This exercise focuses on an essay in ‘The Photography Reader’, published by Routledge, editor Liz Wells. It is by Liz Wells herself, and entitled – ‘WORDS AND PICTURES: On reviewing photography’; an essay that, she explains in the opening sentence, has its origins in a piece written in 1992 for a newsletter targeted at ‘photo practitioners’ in the south-west of Britain.
What is the basic argument of Well’s essay?
It is that the challenges of writing about photography are even more complex in the post (post?) modern cultural context and in light of digital developments. The first context dismantles the former hierarchies of critical authority, whilst the second opens up more diverse space within which the discourse is conducted. Whilst that fluidity is to be welcomed, she argues, it doesn’t alter the fundamental responsibilities of the critic and even, insofar as criticism may be more subjective and value-driven, puts additional responsibility on the critic to acknowledge his/her subjectivity and values.
Is the essay’s title a fair indication of the essay itself?
I think the essential ‘message’ here is that a title is to be read in relation to context as well as content. Taken totally out of context (a bit unlikely), the title might be interpreted as referring to an instructive and informative piece on the approach to ‘reviewing photographs’ and relating words to photographic images; whereas it is actually a reflection on the challenges facing critical reviewers in the late 20th century. In that sense, I guess the title could have been more specific. But, she does explain its origins in a piece for photo practitioners and it does, here, appear in a Photography Reader, within a chapter entitled ‘Contexts: gallery, museums, education, archive’.
To what extent does the writer rely on Postmodernist doctrine?
If one reads the underlying and fundamental message to be that the critic still has a ‘responsibility’ in reviewing photographs, and that aspects the that responsibility remain beyond the emergence of postmodernist thinking, then it might be argued that this does not, wholly, rely on the doctrine itself. Insofar as the new challenged she identifies for the reviewer are partially related to technological developments, those conclusions too might be reached without reference to postmodernism (though the doctrines do, in part, take account of and incorporate that breaking down of hierarchical structures through, for example, diverse communications channels). However, much of her fundamental argument seems to centre around the additional challenges and responsibilities faced by critics since “Postmodern theory insisted that things are fluid, things fall apart, there is no centre” (page 433, final paragraph). In other words postmodernist doctrines supply the crucial underlying context within which much of her argument is developed.
The essay raises the issue of the qualifications and duties of a critic. How important do you believe it is for a critic of photography to have deep knowledge of the practice of photography?
Wells does have something to say about the qualifications and duties of a critic (perhaps more about the duties than the qualifications). Responsibilities include – feedback to the artist; the historical marking of particular exhibitions or events; engagement within debates about ideas and practices; mediating work to a broader public. She goes on to say that, for critics to be constructive, they also need to be self-analytical, paying attention to the implications of what they are saying, and not simply reproducing established assumptions. That means they must also acknowledge subjectivity, political tendencies, assumptions about readers, and even mood on a particular day. Good writing, she says, involves knowing what they value and why they value it. She acknowledges that most critics are driven by a fascination with their subject.
However, she also quotes Bill Jay’s views about criticism – revealing (according to Wells) his conservatism. According to Wells’ version of Bill Jay’s view, criticism should introduce photographers you didn’t know about; expand your appreciation of a photographer’s work; place images in a historical context; place them in context of the artist’s culture; and throw light on process. This, we are told, demands superior knowledge and insight. The critic’s writing should be informative, elevating and useful.
So – Wells is presenting us with two quite different views – Jay’s ‘traditional’ conservative view of the critic’s (more limited and specific) role and her own, broader, more fluid definition, which incorporates the postmodernist doctrines mentioned above.
A thorough answer to the question posed would require some definition of what is meant by ‘deep knowledge’ and ‘the practice of photography’. The former might include some/all of photographic history; art history; visual culture; in-depth awareness of the photographer, his/her background, purpose/intent, previous work, relation to other contemporary practice; sound knowledge of photographic process (technical and creative); broad understanding of cultural/political context; depth of knowledge about curatorial practice; a thorough appreciation of the art market; and so on and so forth! One might argue that the best critical writer will have all or most of the above, and more. A ‘professional writer’, one might say, should be striving to bring an up-to-date knowledge of all that is relevant to his/her writing about photography, whilst, ideally, retaining some degree of independent thinking, originality of view, and personal passion for their subject.
At another extreme, though, anyone can, to an extent, read and critique a visual text. Wells’ article is certainly directed towards the ‘serious’ critic/reviewer, but, if we accept the notion that postmodern thinking shifts the creative process towards the ‘reader’, perhaps any response is a valid one and we are all, potentially, critics. Herein, I guess, comes the notion of hierarchy, values and, potentially, the market. Is any critical writer, fundamentally, and whatever independence they claim or maintain, essentially imbuing the subject of their writing with value, by which, potentially, the creator of the work gains commercial advantage. In a capitalist system, the critic (along with the gallerist, curator, museum, academic etc) is playing a ‘market-making’ role. Developing a ‘depth of knowledge of the practice of photography’ may well involve a thorough ‘steeping’ in everything that is ‘current’, and is likely to involve the critic getting very close to the ‘players’ in this market place, which can be exactly the approach that maintains the hierarchies and structures against which postmodernism appears to ‘rail’.
If the definition of ‘deep knowledge of the practice of photography’ is a narrow one – implying, in essence, (as might be inferred from Bill Jay’s view, as represented by Wells) that the critic should be a practicing photographer, then I think my answer would probably be ‘No, that type of knowledge isn’t important and certainly isn’t essential. However, unless one is taking the extreme and not very productive view that anyone can critique a photograph, then the assumption that a critic brings some element of expertise and knowledge to their role implies some understanding, at least, of how photographers go about creating their work. And, if we were to broaden the critic’s scope, making him/her a commentator on visual culture, they may well need at least some understanding of painting, sculpture, print-making, video production etc. There is little value in arguing that only a deeply knowledgeable practicing artist can critique art. And critiquing purely on the qualities of process is to miss the point of creativity.
So, I edge towards the view that the reader reads that with which they are presented, and explores the process of creation in order to further develop the reading and understanding of a visual text (as opposed to the view that the reader learns about the practice of art and is then in a position to read). A professional reviewer, who is committed to photographic art (or visual culture in general, or whatever), will develop enough understanding of creative practice and (in our current economic system, at least) the market, to ensure that they can effectively practise their own profession.