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2011, Dec 26
After Death: Picking up the pieces of photography criticism

I’ve never heard anyone else say this, but I dream of becoming a photography critic. So it was with no little thrill that I read A.D. Coleman’s recent essay, “Dinosaur Bones,” [PDF] in which he holds forth on the position of the photography critic—that elusive creature!—in these wild and wooly times. What would he tell me, “go get ‘em, tiger”? Not exactly. According to Coleman, I should probably pack it in, because this train has already left the station. To be more specific, Coleman writes that there are no longer any opportunities for photography critics to find a suitable audience while making a livable wage. So much for that plan, I guess.

I’m joking, of course, but in his essay Coleman hits on something which I think is absolutely correct: that there exists a perception of criticism as a tool designed to surgically remove anything fun from photography and examine it under the cold light of theory. What’s painful is that this perception is not far from the truth. Who could fault anyone for thinking this, when it seems like photography criticism has driven off a cliff of academic cliches? I enjoy theory, but I haven’t yet developed a sensible way for that reading to influence my photography writing. I want to be sensitive about this because too often, the theoretical content of photography criticism comes at the expense of its clarity. Although these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, I can’t point to a critic who is making a reasonable effort to make their work understandable to a broader audience—if you can, please tell me. In short, I think we should be demanding better from people in these positions.

Not as if the situation online is anything to be proud of. Marc Feustel is the clearest writer we have, though his blog has become more and more sporadic. I do look at other blogs, and there’s plenty of interesting stuff out there, but when it comes to serious analysis of photographs, I feel like the writing rarely goes beyond platitudes. No one seems to be developing anything with their writing, or pushing towards something larger—and this is something we could be learning from theory! There’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but still, let’s scrape the rock bottom of online photography criticism and talk about Visual Culture blog, the internet’s own sad-clown attempt at writing big league criticism. I’ve honestly wondered in the past if this blog isn’t really a sick experiment probing the limits of just how far theory can be twisted to wring meaning out of the damp squib of early millenial photography. It’s not a pretty sight.

Where to go from here? It seems useful to return to Coleman’s original point, which concerns the way that critics support themselves financially. Maybe the pros are writing in code, and the amateurs are only chattering away, but what kind of position between these two poles would offer an audience along with some support? The audience is already out there: really, who doesn’t want to read clear and intelligent writing about photography? The only question is how to create a platform to support the writing. Coleman doesn’t seriously engage with this question, and I don’t blame him; he went panning for gold in a stream which was pretty well stocked until a few years ago. I accept Coleman’s message that we can’t go back to the good old days—the idea of a full-time criticism gig really is just a dream for me. But it doesn’t follow that the institution of photography criticism is doomed. Quite the opposite! If we want, it’s in our hands to make something productive of it.

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Also read A D Coleman’s essay and wondered whether things were really that grim – your comments suggest to me that maybe there is hope after all. Thanks.
Bob.
PS Really sad to see Emi’s previous banner photo go – I always enjoyed seeing it as your blog page appeared – all things must pass I guess.

Hey Bob, just a little bit of hope. I don’t think it’s literally impossible but it’s much easier said than done.

By the way, the last banner image wasn’t Emi’s, that was Seiji Shibuya’s… I liked that one too, though you can find it again (in a bigger size) at LPV Magazine.

I’m unfamiliar with “Visual Culture”. Now that I look at it, however:

1. The current post has considerable comic value. By still somehow managing to take Freudianism seriously — a feat that’s common among the Art establishment, to the bafflement of social scientists — the author can add a layer of mostly tedious but sometimes unintentionally amusing nonsense to whatever he/she writes about.

2. As one of the book recommendations (to the side) is The Cruel Radiance, the site can’t all be bad.

Well, think of the worthwhile photoblogs. Itself not such a happy thought, as many are dying off

Susie Linfield (in The Cruel Radiance) and Errol Morris (in Believing is Seeing) are among the people who bring insights into photography and get the results published in book form. That they are hardly “photography critics” seems by the way.

If you want to work as a photography critic but also make a living, I suppose you must get a job as a curator or teacher. True, you’d be competing with thousands of others armed with their own PhDs

Graduate school appeals to me as a way to purchase time for thinking and reading, not to mention structure. I’ll start thinking more seriously about it if I find myself getting to the point that I really need to answer certain questions for myself. It would mean leaving “this” world though, because if I go there’s no way I’d go just for photography—I’d go for Comparative Literature, or Spanish, and incorporate photography into that program of study. The audience for whatever writing I’d produce as a PhD would be much different then, too. For now I want to work at street level and see how far that can go.

