I am going to spend a few words here writing down how I think about a group of pictures and accompanying material. A book, a gallery show, an online portfolio, a box of pictures. It turns out that whenever I review something, a day or so later I think to myself damn it! I forgot... So I want to take a moment now to write down the things I think matter when looking at a body of work.
Soon, I'll be looking at some bodies of work, and hopefully by having performed this exercise, I will be in better shape in terms of the various ways I evaluate the work.
First and foremost, the only things that really matter are aesthetics and utility. Do I like it in some way (aesthetically), which is inextricably entangled with does it work (utility). Does the artist have something to say, something to communicate; can I discern roughly what that is; and does the work succeed in making that communication. Secondarily, is the something worth communicating. Ultimately the goal of criticism needs to be to answer those questions. I don't think anything else really matters.
Still, to answer a big question, one often breaks it down into little questions. Here is, roughly, the collection of "little questions" I think are worth digging through before tackling the "big questions."
Technical aspects. I like to think of portfolios in terms of unity, variety, and balance. Does the work hang together as one? Is there variation sufficient to keep it interesting? And, well, is there balance. Whatever that means. Like pornography, I know it when I see it? These are not criteria for judging value; the work need not be balanced to be good. They're just rough metrics, not that different from how many pictures are there?
Sequencing. Is there, or is there not, flow? How do the pictures relate to one another, and can I follow those relationships? Again, just a kind of metric, although without some sort of functional sequence, I don't really see how a portfolio can work. Sequencing has some relationship to the three qualities just mentioned. Does it emerge from them? Or vice versa? I don't know, and I don't think it matters.
trame and the opposite. What is actually in the pictures, and what is implied by the pictures but not in them? How does the combination of those two things work? Does it create a coherent whole, a complete "story", or something else? This is some sort of gestalt idea, what is the sum total reaction I get looking at this stuff?
Content. The elephant in the room, the biggest single factor. What the hell are these pictures of?
I think that unity, variety, balance, and sequencing should work together to support content, producing the gestalt reaction. So each thing, sort of, builds on the previous. But things feed backwards as well. Content plus the previous "structural" ideas leads to my total reaction to the work, I think.
At this point, I think I can now evaluate the big questions. Does it work? What's it trying to say? It that worth saying? Does it succeed in saying it?
And then, finally, as the final judgement, because I am not a weenie, is this stuff any damn good?
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