Photography and Criticism

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Over the past few months, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I do. To be more precise, I have been thinking a lot about the role of criticism in contemporary photography. What is criticism? What should it do? What do I want it to do? And what does this all mean for my own approach to it? While these question might sound like an invitation to incessant navel gazing, I don’t see them as such. After all, what I do I want to do well. And, crucially, I want it to amount to something. Given I don’t think that extracting some blurbs from a PR piece and then adding a description of the pictures amounts to criticism (your mileage might vary — those interested in the general field might want to read James Elkins’ What Happened to Art Criticism?), what do I think is criticism? What exactly is it that I have to do?

Hardly a day goes by without some new “scandal” or outrage in the world of photography. It seems the internet has turned into an outrage machinery on steroids. Make no mistake, some of those scandals or problems are worthwhile talking about. But a lot of others really are not, for a variety of reasons. What does unite these two, though, is the fact that usually, there is never any discussion about to what end something is being done. The end doesn’t necessarily justify the means per se, of course. But seeing essentially dogmatism at the core of some scandal makes the whole exercise pointless (or rather it’s really only good to score cheap points for those raising the ruckus). And I will admit that I’m pretty frustrated about the fact that most of these scandals never really result in any kind of resolution.

Just look at World Press Photo and their Groundhog Day style yearly drama about photo manipulation. You’d imagine someone had an interest in not having the same pointless discussion every year. I’m sure, people will object to me calling these discussions pointless. It’s true, the matter of manipulation in the news matters greatly. But if you have the same discussion every year, and nothing really changes, then one might wonder what the actual point might be.

Criticism should in principle if not get to the core of a problem then at least attempt to do so. I think criticism is good when it opens up an avenue, while not necessarily delivering all the results. After all, things are way too complex for any single critic to be able to solve a problem. Occasionally, people tell me that I raise good points, but they’re missing my solutions. Well, yeah, if I had those solutions I might offer them. But I also don’t think handing down all the answers is what critics should do.

The same applies to photographs. Good photographs are those that raise questions, that open up new ways of thinking or feeling – not those that confirm something. My main question when approaching a body of work, any body of work really, is: what does this tell me that I don’t already know? Am I learning something? Am I made to confront established ways of thinking or feeling with what is placed in front of me? That’s the toughest challenge for photography, given that the moment you place your camera in front of something it’s all right there. How do you get something in there that’s somehow not in the picture? How do you photograph a feeling?

This might not surprise anyone, but the photography that I dislike the most is the one that tells me very specifically what to think. That’s the pest. For a start, I don’t like to be told what to think in the first place. You tell me to think this and that, and I will think of anything but this and that. But more importantly, you don’t gain anything by prescribing your audience’s reactions. OK, I need to be precise: in an artistic sense, you don’t gain anything. In all other senses, you might get a very popular photography project, the book of which sells very well. So that then also is where criticism needs to go, to see whether there’s an opening between commercial success and artistic success (often, there is — this is easy to see in cases like, say, Annie Leibovitz, but go deep into the world of fine-art photography, and you’ll find the same thing at play).

As much as I try to avoid throwing unrelated concepts into discussions of photography, but when it succeeds good criticism should have some hope of getting to what I believe is called satori in Zen Buddhism. In particular, I’m most fascinated by the idea of suddenly seeing it. In photography, this could be “getting it” (whatever this might be), or it could be seeing a completely different way of looking at something, a way that suddenly enriches one’s life in however minute a way. The question I posed above — what does this tell me that I don’t already know? — then transforms into something slightly different, along the lines of: do I feel these photographs might give me a chance to see the world in a different way? You can’t necessarily know this in advance (if you already know, or rather think you know, that they do, chances are the work really is just prescriptive). You need to sense it, and the task of criticism then is to try to put that into words.

A lot of my thinking has changed over the past few years, mostly gradually, but in many cases quite drastically. I’d like to think that if you engage with art, that’s really what you can hope for. What has not changed, though, is my belief that criticism has to play a vital role in the world of contemporary photography. In fact, I believe in it more than ever. And it’s really one of those almost impossible activities to be engaged in, because every new piece is like another huge, steep mountain to climb.

What you are going to make of the preceding I have no way of knowing. It’s really just an attempt to put into words where this website and all the other related activities are coming from, which might shed a little light on what the ultimate goal might be.

(French: Photographie et critique)

Unrelated: Roughly a month after I started it, my fundraiser has resulted in a humbling amount of support. Again, my sincere thanks to all of those who donated!

Also, Frédéric Lecloux offered me to translate selected pieces into French, to make them available to an audience who might not be comfortable with English. The first such piece about audience is now available as La question de public. The collection of pieces is also available under its own category page. I’m intensely thankful for Frédéric’s work — if you know anyone who might only speak French maybe point her or him to Frédéric’s site.

Lastly, there are two new photobook video reviews, Sjoerd Knibbeler’s Paper Planes and Adelaide Ivanova’s (self published) Erste Lektionen in Hydrologie. Btw, if you don’t feel like visiting another site, clicking on these links should open up the videos right here.