Monday, 19 August 2013

Exercise: An Essay on Reviewing Photographs

The problem with catching up is the bits you keep looking at and think "I'll do that later" have to be done at some point... just done the Karin E Becker analysis and realise there is the next one on Words and Pictures: on reviewing photographs by Liz Wells to do followed by The Vertigo of Displacement by David A Bailey and Stuart Hall. They don't have to be done together but bearing in mind the next thing I have to do is write my own critical review it can only be helpful...guess what I'll be doing over the next few days?

There is this love/hate relationship I have with photography essays. I love to broaden my mind (read into that fry my brain totally) discover new ways of looking at life in general but loath the non-comprehension of what I am reading. It’s not so much the not understanding where authors are coming from rather the vocabulary they use and the overly long sentence structures. By the time I get to the end of a paragraph with only one full stop I have to think where did that start again? Liz Wells’ style is a lot easier to read than most but even so I had to read the essay through several times to make sure I understood what she was putting across and what her stance was.

It is reassuring that when glancing through other learning logs I am not the only person to be flummoxed by some of the writings.

In order to answer some of the questions I thought I ought to clarify in my mind what some of the terms meant. If anyone else out there feels the need to know, read these articles which I think helped slightly.

Words and Pictures: On reviewing photographs By Liz Wells (Wells, 1992)

Wells opens the chapter by informing us that the essay was originally written as a commission for a newsletter targeting regional photo-practitioners. The aim of the essay was to reflect upon the role of the critic in relation to photographic exhibitions and consider if they were taking into account the changes happening within photography.

The main argument would appear to be the responsibility of the critic to “adequately describe visual objects” when they may only have limited and inadequate secondary sources and possible bias depending on academic knowledge or leanings towards certain art movements. Their reviews matter because they will exist for a longer period than the exhibitions themselves and will eventually form the materials used by archivists and academics and record different eras and contexts. There is also some emphasis on the conflict of writing reviews for an exhibition when taking into account publicity required, monetary gain and photographers anxious for a “good” review.

Do I consider the essay’s title a fair indication of the contents of the essay? If just called “Words and Pictures” the title would be rather ambiguous, it could suggest captioning or titles, however with the subtitle “on reviewing photographs” it does suggest that the topic is in relation to the discussion of what words are used when reviewing images. It doesn’t give any clues as to the direction or opinions of the author.
Wells does cite other authors however much of the article comes across as written from a personal point of view and from personal experience as a writer/critic. I found her criticism of Bill Jay odd? He had commented that a criticism should do one or more of the following “introduce you to photographers of who you were unaware; expand your appreciation of a photographer’s work; place the image in the context of photography’s history; place the images in the context of the artist’s culture;…throw light upon the creative/artistic process…above all else (be) useful” (Jay, 1992)

She asks useful for what? To me he meant useful in informing the audience of something they may not know or presenting facts which they can either agree or disagree with. Is this an outdated idea, does it suggest the critic is relying on familiarity?

Wells brings into her debate context and differing art movements and how, particularly in Britain (where photography was accepted as an art form to be critiqued and discussed at a later point than in Europe) archives began to be deemed important and a suitable vocabulary deemed necessary to discuss the subject. I am in total agreement with her that some of the vocabulary is too elitist and an immense amount of work written about photography is so unobtainable to the everyday practitioner. I just want to learn and understand without the need for a thesaurus at my elbow thanks!

To what extent do I feel she relies on Postmodernist doctrine? I found this question tricky to answer. Whilst I feel she has a definite post-modernist bias does she rely on it? Are all her arguments underpinned by this doctrine? She points out that critics need to take into consideration the changing face of photography, both in the multi-media world we live in and the way photography itself has progressed to encompass other art forms. Is this doctrine or reality? However Wells does also discuss Modernism and a brief history of the development of how art was viewed. She does give both sides of the argument and as a writer a good article/essay should do this? Therefore it can be said that you rely on both points of view to give a balanced debate allowing your audience can make up their own minds? Having said that I think she does write more pro Postmodernism and maybe does rely on this to make her essay work. I feel like I am sitting on the fence with this bit?

At one point Wells states that good writing should be “well-informed, purposeful and engaging” surely to do this the writer needs to employ some of the “menu” Jay suggests? This leads onto the final question of how important do I believe it is for a critic of photography to have deep knowledge of the practice of photography. Simple answer is no, I don’t. If writing to teach people how to take certain images then it may be important to know in greater detail what camera was used, film, f-stop but this could be supplied by public relations officers or curators. But is that what a critical review should have to contain? Do film critics need to understand every aspect of film-making to tell us what they thought worked or not about a film? Do theatre critics need to understand every nuance of lighting, writing or staging to tell us what a play was about or if it had any emotional resonance? No, they don’t. We expect them to have some understanding, to be able to compare one show against another perhaps but a deep knowledge, no we don’t. The same should be true for critics writing about photography, yes they should have some knowledge possibly a good level of understanding or how else can they be reliably informative. Also they should be able to frame discussions using photographic vocabulary but not so much that people glaze over. As with any topics writers should keep up with modern trends and technologies both for creating and presenting work but that does not mean they have to have deep knowledge. Critical reviews of exhibitions are important if they are to form historical archives but reviews are not intended to be academic critical essays full of citations and references.

Jay, B. (1992). Occam's Razor. In L. Wells, Words and Pictures: On reviewing photography (1992) in The Photography Reader Ed. Well, L (2003)(p. 431). Oxon: Routledge.
Wells, L. (1992). Words and Pictures: on reviewing photographs. In The Photography Reader (pp. 428-434). Oxon: Routledge.


  1. I have the same problem with Study Visit write-ups!

  2. Oh god, I still have some exhibition reviews to do seems never ending :o)

  3. I have written so many ... and still there are more to do!