Friday, July 31, 2020

A Plague of Critics

As I have remarked in the past, I consider the job of the critic to offer a nuanced, layered, view of the object under criticism. We should learn something of how the thing touches us collectively, what variety of ways it might naturally be understood by people, and so on. What we get from the likes of Colberg, Shaw, Mason, and others is not that but rather just more personal readings. The photo takes me this way, and there we have it.

When the chips are down, at least sometimes the critic will defend their personal position as in fact the only legitimate one, all others are deeply problematic. The chips are not usually down because, usually, nobody reads these guys. This kind of criticism is 99% output only. Still, the bad habits they develop writing things nobody reads carry through to those rare times the larger world tunes in.

The conceit is that because they are educated (i.e. have been hanging around art schools and reading the wikipedia entry on "male gaze" for a few years) is more valuable and correct than that of some ordinary bloke's silly ideas. This is, it turns out, exactly wrong.

Critical theories arise from time to time. Properly understood, they should be considered as additive. A new theory, usually, should add nuance and layers to previous understandings. When postmodernism considered the idea that the author's intention should not be considered, the proper way to use that idea would have been to add it to the idea that the author's intention does matter. The result should have been that we should consider the author, but also the text separate from the author. Both/and.

What actually happened, at least in the hands of the ham-fisted, was that the author got thrown out. The new theory replaced the old, rather than adding to it.

In the same way we see singular theories from media studies being used as the lone basis for these so-called critic's personal takes.

Representation and gaze, those modern theories from the 1970s, are essentially the entire basis upon which Colberg and his equivalents view media. There isn't anything else.

Thus, their personal takes are not merely as narrow and singular as any other personal take, they are peculiarly narrow, singular, and above all idiosyncratic. Their criticism often makes no sense whatsoever from the point of view of anyone not steeped in 1970s era media studies.

Their takes, far from being broad, nuanced, layered, are singularly and peculiarly irrelevant and wrong in terms of making any kind of larger sense of a photograph or other media.


  1. Can I ask who the 'Shaw' you refer to is? (I know the other two.)

    1. The rogue's gallery is Jörg Colberg (, John Edwin Mason of, um, twitter and UVA, and Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures.

      But they are just the ones I attend to, the general shape of these blobs is repeated endlessly in all directions.

  2. Kids, feast your sore eyes on some "breathtaking talent":

    "The 3 photos shown here are amazing! Just average folks doing stuff. I especially appreciate the bellbottom jeans."

    1. If you click through to the full gallery the work rather plummets. This guy isn't even an ordinarily competent photographer, he's a ham fisted snapshootist.

      But whatever, the truth is that Serious Photography is 100% about being anointed and has nothing to do with the pictures. We're currently in a phase of anointing photographers based on identity, which is as good a criterion as any of you're going to ignore the pictures anyways.

    2. It's an interesting story that somewhat belies the mediocrity of the visual evidence:

      "He had lots of books of photography and he studied it. He was doing it because those things needed to be recorded. You fall in love with a medium and that’s what happened to him. He spent all his money on photography. He had expensive cameras, Hasselblads and Leicas." -- the photog's niece, who rescued the negs for these shots from a dumpster.

      I'm going to assume the examples were selected for the website on the basis of local interest moreso than photographic merit -- there may be better ones.