Criticizing Photographs is a work of metacriticism, defined by Barrett (2006, 231) as the criticism of criticism. Does mean that a review of it is metametacriticism, or is it best not to overthink and just get on with writing about it?
This is a scholarly book, having started as a PhD thesis (my tutor has a copy) and expanded as an educational text on criticism. The style is formal and chock-full of references, so it is not for the casual reader and (as I discovered) it is useful to have some prior knowledge of photographers and critics in the ‘art world’. That said, as a student text it provides a good analysis of criticism and an introduction to ‘art theory’
According to Barrett (2006, 2), any piece of criticism does one or more of four things: description of the work, interpretation, evaluation, and using the work as a basis for theorising. The first three are reasonably clear and sequential – theorising is more difficult to explain, which Barrett does at some length and, in my view, unbalances the book as a result.
After a first chapter introducing the notion of criticism in its various styles, the relationship between critics and artists, and the value of criticism (it encourages the readers to increase their own understanding and appreciation of the art) he devotes a chapter to each of the four functions of criticism.
Describing an artwork or exhibition seems prima facie simple but, by considering the example of three critics views of a single exhibition (Avedon’s In the American West) we see that there can be differences depending on what the critic is looking at, his prior knowledge and outside sources of information, in addition to the obvious noting of subject matter, form, medium, style etc. Description is not entirely separate from interpretation and evaluation. Barrett sees the three as interdependent, and a good factual description is an important part of meaningfully interpreting or evaluating an artwork.
Interpreting an artwork is to go beyond describing it (asking ‘what is it?) to attempting to make sense of it (asking ‘what does it mean?’, ‘what is it about?’ or ‘what is its purpose?’). We are introduced briefly to Barthesian semiotics (through the example of the Panzani advert deconstructed in Rhetoric of the Image) as one of several approaches to interpretation, including consideration of the style or tradition in which the image is made, its general external context and the perceived intent of the photographer. We are warned against the ‘intentionalist fallacy’ but, as a photographer, I still have difficulty with the concept that my view of my intention is no more or less valid than anybody else’s.
Before moving on to evaluation, Barrett devotes two chapters to describing types of photograph and the way their meaning is affected by the context in which they are seen. In particular, using an image by Robert Doiseneau of a couple in a café, the way in which accompanying text can radically change a reader’s perception.
Evaluation or judgement asks the question ‘is it good?’. To answer the question, we need to set some criteria and to make a reasoned argument on whether the photograph fits the criteria. The criteria set will vary between critics and may not always be expressed (although they will always exist in some form). It may include considerations of ‘realism’, ‘expression’, ‘formalism’ or ‘fitting its intention’. My own criterion, craftsmanship, is relegated to an also-ran status. This chapter is illustrated by considering opposing critical judgements on Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1993 exhibition.
The chapter on Photography Theory is, at 56 pages, by far the longest in the book, hence my comment about unbalancing it. Theorising is to attempt to answer the ‘big questions’ (actually, it seems necessary first to formulate the questions) such as ‘is it art?’, ‘is it true?’, “is it moral?’, ‘what do we mean by art, truth or morality anyway?’ and uses photographs as a starting point for some major digressions. This is a chapter that I will return to when I am ready for it. Although it unbalances a photography book, it appears to be a good starting point for considering art theory in general.
The final chapter, on writing and talking about photographs, has a different style from the rest of the book and appears to be bolt-on content that does not flow from the preceding chapters. It deals with example content of Barrett’s students’ work and studio discussion.
Overall, the book is a good and useful read, and I expect to dip back into it many times during the rest of my OCA studies.
Barrett, T.M. (2006) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. 4th edn. New York: McGraw-Hill.