Is theory only relevant if the photographer themselves has knowingly engaged in it? After recently sitting with an artist duo (who are very well known in a number of countries) and having them explain their works, it got to that point where you’re asking yourself how much of the works were done for an aesthetic purpose and how much contained an idea prior to the finished product. Then admittingly they confirmed that certain themes within the works had only been adopted after critique had raised them.

A possible problem when applying theory is when the photographer had no prior knowledge of that theory themselves so that the entire context of the work is at risk to being altered by someone other than the artist. Though, is something wrong with this? Probably not. It is quite common, one could argue that applying theory post-creation can strengthen an artists work. Nevertheless, as you noted criticism is becoming less desirable. We’re moving into an age of tolerance, apparently.

Firstly, thank you for your kind comments about my writing and more importantly for pointing out how sporadic that writing has become on my blog.

Although I found Coleman’s article to be overly lengthy (far too much introspection and not enough analysis), it does raise a number of interesting points. I think we can agree that critical discussion of photography has all but disappeared online. Partly I think this is a natural process: anyone who writes decently and consistently about photography would rather get paid for it than doing it for free. Unfortunately this leaves us with a pretty monotonous online landscape of PR and (self)-promotion.

Let’s also not forget about the context in which all this is happening. Whereas film, music or literary criticism are pretty straightforward areas to delimit, photography criticism has hazier borders. Photography has an ongoing complicated relationship with the visual arts more broadly and as such still sits in a bit of a dark corner. I agree with Peter: a lot of the best writing about photography (Errol Morris, Geoff Dyer) is coming from people that are less concerned with the tiny club that is the ‘photo world’ but are engaged with contemporary culture more broadly. To be honest, I don’t care whether it comes from one of Coleman’s clueless ‘cultural journalists’ or a seasoned photo-critic, I would just like to see more interesting writing about photography and its relationship with the wider world.

Hi Dan,

I think one of the problems here is the seemingly oppositional forces of theory on the one hand, and fun on the other hand, that you set up at the beginning of this text. I would say that, contrary to what you state, this “perception” is far from the truth. Fun, whatever you mean by this, seems to be something derived from an enjoyment of something, and in this case as far as you’re concerned it wouldn’t be photography theory for most people, is that right?

The problem is that your argument only appeals to those people who don’t like theory, and derive no enjoyment from it, does it not? For those people that enjoy theory, your two opposing ideas of fun and theory become conflated and you no longer have the benefit of the dichotomy you set up in the beginning of your text. I simply can’t view theory as removed from, or in opposition to, fun because I find it deeply enjoyable – as do many of the people I spend time with talking, writing etc. Where does this leave us? Are we to write blog posts denouncing the anti-intellectualism rife in this world, or exclude ourselves from photography criticism because we use theoretical terminology? This all seems a little shortsighted…

I also think this assertion of yours may be a bit of a problem: “I want to be sensitive about this because too often, the theoretical content of photography criticism comes at the expense of its clarity.”

While this may be true of some photography critics (for example I’m personally struggling to understand what you mean here), it is not the case with many others. Who are you reading exactly? Although I understand your concern with the throwing around of theoretical jargon in willy-nilly fashion, I don’t think the way out of this so-called problem you highlight is the general anti-intellectual approach you seem to be, in some respects, promulgating here.

I am a writer with a particular interest in photography theory, and I regularly write for magazines and other publications in the UK in a style that could be considered academic at times, perhaps even theoretical. I am interested in developing my writing on photography and would consider myself one of those people, to use your words, that is “pushing towards something larger”.

Perhaps you (and on that note A.D. Coleman too, as he linked to your post here) might outline some of your more particular problems with photo theory, instead of complaining about it being altogether devoid of clarity. Perhaps your problems are with art criticism or even writing of a certain form, more generally – not just photography theory?

Posted by Jeff Beddow / 2012, Jan 16 at 4:03 pm:

If you see examples of such writing, shoot me a note at jeff@zeitguide.org. I have set up a curation on scoop.it for words about pictures and would like to collect and promote such writing whenever possible.

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for the comment. Let me start with a paraphrased quote that I assume I don’t need to introduce to you:

“Politically it is thinking in other people’s heads that is decisive.”

This idea goes a long way towards explaining why I’m interested in writing in the first place. As always with Brecht, he’s thinking about the audience, and that’s where I would like to focus. Let’s go back to Coleman’s original talk:

“My numerous contributions to the medium’s “little” magazines have enabled me to get certain ideas into print. Still, any dialogue that takes place only in the pages of small-circulation academic journals or specialized publications like art and photo magazines defines itself automatically as marginal in relation to the larger culture. So I aspire to get read by thoughtful fellow citizens of the world who may have an interest in the subjects I explore without any professional connection to the field.”

