Book review: Criticizing Photographs – An Introduction to Understanding Images’

‘Criticizing Photographs – An Introduction to Understanding Images’ (fourth edition) is a book by Dr. Terry Barrett designed as an introductory text book on art criticism. As a novice in the community, reading this book did expand my art world view. But it could have done more and it could have been better. On the Amazon scale, I’d give it three stars out of five.

Barrett earned a Ph.D. in art education at Ohio State, and his reputation and the bulk of his body of work developed while he was a professor there. Barrett now hangs his art education shingle at the University of North Texas, but maintains a position at Ohio State as Professor Emeritus. He is the author of many books and articles on the subject of art criticism, and his ‘Criticizing Photographs’ has been translated into many languages. He has received numerous awards for his work in the field, and he is listed in ‘Who’s Who in American Art. I certainly can’t argue with his credentials.

If I properly untangled the sense of his opening paragraph of the preface, Barrett claims his book is about helping photography students (and presumably other non art-critic mortals) appreciate photographic images by learning how to observe, think, and talk about those images. Much later in the book, after a quick definition of ‘metacriticism’ as the criticism of criticism, he claims that much of his book is metacritical [1].

The book starts off with a chapter ‘about’ criticism. This chapter provides various definitions, and discusses sources and types—fairly straight forward and useful stuff. Chapter 2, also in a relatively straight forward manner, covers how to describe photographs. Chapter 3 covers the interpretation of photographs, while Chapter 4 (types of photographs), and Chapter 5 (the contexts in which photographs are interpreted) are essentially extensions of Chapter 3. Chapter 6 (judging photographs), discusses the next logical step for the critic; making the call, good or bad, thumbs up or thumbs down. Chapter 7 (photography theory) discusses the ontological (what is photography?), epistemological (are photographs true?), aesthetic (is photography art?), and ethical (are photographs moral?) concerns of the critic. Chapter 8, the final chapter, concerns itself with writing and talking about photographs.

As someone newly entering the art world as a photography student, I found the book to be, on the whole, a worthwhile read. The book introduced me to the thinking process and the interpretation and evaluation criteria used by the photographic art community. This is important to me whether or not I want to be formally a part of that community because I believe that an artist is someone operating with a conscious notion of where he is going and what he is doing with his art. With the information and insights provided in ‘Criticizing’ I can either consciously conform to the art community’s norms of thinking or consciously move beyond its boundaries.

Especially educational to this novice were the numerous B&W and color images and examples of actual criticisms by both professional and student critics provided throughout the book in support of, or as counter examples to, points being made by Barrett in the text.

On the other hand, there is much I found wanting about the book as well, at least relative the author’s stated goals, and hence my expectations, for it.

Recall that in the preface Barrett claims his book is about helping photography students understand and appreciate photographic images by learning how to observe, think, and talk about those images.  So of course I expected ‘Criticizing’ to focus on the image.

But even as early as Chapter 1 my spider senses started to tingle because much of the chapter is devoted to the background of critics, their ‘stances’ towards criticism, the relationship of critics to artists, and how critics criticize fellow critics. Hmmm. Subsequent chapters would confirm that Barrett would devote as much or more of ‘Criticizing’ to the critic and the artist, as to the image.

The first chapter concludes with a discussion of the value of criticism. As I read this concluding section it did little to assuage a gnawing concern that despite his opening words to the contrary, Barrett views art criticism as more of an exercise by critics for fellow critics, rather than as a means for the informed to help the average Joe figure out what the heck is going on with an image. Barrett essentially acknowledges this later in the book when in the summary of Chapter 5 he states:

In the short term, a critic is often the first one to formulate a meaning about an image, but in the long run, interpretation is a collective endeavor that includes the thoughts of a variety of people for interpreting photographs.

Even when ‘Criticizing’ does focus on the image, it focuses almost exclusively on the content of an image and gives relatively short shrift to its form and the other elements covered in Chapter 2 (Describing Photographs). So while many pages are devoted to the various perspectives from which one could interpret the content of an image and to the various bins or ‘types’ that the content of a photograph might be placed, much less is provided on how to evaluate the form and style, etc., of the image relative to their contribution to the meaning and ‘goodness’ of the image.

Except for Chapter 2 Barrett provides few concrete tools for the student to use in criticizing an image. While he tells us in Chapter 3 (and 4 and 5) that a critic interprets a photograph, and in Chapter 6 that a critic can and should judge an image, he relies heavily on example criticisms, rather than on his own writing to describe the necessary interpretive and evaluative skills to the student. While providing examples of critical writing is a very good thing, the almost total reliance on examples presumes that the student will figure how to properly interpret and judge images through a process of osmosis. Although each chapter concludes with a summary, these summaries are generally reminders of what to do, rather than summaries of how to do it. As a consequence, ‘Criticizing’ is, at the very least, of little use as a quick reference guide because the reader must plow through numerous example to re-create any “aha moment” of understanding.

