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How Do We Talk About Photography?

Thursday August 12th, 2010

A recent article in The Guardian by Sean O’Hagan asks if a picture is really worth a thousand words:

“For photographers, the ideal book of photographs would contain just pictures – no text at all” photographer Robert Adams once wrote. He went on to admit that he “once worked through more than a hundred drafts of a four-paragraph statement for a catalogue, all to find something that would just keep out of the way of the pictures”.

This is the dilemma of anyone who makes or looks at photographs. After all, you wouldn’t need pictures if you could just explain them with words; at the same time, what else can we do but talk about them? In the words of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, at the end of a book which he claimed had solved all the problems of knowledge: “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”


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When we talk about photography, we are obliged to talk about something that really is a picture, having understood that words are not the same as pictures, as Wittgenstein explains in the above clip from Derek Jarman’s biographical film (written by Terry Eagleton). If we want to add something new, we will have to truly transform our language. Rather than describe the image, we can write parallel to the image, capturing something of its meaning in the spaces between the words; or we can try to turn a critical eye to what John Berger called our “ways of seeing,” analyzing how we’ve learned to look at photographs and what they mean to our society.

Words are not the same as pictures. (Photo by Aaron Kotowski/New York)

That’s what I think about when I read some of the recent blog posts about photography criticism and the words it uses. It seems to have started with Paddy Johnson, who posted her criticism of an essay of academic art criticism. The quoted fragment, about performance piece by Marina Abramovic, has a regrettably high ratio of words to ideas; but in this case, it seems that the art was already excessively theoretical. If you have ever met an art student, you know that the jargon is not just added by the critics.

Here Joerg Colberg jumped into the discussion, with a blog post entitled, “We Need Better Critical Writing About Photography.” Joerg’s problem with art criticism is that it ignores its relevance beyond the academic context, leaving non-academics either confused or suspicious that excess verbiage is being used to hide a lack of insight. (Another blog, art is hard, has questioned this assumption about the audience for a book of art criticism.)

It is certainly a shame that critical jargon causes so many problems for its readers. Joerg quotes one of his own papers, for an astronomy journal, and it is absolutely packed with scientific jargon. The hard sciences, it seems, have absolutely no qualms about using jargon in their internal communications. When it is time to address the public, scientists simply switch to more comprehensible ways of speaking.

Such a clear categorization of languages might help everyone, and it will no longer be necessary to complain about the use of big words. Joerg describes a book by Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, which he found almost unreadable.

Michael Fried is a very influential art critic whose engagement with contemporary philosophy makes for dense writing (and slow reading). I rarely agree with his arguments, but have generally found them to be coherent (coherent enough that I can confidently say I side with his early rival, TJ Clark). Liz Jobey reviewed this same book for The Guardian; she concluded that the book was rewarding, and that the “sheer mental effort involved in trying to understand this work makes it one of the most rigorous intellectual workouts contemporary art photography has been put through in a long time.” Like any workout, it is sometimes necessary to build up slowly before you tackle the big challenges.

Photography criticism can make for slow reading. (Photo by Toufic Araman/United Arab Emirates)

A profile for Johns Hopkins magazine explained Fried’s critical mission for the general public:

Like his mentor Clement Greenberg, Fried wrote what he terms “evaluative criticism.” Explains Fried: “There can be great paintings of various types, but some works are better than other works. The crucial thing, always, is, ‘What makes it a good painting? What makes it a painting that matters?’ That’s what criticism like this is trying to articulate. At every point you’re asking yourself the question, ‘How good is this?'”

The same questions can of course be posed about photography. It seems very simple to decide whether a photo is good, but to articulate an answer to this question—what makes it a photo that matters—is extraordinarily complicated.

Do you find photography criticism useful? How do you think and communicate about photography? Share your thoughts in the comments.

-Asad Haider

2 Responses to “How Do We Talk About Photography?”

  1. […] How We Talk About Photography – Asad Haider […]

  2. Bruce DeBoer says:

    http://www.permissiontosuck.net/word-photos/

    Welcome to WM Mr.Asad Haider – very nice post. It inspired me to finally finish one I’ve sketched out a few months ago – definitely a good thing, thank you. It was rather long so I posted it at PermissionToSuck.com – use the link at top if you wish.

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