THE PHOTOGRAPHER AS CRITIC

On Strant’s Camera Reality blog I wrote a short piece titled, Not Too Many Blogs, Zines, Magazines, and Self-Published Books in which I said that “dissenters might argue that there are too many photographers out there producing blogs, zines, magazines, self-published books, etc. On the contrary however, I believe photographers are diversifying themselves and understanding photography better by writing, editing, and publishing.” I would like to expand on the topic a bit because, as photographers I believe we are often motivated by the consumption of our work rather than the self-reflection it allows. Self-reflection is not the end all of photography, but my argument here is that despite the hemming and hawing to be seen and heard, neither is its consumption. I would like to make an argument for the photographer as critic.

In his book A Short Guide to Writing about Art, Sylvan Barnet says that “in putting words on paper we have to take a second and third look at what is in front of us and what is within us. And so writing is a way of learning… when we write we hope to make at least a little progress in the difficult but rewarding job of talking about our responses.” Those sentences are contained within the very first paragraph of the book. The book is, essentially a primer for college students learning critical writing about art. It is not however, without merit as advice for not just the young critical writer but any creative including the photographer. In The Liberating Role of Conflict in Group Creativity Charlan Nemeth writes that “the encouragement of debate—even criticism—may permit the generation of more creative ideas.” It is evident to the creative process that criticism is necessary, a process of better understanding by commentary and reply.

Not Too Many Blogs, Zines, Magazines, and Self-Published Books was prompted after reading an interview in which the subject, a photographer, noted that the number of photography blogs with a need for new content daily are creating buzz around photography that isn’t good. Within days of reading that interview, a conversation by email came to an end as a potential contributor to a future issue of Strant declined to be included. I absolutely respect the photographer’s decision to decline, especially considering it was a potential conflict of interest with another opportunity by another publication for the project to be published. In the end however, it was not the conflict of interest that lead the photographer to decline but rather, an issue regarding technical decisions. This disagreement lead the photographer to explain, much like the subject of the interview, that there are too many photography publications out there anyhow. I share these stories not to spite either of these photographers (hence omitting names) or out of my own pity. Rather I shared them because I recognize the irony of the situations at hand. First, the interview I read was featured on a photography blog. Second, the would-be-collaborator for Strant is also a publisher of zines and photobooks. Both were arguing that there are too many publications out there. These are two photographers, one taking advantage of an online platform to presumably promote work and the second photographer, attempting to make a go at publishing the very thing of which there are supposedly too many. There is however despite the irony, accuracy in their assertions.

What is the point of a photography publication be it a blog, zine, magazine, or self-published book anyhow? What is the point of the photographer? For one, it is in fact to introduce viewers to the otherwise unknown. Unfortunately for many publications and photographers, this is where it ends. Given the sheer magnitude of good and bad photographers alike, there is plenty of room for plenty of publications taking on this role and as well, there is always room for new commentary by a photographer, new juxtapositions to be explored or even existing ideas to be reconsidered in a more contemporary way. But as the subject of the interview said, and with which if certain presumptions exist I agree, there is too much of this going on. The presumption is that the only role of photography publications is to promote work of the unknown and to continue my vein, the photographer’s role to introduce the unknown. If this were the case, then I agree with the interviewee. But this is not true and there is not too much of this going on. It is simply not being done well, myself as a photographer and Strant not excluded. The photography publication and photographer, at least in principal, should offer up more than just a look at the unknown. There are other roles the photography publication and photographer should take on and if each were doing so, despite the number of photographers out there today (even if the “bad” photographers were included), I believe the notion of “too many” could be dismissed. In short, many photography publications and photographers are not focused on the right thing and instead, are focused on attracting a demanding but inattentive audience.

Let’s consider then, what the role of a photography publication or photographer should be beyond promoting the unknown. To do so, I’d like to cite again Sylvan Barnet who himself cites poet and 20th Century writer W.H. Auden. Auden suggests six functions of the critic. I would like to adapt four of these functions for photography publications and in doing so suggest that in some regard, every photographer could benefit from functioning much the same. Each of the four are introduced below in italics. Words contained in brackets are what I have added or used as replacement for his original text. The full six functions of a critic as Auden wrote them appear in his collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand.

1. Introduce me to [photographers] of which I was hitherto unaware.
Given the platform of the internet and the recent boom in self-publishing, this one is pretty accessible and has been thus far, a focus of this essay.
2. Give a “reading” of [the photography] which increases my understanding of it.
This function should go hand in hand with introducing work. Unfortunately thoughtful consideration of work has been exchanged for a mill-churn style of pumping out work to be seen and liked by way of social media. This is almost an exploitation of the photographer, using her unknown status to promote not just the work, but the publication itself. In this form, the act of discovery takes precedence over any consideration of these newly discovered talents. We should give deserved thought to photography if we intend to introduce it to a new audience, which leads to numbers three and four…
3. Throw light upon the [photographic] process.
How a photographer arrived at the photograph or body of photographs should be taken into consideration. This is not an opportunity for a biopic understanding of the photographer, but rather how the relationship of creation and created serves as a framework to understand the work.
4. Throw light upon the relation of [photography] to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.
Most any art is a response, be it out of disgust or celebration, of some form of our existence. If we understand the photography in context to when or where it was created we can apply meaning (even if varied) to the work.

We can assume that often we will fall short of these functions. Sometimes photography and photography publications will not be good. But good photography and good publications is not the point. Contributing to critical dialogue is. We often associate criticism with pointing out flaws. But critical thought is not about judgement but rather being self-aware by contributing to the conversation. It is also important that we consider the photographic process much the same as an on-going dialogue. And likewise a good photographer or good photography publication is self-aware and contributes to the conversation addressing how we see and understand ourselves both collectively and individually. This critical process can “both liberate individuals to be relatively free of evaluation apprehension and stimulate them to express ideas more freely. Further, such an atmosphere might also stimulate creativity subsequent to the interaction” writes Nemeth. Being self-aware means understanding one’s own voice. As Barnet wrote, “we turn to criticism with the hope that the critic has seen something we have missed[.]” This is, I believe, just cause for dialogue about our photographic pursuits be it criticism of our own work or listening to the criticism of others. And it can be easily said, that we turn to photography with the hope that the photographer has seen something we have missed. Sometimes a photographer is fruitful in this pursuit and other times, barren. But as I shared in Not Too Many Blogs, Zines, Magazines, and Self-Published Books, “the work might not be outstanding but it is that photographer at that particular time as evidenced by a body of work be it written or visual, but shared… what is valuable is the personal insight gained as the photographer understands his or her voice through means other than solely the photographic.” If we understand ourselves better, then perhaps we can make critical commentary on the world be it through our own photography or critical study of the photography of others.

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