Saturday, April 22, 2017

Contextualization, Wot? Wot?

I'm still gnawing on how to map out a "new criticism" (which, if my record remains consistent, will turn out to be roughly the same as the "new criticism c. 1974"). As noted ad nauseum I'm pretty sure that the right way to think about pictures is (now) as collections, portfolios, what have you. Campion's essay, noted earlier, talked about what he calls narrative, what Keith Smith calls sequence and which I call, more or less, photography that isn't shitty.

I'm being unfair, of course. I can think of at least one form that's not shitty that's also none of these things, and that is the typology. Increasingly I am running in to things which read a bit like a typology and a bit like a sequence, which is dangerous territory to be mucking about it.

I think a program for criticism of photograph has to acknowledge several things.

  • Context matters, we need to be open to it. Expecting the viewer to simply read it in the pictures is wrong-headed.
  • It is the body of work which matters, not the individual frame.
  • Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

Context matters, we need to be open to it. Expecting the viewer to simply read it in the pictures is wrong-headed.

This is, I think, sort of obvious, and yet we see a lot of denigration of the mixing of text with pictures. The conceit that one should be able to "just look at the images" and understand what is there. The conceit is that the "images" (and it is always the "images" never the pictures, never the snaps, never the photos) should be strong enough. This is to literally build in cultural bias. The only way the "images" can be strong enough is if they're coded to the culture of the viewer.

If you're going to make sense of extra-cultural work you're going to have to do some reading, you're going to have to have someone help you out with the underlying cultural referents. And, realistically, if you're going to understand anything interesting, you're going to want a few words, a caption or two, to point the way.

Pictures don't mean anything unless you've got a mental model to plug them in to, to fill in the world the individual frames were snapped from.

It is the body of work which matters, not the individual frame.

This is the little drum I have been beating for ages. In this day and age the individual rock star photo, the "gem" photo, is altogether too easy to make, even by accident. It always was easier than we admitted, and now it's not very hard at all. At the same time, photography's ambition has expanded. In order to encompass meaning, as well as simply to demonstrate that the work isn't an accident, the photographer simply has to be able to build up a body of work. A narrative, a typology, whatever. Something meatier and bigger. The greatest hits monograph deserves its miserable death, it was a relic of times past.

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

This is simply a consequence of the first two. What photography is, what it should be, and the way we should judge it, as how the body of work functions as a collective object, with the appropriate context held in mind.

A single picture carries too little meaning, and might be simply an accident. Therefore we must look at many pictures. To understand any one of them, and to understand the relationships between them, we must understand something of what is in the pictures, what bits are important and which are not.

A portfolio of portraits of Mennonites would be rife with coded meaning. Is the fabric a print or solid? Buttons or hook-and-eye? Hats? Beards? All this stuff contains information about subject's sect. To even know what items code meaning, and which ones are irrelevant, you have to have a bit of background. If you're African, it's possible that none of it means anything to you. Does the brick wall in the background mean more or less than the trim of the man's beard?

If I am trying to make some statement about Mennonites, you'd have no hope of grasping it without some background. Let's suppose that I like the hook-and-eye folk, and make sympathetic pictures of them, while the button-folk less so. You might well glean that I prefer brick backgrounds, if I happened to mostly shoot the first group outside a brick building and the latter in front of a clapboard wall.

Similarly, a portfolio of photos of a smallish but diverse collection of people from various sub-sects of some non-Christian African sect would carry no meaning for me, although obviously I could identify myriad minor differences between one picture and the next.

This all argues, I think, for the acceptance of artist supplied text, background. In many cases, the more the merrier. Do you want to communicate globally? Best to write a fair bit.

Conversely, though, the context must serve the pictures rather than the other way around. If the pictures merely illustrate some text, then we're not really looking at photography but rather an illustrated essay. If the pictures are just a random jumble of bullshit stuck up next to a boring essay of Arty Bollocks, even less so. This is why it's phrased:

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer looks, carefully, at picture after picture, with the right context in mind.

Rather than:

Specifically what matters is what happens when the viewer reads the artist's statement, carefully, with the pictures in mind.

The latter is, at best, the work of an essayist, and at worst the work of a bullshitter who will never, ever, be repped by Gagosian. Although he or she might get some glowing reviews from Internet Intellectuals.

And this, just to wrap up a thought started at the beginning, is why the difficulty with that zone between the typology and the sequence. The typology simply shows us the same sort of thing over and over again with the simple insistence, the demand, that this is interesting. It challenges the viewer to construct meaning from the tiny differences. The sequence celebrates the differences, and arranges the pictures in such a way, ideally, as to help us identify which differences matter.

By going someplace in the middle, the risk arises that you're simply being lazy. Are you making a soup, a sandwich, or an incomprehensible mess? Usually the latter, it turns out, and then the artist tries to patch it with an messier artist's statement.

Anyways, snarkiness aside, the photography critic's job has to be something like this, then.

The photography critic must start from the relevant context, reading whatever the artist has supplied as well as rummaging around to whatever degree seems reasonable to fill in the necessary background information. The pictures then must be viewed, and judged, within that context. What meaning do the pictures carry, after we understand sufficient of the surrounding context? How well do the pictures carry that meaning?

As a secondary concern, how well does the surrounding material supplied with the pictures work? How well does the artist elucidate the necessary background?

And finally, how accessible is the work to the expected readers of this bit of criticism? Will the artist's statement suffice for us or is more needed? Is the artists's statement even on point, or is it a distraction?

The judgement of the critic then assumes a new possible dimension. Work can be good, it can be bad, and it can be incomprehensible. It is, ultimately, perfectly reasonable for the critic to simply admit defeat in the face of a too-high cultural barrier, with the expectation that many of the readers of the criticism might find the wall similarly insurmountable. If we wish to be open to extra-cultural work, I think we need to be willing to admit defeat from time to time.

Ideally, some later, wiser, more educated critic might make some sense of the work for us.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. Just as a footnote, artists' statements are often such twaddle, at least the amateur art-school variety. I would commend these folks to Strunk & White with the admonition to try to be lucid. When an artist becomes good, and known, then others who can write better than they--critics, perhaps--can and do supply better textual context for the general audience.