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.