Another ‘meta2critic’ apparently agrees with many of my concerns about ‘Criticizing’, and adds a few of his own. The late photographer and occasional critic Conrad Obregon, had this to say in his review of the third edition of ‘Criticizing’ for

A look at the subtitle to this book, “An Introduction to Understanding Images”, might lead one to believe that it is about photographs and what makes them good or bad (or if there are such things as “good” and “bad” photographs). But instead it is about photographic criticism, primarily written. And even then it really doesn’t tell you very much about how to write criticism yourself, or how to interpret what you read, or how to develop patterns of thought that would enable you to criticize in a useful fashion. Instead most of the book is concerned with the pigeon holes into which different kinds of photographic criticism can be put.

An unstated thesis of this book seems to be that the criticism of photographs is an art form itself. Certainly anyone who has read something like Walter Benjamin’s “the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” might agree. But if it is an art, then it has both form and content, and any book claiming to teach one about the art (I almost said craft) had better address those points. To know that there are theoretical schools like Postmodernism or Feminist Theory is useful to those trying to organize photographic criticism and may be helpful to the photographic critic who is trying to decide what his own approach is, but knowing that these schools exist does not help a critic as much as a knowledge of how to look at a picture and organize a written commentary.

Fortunately, the book has a number of examples of written criticism, including several examples of different critics addressing the same picture. Unfortunately most of the criticism addresses the content of the photograph without considering how the form relates to the content or how, as Mark Schorer has said, technique leads to discovery. For example, Ansel Adams’ photographs rely upon the range of light from the whitest whites to the blackest blacks to make their statements about the grandeur of the American wilderness. Unfortunately, nothing in this book considers photographic technique for the critic, although there are plenty of opportunities. For example, there is an ambiguous picture by Robert Doisneau taken in a Paris Café showing a younger women and an older man. The picture is grainy and the depth of field shows the women more sharply then the man. Both of these techniques should contribute to the possible interpretation of this photograph, and yet they are not mentioned. 

In all fairness to both Barrett and Obregon, Obregon states in his review for about the fourth edition of ‘Criticizing’ – the edition that this critique is about – that this is “a better book”, and he raises his rating from two stars (out of five) to four. But as near as I can tell, Obregon’s re-evaluation has less to do with the changes and additions to the fourth edition and more to do with Obregon coming to believe that it is actually OK that the reader has to figure out things for himself. Obregon states in review of the fourth edition:

The subtitle, “An Introduction to Understanding Images” might lead one to expect that there would be some insights into how and why photographs work but I became aware that Barrett presumed his audience would have some prior knowledge of this. Thus while he spoke of the importance of a photographer’s technique in understanding a photo, there was no mention of how technique might be used to convey a photographer’s vision. In the earlier edition, I found this a serious weakness, but it now seems clear that the author expects that this kind of information will come from somewhere else. On the other hand, the careful reader will derive some idea of what to look for in a photograph by reading the many examples. 

I don’t agree with Obregon’s re-evaluation because ‘Criticizing’ was clearly meant to be an introductory text for student, and so I don’t believe its author should be presuming ‘prior knowledge’.

There is pretentiousness in the photographic art community about this whole ‘criticism’ thing that the book makes all too evident. Way too much of the criticisms cited in the book and, now that I’ve looked outside of the book and into the photographic art community, too much of the criticism ‘out there’ is written in volume, style, and vocabulary meant to ‘impress’ fellow critics rather than to clearly and concisely deliver description, interpretation, and judgment to the average Joe, certainly this average Joe. I cite the following example, an article by New York-based visual artist/photographer Vik Muniz, of this pretentiousness:

The Impossible Object, by Vik Muniz

The end of the art-object articulated as an object coincides with the reign of objects of values. The individualized and individualizing object, when submitted to a process of patterned repetition in an endless series, is entirely dependent on factors which are of a technical and sensorial order, inscribed into the social, intellectual and material characteristics of a society. The object will always be a distinct element in the context of the real, and the regression of the object to thing acting as an indistinct condition reduces space to the notion of ambient.

At least Barrett makes it clear that I’m not the only one with these concerns, as ‘Criticizing’ includes this quote from critic Jerry Saltz:

Why is it that so much art criticism is indecipherable – even to “us”? If art has lost its audience the surely this type of smarter-than-thou “criticism” played its part. Criticism is the right word for it anyway. Much of this writing feels cut off from its objects. When a critic reports back about what he or she has seen it should be in accessible, clear language and not a lot of brainy gobbledygook that no one understands. A critic should want to be understood. But the price you pay for this accessibility can be dear. You can lose your “pass” into certain academic circles, or it might mean that you don’t get asked to be on all those panels that discuss art and its relationship to biogenetic whatever, and it may mean you won’t get asked to too many CAA conventions – but that’s okay.

And while Barrett includes others’ comments on this state of affairs and while he claims – with some justification – clear and accessible writing in ‘Criticizing’, Barrett himself takes no stance against such pretentiousness in the art critic world. To me his silence is ‘consent’, and since he is a teacher, I cannot help but fault him for this.

As an introductory text for students just getting started in photography ‘Criticizing’ is flawed, but not fatally so.  With a little more focus on the photographic image, in particular on all of the elements of a photographic image, and less focus on the motives and agendas of the artists who create the images and the professional critics who critique the images, it could have been a much better ‘introduction to understanding images’.

[1] I can only conclude – as I fearlessly transition from the ridiculous to the sublime – that this critique of ‘Criticizing’ must be meta-metacritical. As a former math major I am obliged to shorten this to a more concise ‘meta2critical’ J

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