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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

On The Edge of Meaning

In the olden days, when photo books were mostly just show catalogs, when Robert Frank roamed America, and so on, photo books were uncomplicated things. You balance two things: 1. connecting each photo with the next one, graphically and/or thematically, and 2. maintaining a fairly steady flow of overall meaning. Walker Evans had an idea of America which came in two parts, and the his book American Photographs reveals that idea to us. One assumes that, first, the show did, and then the show catalog, which we know as the book.

Ditto Robert Frank, for a somewhat different vision of America, and without a show.

Naturally, this evolves, along multiple paths of evolution. On some paths of evolution, interconnections between photos get more complex, we're not just going from one to the next, citations go back and forth across the whole book. On some paths, meaning becomes looser, more amorphous, more open to interpretation.

In recent years we see people eschewing everything we know about photography. The cliche is desperately avoided, MFA students back away from the old cliches into their own, new, cliches. The meaning inherent in a single photo becomes more and more tenuous as the referents we're used to are discarded. As often as not the superficial interconnections between photos grow in to a dense thicket of graphical and subject references, but this thicket does little to reveal meaning. A, B, and C are tied together by X, suggesting that X is important, but we're no further forward on why X matters.

I have already drawn an analogy with abstract painting, which I continue to think is apropos.

I have no particular objection in theory to these kinds of experiments. Change is good, right? We shouldn't just go ahead and make the same things over and over.

Anyways, the natural result of this kind of experimentation is that artists find themselves riding a razor edge. They're pushing away from what was, where meaning was clear, where we have a vocabulary of tropes to lean on, where we know what's going on. They're striving for something new, something apart from that cozy and understandable world.

Sometimes they push too far, and the result is gibberish. Sometimes they don't push far enough and the result is sort of trite. That narrow groove where the work is meaningful but interesting, new, challenging, is not a groove that's easy to hit.

The failure we're seeing today (and, who knows, maybe in every era we saw the same) is that the critical apparatus surrounding the activities of art-making are not up to the task of telling the artist whether they hit the groove or not. The critical response to an artist's work seems to be almost completely independent of the work itself.

Criticism has abandoned the art almost completely, to focus on the artist. Colberg appropriates photos of women, photos he did not take, of women he does not know. This is ok not because of any properties of the work, but because we know Colberg is a good guy. He dutifully wrings his hands in the proper ways, on the proper schedule, so we know that his work is good. Prince, doing the same work, but resolutely failing to signal his politics suitably, is a bad guy and therefore his work is bad. Obviously it's not just Colberg/Prince, this approach to criticism is near-universal, from amateur photography forums to exalted European Biennales.

There is even, kind of, a theoretical basis for this. You hand-wave vaguely at "context," remark that you cannot meaningfully examine a piece of art in isolation, and hope nobody notices that you've palmed the ball.

But palm it you did. It doesn't matter which cup the mark chooses, the ball won't be there.


  1. My understanding is that the job of critics is to point us towards 'Good' stuff. Sometimes I think it's better to go by Amazon customer reviews or things like Rotten Tomatoes though. I'm in the process of dumping the bulk of my photography books, many of which were bought on the recommendation of critics. The stuff liked by known critics — internet ones or newspaper ones — almost never gives me much enjoyment. Still, must grumble…

    1. There's a zillion ways to think about criticism, but most of the good ones involve actually paying attention to the thing you're criticizing (which many contemporary critics don't -- my point).

      I consider the critic's job to be simply trying to grasp the work, and respond to it, in a way that is illuminating to the reader. While I may not precisely channel *your* response to the work, I try to document my own consideration of a thing in a way that gives you a fair chance at guessing what your reaction might be.

      Which does, in the end, mean that you can guess whether you'll like it or not, if I am successful in my job.

      That said, even a tremendous critic might simply not work for you. Their writing, however erudite, or however useful to, say, *me*, might lack the key to *you*, and prove thereby useless or worse to you.

      I always liked Roger Ebert's film reviews, and a lot of other people did to, because they were smart, illuminating, and above all *useful*. Whether Roger liked it or not, I could generally tell whether *I* would like it or not from his review. Plus, they were fun to read.

    2. I'd agree with you that good criticism is enjoyable to read and that you can often tell by a particular critic's response whether you'll like the stuff or not.

    3. I don't think that telling you whether you will like a thing or not should really be the point, of course. It's a nice side effect, maybe?

      It's a bit like whether you think a picture is pretty or not. For lots of people, that's all they want from photography. They just want attractive pictures, and that's absolutely cool. And some critics ("reviewers") have no more desire than to help you figure out if you'll like a movie or not.

      "Criticism" with a capital C, though, ideally strives to do more than that, as some photographers strive to make photographs that do more than look pretty.

      I don't mean to denigrate reviewers as "mere" but what they are up to is different, in that criticism is kind of a superset of what they do and also kind of off to the side. The overlap is fuzzy.

  2. Usually I just want to know if I'll like the book / exhibition. I don't tend to look at meaning very much. I hadn't thought of criticism as more than that but I can see that for you maybe it is — a closer look at e.g. the intention behind some pictures. Might be that I'm too lazy to think a bit more deeply about things.