographers purposes? 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)
  • Style – Is the photographer’s style represented clearly in this work? Is the style of original? How do they help give expression to the concept? What are the influences?
  • Subject Matter – As distinct from the subject itself, what are the broader contextual or thematic issues the photographer is addressing with these image? Is this a more documentary or artistic project? What might it help viewers to know to better understand the image?