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Friday, February 12, 2021

On Criticism

I spend an unhealthy amount of time fuming about things other people write about photography.

The thing that bothers me the most, I think, is that people who style themselves experts tend to offer what are, in the end, personal takes on photographs as this were the objective truth of the thing. There's nothing wrong with a personal take, and often I agree with the personal take in broad strokes. My personal take is largely aligned with that one, and so forth.

The trouble arises from the presentation of a personal take as universal, as the "correct" take. All other readings merely illustrate that you're dumb, a Nazi, or both.

It occurs to me that what we're seeing is actually an inability to separate two things.

First, that there is a ground truth to a photo. If we set aside the less mainstream interpretations of quantum mechanics, then there is, or was, a single, well-defined, ground truth to a photo.

Florence Thompson was thinking something in this picture. She had a specific mood. Her children likewise. She had an opinion, however minimal, about Dorothea Lange who was photographing her. These are well-defined ideas, and nobody doubts that there is a single correct answer to many questions like "how did Thompson feel about being photographed?"

This single correct answer, while clearly a thing we can point to, is in fact unknowable. While it is incontrovertible that Thompson had in this moment a pretty specific idea, there is no way to know what it was. It is gone, irrevocably, with a billion trillion other trivial details of the universe.

Secondly, there is the meaning we make of those photo. We form an idea, maybe, about what Thompson thought about being photographed. Our idea of her idea is meaning we make, it is not ground truth at all. The meaning we make is not a single thing, your idea and mine my be different. Your idea might change over time, or if you learn a new ancillary fact.

The meaning we make of a photograph is knowable, but multiple. The ground truth of a photograph is unknowable, but singular.

These two things are only very slightly related. Our guesses about the ground truth inform the meaning we make, so there is a tenuous thread linking the two, but we must not conflate the two.

I think many critics of photography do just that. I don't think John Edwin Mason, or Jörg Colberg, or Michael Shaw, or any of these people have it really really clear that these two are separate, and largely unrelated. The result is that they're not quite clear whether they're looking for a singular thing, or a thing with multiple aspects. They sort of blunder into a singular version of the thing that is knowable, namely their own reading of the picture.

This is wrong. The knowable thing is multiple. The singular thing is unknowable. They're separate.

You can certainly explore the singular thing, you can investigate the ground truth of the frame to your heart's content, and with diligence and effort you can often uncover some truly interesting material. That material may well color your personal reading of the photo, and you might share that information to see if it colors other people's readings.

Neverthless, personal readings are multiple, and personal. The forensic reading is the singular one, and it's impersonal.

Don't be muddling them up now.


  1. How much do you find rhetoric to play into this? Disclaimer: I'm a "critic" (I say "writer" but the difference is negligible here) -- often I'll write in a more "broad strokes" manner, but what I never want to do is suggest that when I say "and so this picture is doing X" (1) I am saying "and so this picture inherently does X" (2).

    And yet, depending on who I'm reading and how they carry themselves, (1) can start to feel like (2) very quickly... and all of those subjective disclaimers can feel very defensive in the mouth of one who writes in such a way.

    I've been trying a more ambiguous/subjective-standpoint style of writing recently and it's going well! But I also find it hard to be comfortable with, maybe because the "make a declaration" mode of prose seems to be the standard...

    1. Some of it is surely rhetorical, yes. It is, as you note, standard to "take a stand" as it were. There are critics who write in a more open voice, who offer a singular take, often detailed, but anchor it in the personal. They leave, in some sense, the rhetorical door open.

      Jonathan Blaustein's weekly column at aphotoeditor.com is a nice example of this (full disclosure, I like Jonathan because a) he is much nicer than I am and b) because he's said nice things about things I've done)

      I'd be more willing to buy the "it's just a rhetorical tic" theory if, on those rare occasions that an opportunity to offer an alternate read shows up, it was met with something other than sneering.

      Now, this *is* rare, and I am, I suppose, recognizable as an interloper, so in the first place we don't have a lot to go on, and in the second place perhaps the sneering is more social than rhetorical.

      One of the troubles with rhetorical devices of this sort is that, if you keep at it, you start to believe your own PR, and I stick to my position that at least some of these lads, at least some of the time, do.

  2. These critics are labouring under the worst kind of tunnel vision, the kind that afflicts ivory towers. They can't break away from their own, siloed and simplistic political projections upon an infinitely complex world.

    They apparently hope or worse, imagine they are fomenting some kind of momentous shift in cultural attitudes and ipso facto, the course of human history. They are fighting the good fight, righting past wrongs and inoculating against future ones -- in their own minds.

    Strangely, this is not unprecedented. Politicized, transnational cultural formations are nothing new, even before Twitter (who knew?). I think there's an excellent precedent, and I should think our friends are, or certainly ought to be, aware of it. They've heard of it, let's say. It's the political-cultural formation that billed itself by the nonsense word "Dada," and fortunately there's a timely precis, a refresher, a Coles Notes version if you will, that I wrote some 15-years ago, here. Guys, knock yourself out.

    Looking at the bigger picture, to say the Dada movement and its flights of fancy ended in tears would be a considerable understatement.

    But, and here's the kicker: the Dadaists manifested far more interesting and varied creations, with more verve and passion, than our benighted contemporary counterparts have been able to muster thus far.

    So there's also that.