In my mind, to pose the question why there should be photography criticism is to simultaneously ask what exactly it is and how it can be done. In his 2003 book What Happened to Art Criticism? (Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago), James Elkins focused on exactly that task at hand, namely to discern the state of the profession. “Art criticism”, he started out with, “is in a worldwide crisis.” That crisis only appears to have become much worse over the course of the past almost twenty years, as, for example, art criticism has disappeared from many newspapers and magazines, which themselves have been disappearing. The “ghostly profession” (Elkins’ term) in effect has become ever more ghostly. Elkins identified seven types of criticism, most of which I think also exist in that little photography niche of the world of art that I call photoland. They are the catalogue essay, the academic treatise, cultural criticism, the conservative harangue, the philosopher’s essay, descriptive criticism, and poetic criticism. For each of these types, Elkins discusses examples, and I want to refer the interested reader to the book—none of these examples deal with photography. In fact, photography’s invisibility in the book is mirrored by its invisibility in most art contexts. Photography has become an established part of the world of art. But, as the widely used corporate phrase goes, certain restrictions apply. The reality is that most photography never gets reviewed by art critics. I can think of only two exceptions. There are artists who bill themselves as artists working with photography, instead of photographers exhibiting in art galleries—galleries that show a wide range of art instead of only photographs (think Florian Maier-Aichen). I do think there is something to be said for that approach, given if photography is indeed art then why would one need to focus at all on its technological origin? The other main group who will enjoy the privilege of being taken seriously by art critics, if we can call it that, are photographers who made it into one of the mega-galleries (think Taryn Simon who is represented by Gagosian). Everybody else—photographers, whether they call themselves artists or not—exhibit at dedicated photography galleries and are subjected to criticism by photography critics.
While re-reading Elkins’ book as research for this essay, I was struck by the fact that criticism itself was taken for granted, instead of its existence itself being questioned. Obviously, various types of criticism Elkins identified do not have to justify their existence. Academics will produce academic criticism because that’s part of their job. Catalogue essays will be written because artists and gallerists need to embellish their catalogues with at least a modicum of seemingly independent and objective writing.
If this makes you snicker, please note that Elkins is very clear about the reality of how critical such writing actually is, or rather, can be. My own experience matches what he outlines;
if you are invited to write for a catalogue or monograph, you are not invited for your ability to be critical, you are invited for your ability to produce PR copy.
But why should cultural criticism incorporate photography? Why should there be criticism of photography anyway, especially in a day and age where everybody can offer their own criticism on social media, either in the form of “likes” or by leaving comments? Please, note that I’m not being sarcastic here. To begin with, we should realise that the photography produced in photoland is but a tiny fraction of all the photographs being made, shared, and viewed these days. Photography has become the visual currency of the Internet age. As much as I detest these types of clichés, we all have become photographers—whether we think of ourselves as such or not. Consequently, we all need to understand photography, meaning what it is and what it does. While we all arrive at some level of understanding, through exposure to countless photographs on a daily basis, a deeper engagement beyond what we are able to do on our own is necessary. By construction, such a deeper engagement can only be had through someone critically examining photographs, by, in other words, writing photography criticism. For the denizens of photoland it’s important to realise that this type of reasoning cuts both ways: while it’s true that those outside of photoland who use their smartphones to take and share pictures need to arrive at a better understanding of photography, it’s also true that those inside of photoland need to at least try to understand what’s going on in that outside world. In my view, photography criticism today must not cut itself off from the vast majority of photography, regardless of whether any of these pictures will ever get printed, regardless of however many selfies or cat pictures this includes. In my view,
if you cut yourself off from the vast majority of photography made and shared today, you forfeit the right to have proper photography criticism.
Or maybe a different way to express my sentiment would be to say that photography criticism that only deals with photoland essentially is an esoteric exercise that I personally have absolutely no interest in (obviously, your mileage might vary). One benefit of my approach is that criticism produced with this idea in mind expands its target audience beyond the denizens of photoland, reaching out to all those who take and share pictures on a daily basis.
