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Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to…
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Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images (original 1996; edition 1999)

by Terry Barrett (Author)

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This brief text is designed to help both beginning and advanced students of photography better develop and articulate thoughtful criticism. Organized around the major activities of criticism (describing, interpreting, evaluating, and theorizing), "Criticizing Photographs" provides a clear framework and vocabulary for students' critical skill development. The fourth edition includes new black and white and color images, updated commentary, a completely revised chapter on theory that offers a broad discussion of digital images, and an expanded chapter eight on studio critiques and writing about photographs, plus examples of student writing and critique. .… (more)
Member:Burtiess
Title:Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images
Authors:Terry Barrett (Author)
Info:McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages (1999), Edition: 3, 222 pages
Collections:Printed Books, Your library
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Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images by Terry Barrett (1996)

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“Criticism should celebrate the good in art, not revel in its anger at the bad.” (p. 2). Criticism can involve description, interpretation, evaluation, or theory; evaluation is not a necessary part of criticism. A favorable review with substance is harder to write than a critical review. When confronted by a work you do not like, ask yourself why you would have produced that work if you had done it and what an audience member that likes it must be like. These points outline the basic thesis of Barrett’s “Criticizing Photographs.”
Description is a data-gathering process, a listing of facts. Sources of information are either external (what can be observed in the work and in external reference material), or internal.
Interpretation moves beyond information to statements about what you think is most important about the work. It involves statements about your understanding of the point, meaning, sense, tone, or mood of the work, and your observations regarding what the work shows (denotation) and implies (connotation). Interpretations should be viewed as hypotheses or claims to be evaluated in terms of their plausibility or reasonableness and evaluated in terms of the supporting arguments or body of evidence. Interpretations are not so much “true” or “false” as they are plausible (or implausible) or reasonable (or unreasonable).
Barrett briefly reviews several taxonomies for organizing photos:
• John Szarkowski (mirrors and windows),
• Time-Life’s Great Themes (the human condition, still life, portraits, the nude, nature, and war),
• Gretchen Garner’s Six Ideas in Photography (time suspended, a wider world, famous faces, minute detail, private theater, and pictorial effect), and
• Subdivisions of categories such as Sally Eauclaire’s seven categories of recent color photography: self-reflections, formalism, the vivid vernacular, documentation, moral vision, enchantments, and fabricated fictions.
He then proposes a system for sorting photographs in terms of their intended use, which he lists as description, explanation, interpretation, ethical evaluation, aesthetic evaluation, and theoretical.
Photographs are relatively indeterminate in meaning and the context in which the photograph is presented strongly effects its meaning. They can be classified based on internal, original, or external contextual information.
• Internal context pays attention to what is descriptively evident in the photograph: the subject matter, medium, form, and relations among these three.
• Original context refers to the historical context within which the photograph exists. That requires knowledge of the photographer, the photographer’s body of work, the prevailing theoretical position at the time the photograph was created, and the photographer’s position vis-à-vis that context.
• External context is the situation in which a photograph is presented or found.
Evaluating a photograph involves a judgment, which, like interpretations and explanations, is an argument that requires supporting evidence (e.g., reasons or explicit criteria). Unsubstantiated judgments are not enlightening or beneficial.
Critical judgments have three aspects: appraisals (the evaluative conclusion), justified by reasons (statements supporing the appraisal), that are based on criteria (clearly stated rules or standards). Criteria are the most challenging to find in theories of art and are often little more than implied. Various criteria and their basic premises are:
• Realism: The world exists independent of human attention. It contains discoverable patterns of intrinsic meaning, and art that models or provides symbols of these patterns is reflecting a larger intelligence. This criterion is consistent with the view that photography is a means of discovery, of proposing new ways to see the world.
• Expressionism: Art should be judged in terms of the intensity or potency of the feelings it invokes in the viewer. The intensity of expression of the artist’s inner life is more important than the accuracy of representation.
• Formalism: Insists on the autonomy of art (art for art’s sake) and the primacy of abstract form. It rejects post-modernism and references to the physical or social world and considers subject matter and references to religion, history, and politics aesthetically as irrelevant, non-artistic concerns.
• Instrumentalism: Rejects formalism (“art for art’s sake”) and focuses on the consequences of art (“art for life’s sake”). It views art as in service to goals that are more important than “significant form,” originality, and unique artistic expression. Urges an examination of art based on the social, moral, and economic purposes of art, how art is used in society, and its consequences. Art is subservient to rather than independent of social concerns.
Modernism: the view that progress in knowledge, technology, the arts, and human freedom is leading to a truly emancipated society.
Postmodernism: sees all kinds of things as texts that need to be read critically. There are no ultimate truths. Truth is historically dependent and always partial. Art exemplifies the political, cultural and psychological experience of a society.
Critics argue that postmodernism’s:
• Ridicule of a search for truth fosters a cynical nihilism,
• Emphasis on what we can’t know leaves us paralyzed and unable to react to the world’s injustices.
We can gain information from the artist that is not available from other sources: the motivation, state of mind, intended meaning, method of working, and sources of inspiration. However, artists’ thoughts about their work are irrelevant to what we see in the work. Artists make the work but we get to decide what we see in the work.
Regard your review as initiating a conversation, not as a monologue, Determine whom you are writing to, how much background information your reader will have, and what information you need to provide. Describe both the subject matter and the presentational environment of the work. The main questions to address are: what is here, what is it about, is it good, and is it art. State your appraisal briefly, clearly and forcefully, and be persuasive by basing it on implicitly clear or explicitly stated criteria. Welcome responses to your review. ( )
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This brief text is designed to help both beginning and advanced students of photography better develop and articulate thoughtful criticism. Organized around the major activities of criticism (describing, interpreting, evaluating, and theorizing), "Criticizing Photographs" provides a clear framework and vocabulary for students' critical skill development. The fourth edition includes new black and white and color images, updated commentary, a completely revised chapter on theory that offers a broad discussion of digital images, and an expanded chapter eight on studio critiques and writing about photographs, plus examples of student writing and critique. .

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