This is seems like a reasonable way to formulate the problem, without the danger of being taken for an anti-intellectual. Coleman is describing the gap between audiences that are interested in critical and non-critical writing. He’s done a pretty thorough job of showing how the broad audience that’s interested in criticism has dried up, for him at least. I do think it’s possible to find this broad audience online, although no one has done it yet. (I’m working on something.) I’m not surprised Coleman hasn’t found it in his current digital incarnation, though, which is why it was more painful than funny to read that he’d seriously considered writing photo reviews in lolspeak. I mean, I’m personally happy to have found your site, but who else is looking at it? What audience are you trying to cultivate there? How does your site relate to the “larger culture” outside of photography? These are questions that I’m asking myself as well.

I’m interested in the middle ground between the specialized and the general, or the academic and the vernacular if you like. I would be thrilled if all “thoughtful fellow citizens of the world” read “The Author as Producer” and reflected carefully on the program that’s laid out there. We both know that’s not realistic, but it’s not because Benjamin’s idea is too difficult to grasp. I believe there is a way to transmit this sort of idea to a broader audience, which is why I am disappointed with most of the writing that I see online. It tends to fall into two categories: thoughtful but aimed at a specialist audience, or interested in a wider readership but with nothing to say. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Anyway, do you know Hennessy Youngman?

I’m happy to see some serious (but also “fun.” or at least enjoyable) discussion of my lecture text here. Please keep in mind that, as it was my first-ever talk in the UK, I felt some need to provide background on myself and my work. And, as it was created as a lecture, the analysis quotient needed to get balanced by the “fun” factor.

I have no problem with “theory” per se. Some people have argued that I generate some of that myself. I have a problem with the fact that most discussions of “theory” — including this one at this blog — fail to define the term “theory,” or to distinguish it from dogma. I’ve discussed those issues at length in a number of essays, three of which I posted online as advance readings for attendees at the London lecture: “The Destruction Business: Some Thoughts on the Function of Criticism,” “After Critical Mass, What?: A State-of-the-Craft Report on Photography Criticism,” and “Counting the Teeth: Photography for Philosophers.” You’ll find them all here.

The other problem is that much of what passes for “theory” is simply “fashionable nonsense,” in the words of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.

It’s certainly possible to incorporate elements of theory into the kind of mainstream writing whose disappearance I mourn in my lecture. I’d like to think that I’ve managed to achieve some of that myself. As I mention in the talk, Andy Grundberg at the New York Times and Ingrid Sischy at the New Yorker did so in those mainstream periodicals. Roland Barthes’s “Mythologies” collects short pieces he wrote for French newspapers in which he embedded and demonstrated semiotic principles. There are numerous other examples I could cite from other fields — Glenn Gould’s brilliant mid-1960s articles on music, for example, written for newsstand monthlies.

Hi Dan,

I think the issue I have is that the middle-ground you and A.D. Coleman want to occupy doesn’t exist, and neither of you are doing anything to define it or lay out the terms in which you think it justified. Until that happens you won’t develop a language or a practice that people are willing to buy into.

The idea that you are disappointed with most of the writing you see online just reads to me as arrogant; almost as if to say no other online writer can satisfy your original quest to occupy the unquantifiable middle-ground between academia and “everyone else”.

It’s totally acceptable to be suffering an existential crisis as a writer (god knows I do), and to feel like you can’t earn a living from it (god knows I don’t), but the energy rendered from such a narcissistic pursuit should be pumped into new writing not a constant stream of generalisations and contradictions.

With regard to your Brecht quote: I like that idea and it is a very poetic way of looking at what you want to achieve, but I don’t think it is particularly relevant to the supposed crisis in photo criticism. You should do the thinking yourself and hope that other people agree with you.

I don’t know Hennessy Youngman personally, although I find him to be quite a funny guy who is turning his various dissatisfactions with art theory and cultural criticism into a project that is far more interesting than A.D Coleman’s.

All best,

D.

Furthermore, photography criticism is not dead, no more than history died on Fukayama’s terms. Not being paid to write is a problem tied to writing as labour and capitalism as a whole. The problem is capitalism!

And we don’t need to define theory here. This conversation is too general. Perhaps we should pick an idea from photography criticism and discuss that?

How about James Elkins’ recent text “What Photography Is” or Francois Laruelle’s “On the Concept of Non-Photography”? These are two recent and highly relevant texts which both set up a future for writing on photography.

Daniel:

I was hoping to have a productive conversation with you, but it seems like that’s not possible.

We do agree about a few things, though: capitalism is the problem, Hennessy Youngman is interesting, and my time would be better spent on writing something else.