Criticism, in other words, should strive for absolute inclusiveness. Inclusiveness here contains two facets. First, instead of being content with catering to a small in-crowd, criticism should be accessible for as large an audience as possible. Such accessibility has to take care of both form and content, to use two commonly used terms that usually are applied to photographs. In terms of form, accessible criticism will avoid art speak and unnecessary jargon. In terms of content, criticism ought to cover as wide a range of photography as possible, while being especially mindful of those whose voices have been suppressed or neglected over the first 170 years of the history of photography. Without an awareness of the many deficiencies of this history, photography criticism cannot hope to meaningfully move towards a fully inclusive world of photography. Also note that it is only fair enough for critics to have to perform essentially the same task as the photographers whose work they critically engage with, namely to operate with a full awareness of their profession’s historical baggage. Then, and only then, will those who have, for too long, been at the receiving end of maltreatment by the world of photography be able to feel that they are indeed not only being welcomed, but also treated as equals–whether as an audience, as subjects of photography, or as photographers or critics themselves who, because of their origin, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever else, previously were excluded from the discourse. In light of photography criticism being an essential part of educating visual literacy, there cannot be any other way, especially not in a day and age that is witnessing a shocking re-emergence of nationalism, authoritarianism, and fascism all over the world.
Photography criticism must not shy away from being aspirational: a contribution to a rise in visual literacy, in however many baby steps it is being done, it is a powerful antidote for the political poison spreading through our societies.
One of criticism’s main challenges is the fact that the word itself has more than one meaning. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists “the act of criticizing usually unfavourably” first before giving “the art of evaluating or analysing works of art or literature.” Criticism of course can criticise in the former meaning, and it can indeed do so unfavourably, but it is the latter definition that stands at the core of what is meant by photography criticism: evaluating or analysing a photograph or group of photographs, in whatever form. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the first meaning of the word is the go-to one, which often leads to an outright rejection of the idea of criticism. In light of the aforementioned critical relevance of criticism, this becomes a problem for anyone interested in writing it (using the second Merriam-Webster definition of critical: “of, relating to, or being a turning point or specially important juncture”). Maybe this is not so bad an obstacle. After all, what it really means for a critic is that s/he simply has to work a little bit harder to convince her or his audience of the resulting merit. But the confusion over the possible meanings of the words critical and criticism also serves to highlight the fact that clear writing, free of jargon or anything else that obfuscates meaning, is important. “What can be said at all,” in Wittgenstein’s words, “can be said clearly” (these words ought to hang in the form of a plaque above the screens of every writer). Writing clearly here not only means the proper and clear use of words, it also entails a communication of one’s intentions. After all, there is no such thing as an objective truth when it comes to photographs. Even in cases where we all agree on the meaning of a photograph, that meaning still is a social construct, typically produced out of specific contexts, however much merit to that agreed-upon meaning there might be. The critic’s role always entails disentangling or reverse-engineering the production of such meaning: how do, or can, we arrive at a meaning? Or, more accurately, how do I, the critic, arrive at a meaning, given the material at hand? How does that meaning possibly exist in conflict with other meanings and/or, as is often the case, with the verbiage that comes with said material at hand (whether it’s an artist’s or gallery’s PR, or whatever else). Often enough, the process at writing a piece will have the critic examine her or his own motivations and ideas, to possibly arrive at conclusions that are different than what s/he imagined s/he’d arrive at. Thus, proper criticism will educate the critic first before it can educate other people. Consequently,
because there is something at stake for the critic, criticism is no comfortable task: where it is comfortable, where, in other words, a critic merely confirms her or his preconceptions or, even worse, acts as a mouthpiece for ideology, there is little, if anything, to be gained for a reader.
Approached this way, good criticism is a social practice more than anything else. It serves to collectively educate all of us—writers, photographers, subjects, readers—while keeping us on our toes by making us aware of how malleable pictures really are. I here used the word “good” because criticism that does not do that, for whatever reason, simply is not good in my book. Your ideas might differ and you might disagree, but disagreements fuel conversation, and smart conversations serve the very purpose that I assigned to what I consider as good criticism. What is more, in these preceding paragraphs, I set out my own parameters that allow me to justify my usage of the word “good”. Good and bad are words that do have tremendous merit in criticism as long as the criteria with which they are being applied are made clear. This, I believe, is the starting point for any critic, to identify and be open about the criteria that are being applied. To insist on shared criteria here is less important than an unwavering openness about them. Again, disagreements fuel conversations. As long as we are talking with one another—ideally in ways that surpass the often angry, petty, and mean discourse especially on social media—there still is hope that we can contain the poison in our societies. So here’s my answer then: why criticism? Because we desperately need it.