June 7th, 2007
Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images
by Terry Barrett
McGraw-Hill, 2006, 4th Ed.
In the introduction, Terry Barrett says his goal with this book is to help both beginning and advanced students to better appreciate and understand photographs.
To this end, he says there are four basic questions one can ask about a photograph (or any work of art): What is here? What is it about? How good is it? Is it art? These four basic questions reflect four basic activities of criticism: describe, interpret, evaluate, and theorize. These activities overlap and accentuate each other, as when a critic gives a general description of a photo in order to make an interpretation.
Has this book affected how I look at photographs? Not much yet, but I think the effect will increase over time. When I first started it, I thought it was written specifically with me in mind, that it was the most appropriate book I could be reading at the time.
Has this book affected how I look at photgography? Yes, for the better. I can see how curatorial and editorial decisions and critical commentary affect what is considered art photography, suitable subject matter, or worth collecting. For instance, one trend of postwar photography (street photography -- Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand) is the result of curatorial decisions by John Szarkowski. A different curator, making different decisions, could well have resulted in different photographers becoming as much the standard as those three.
Has this book affected how I understand photographic theory and criticism? Yes, again for the better. I can parse out what's happening in a review or critique better than before. Cogent, succinct criticism is more informative; dense, obscurantist criticism is more frustrating. Having read this book, I now want to reread The Photographer's Eye and Mirrors & Windows.
Has this book affected how I take photographs? I hope not. But maybe so. At first I was going to say "When you take a photograph is when you put theory aside," but it's not that simple. Theory might guide your eye to subject matter. Being aware of how and why other photographers approached particular subjects will affect my approach.
Well, I've only made one sale so far, but I've been in four juried shows (and one more forthcoming) and had two solo shows.
Assembling a portfolio of 20 images out of thousands reminds me of what both Kerouac and Bradbury are rumored to have said: That it took them a million words before they considered themselves writers.
I don't know art, but I know what sells.
Have you read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink? It's all about what you did: being able to make excellent snap decisions based on lots of knowledge.