From: Christina Z. Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 09/08/02-01:17:34 PM Z
since I got enough requests for this attachment, I am sending it as
rich text format; you get the info, without the formatting, but I'm sure you
HOW TO CRITIQUE PHOTOGRAPHS: WHAT WORKS AND WHAT NEEDS WORK
from Criticizing Photographs by Terry Barrett
"Criticism is informed discourse about art to increase understanding and
appreciation of art."
Two areas to critique are: TECHNIQUE (comparatively easy) and CONTENT (much
TECHNIQUE: are any of these technical flaws evident?
water spots air bells fingerprints dust
scratches tong marks/creases out of focus chemical stains
too light/dark printing poor burning/dodging too high/low contrast poor
poor mounting poor composition needs better cropping boring subject
no center of interest distracting detail border or subject mergers
1. Describe: What is here? What am I looking at? What do I know with
certainty about this image? Comment on subject matter, form, medium, style.
Address internal and external description. Internal is what can be seen
within the photograph; external could include information found in
libraries, reviews, or from the artist, for instance.
2. Interpret: when attention and discussion move beyond offering
information to matters of meaning. Interpretations must be backed with
All photographs are metaphors (something as something) in need of being
deciphered. Photographs are not real events or living people but pictures
of events or people. Photographs are not nature and they are not natural;
they are human constructs, and no matter how objective or scientific, they
are made by individuals with beliefs and biases, and we need to consider
them as such.
A good starting point for interpretation is to attempt to locate a
photograph in one or more of the following 6 categories, not in effort to
pigeonhole it, but to elucidate meaning and function and to generate
Descriptive--one that accurately records subject matter. It is
interpretively and evaluatively neutral. Examples: a mug shot on a
passport or driver license, or a photo of the moon's surface.
Explanatory-- this category runs the gamut from scientific to
photojournalistic or documentary. Herein are visual explanations that are
verifiable on scientific grounds. Examples: Muybridge's horses, Edgerton's
bullets in flight, Curtis' Native American portraits, press photos that
explain without evaluating, Nan Goldin and Mary Ellen Mark--as long as there
is description without evaluating. There is minimal difference between the
explanatory category and the descriptive.
Interpretive--here we find personal and subjective interpretations, more
like poetry than a scientific report. This category fits with Szarkowski's
mirror analogy as these photographs mirror the photographer. They can be
directorial and fictional: the photographer caused something to take place,
which would not have occurred, had the photographer not made it happen.
Examples: Levinthal's toy scenes, Wegman's dogs, Duane Michal's sequences,
Ethically evaluative--these praise or condemn aspects of society. They show
how things ought or ought not to be. Examples: Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange,
Robert Heinecken, and Eugene Smith's Minimata.
Aesthetically evaluative--here we find the nude, landscape, or still life,
what photographers consider being worthy of aesthetic observation and
contemplation. The art photograph fits here--beautiful things photographed
in beautiful ways. Examples: Meyerowitz, Bernhard, Sturges, Hahn, Jan
Groover, manipulated photography in general.
Theoretical--photography about photography, about art and art making, about
politics of art, about modes of representation, and other theoretical
issues. Conceptual art fits here. Examples: Witkin's art historical work,
Cindy Sherman's self-portraits confronting the media's representation of
women, Les Krims' chicken soup work which pokes fun at concerned
photographers thinking they are bettering the world.
3. Evaluate: to evaluate is to judge. It must be supported with reasons.
Critics judge photographs based on criteria, most of which come from their
own personal biases or art theories currently in vogue. Some of these
criteria may be biases toward realism, expressionism, formalism, or
instrumentalism (believing photographs should be in service to causes
greater than art for art's sake and instead be art for life's sake).
Judgment should be argued and not pronounced.
4. Theorize: this is the "what is photography and is it art?" question.
Where does this photograph fit comfortably? Not all photographs are made as
art nor presented as art and should not be interpreted solely as aesthetic
objects. We have to consider how a photograph is functioning. Photographs
are relatively indeterminate in meaning; their meaning can be easily altered
by how they are situated or presented--their CONTEXT.
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