Musings on Photography

Criticism and understanding

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on March 19, 2007

In his response to this post, Tim Atherton (he of Musings) writes:

Do we have to understand how photographs are made to be able to appreciate, understand and comment on a photograph? Or do we need to be part of a select group to do this?

I certainly wouldn’t say that someone needs to understand how photographs are made to be able to comment on a photograph.  Folks like Geoff Dyer comment on photos all the time, and I’m absolutely powerless to stop them.  That doesn’t mean that I think their comments are insightful or useful or interesting, though. 

The real question that begs to be asked is whether understanding some of the creative process and craft that goes into photography would make us better able to appreciate, understand, or comment on a photograph.  I think that’s an easy question to answer, because I think that the answer is so obviously ‘Yes.’  Understanding the process and craft allows us to have a deeper appreciation, better understanding, and makes us better able to comment intelligently on photographs.

(Do we have to be able to play the violin or compose music to enjoy, appreciate understand and comment upon Beethoven? – or need know the tiniest bit about painting with oils to do the same about Rembrandt?)

You don’t need to be able to play the violin or compose musing to enjoy, appreciate, understand, and comment on Beethoven.  But I  would certainly suggest that if you do learn play an instrument of some sort, and learn some fundamentals of musical composition (such as, say, the foundation of the sonata form), you’ll find your ability to enjoy, appreciate, understand, and comment on Beethoven greatly enhanced. 

Further down in the chain of comments, Nick writes:

I think it’s a mistake to require people who write about photography to know a great deal about it. Sure it helps, but that’s a slippery slope that ends up placing art out of the hands of a great many people, people who love looking at photographs but probably won’t take the time to understand the process.

I certainly don’t object to people writing about photography who don’t know a great deal about it.   I think the world is a better place when everyone can voice his opinion, on photography as well as other matters.  I have neither the power nor the desire to impose requirements on would-be critics.

That said, the fact that someone has written a book about something does not confer on them some special status.  Dyer has a right to write his book, and I have a right to voice my opinion of it.  There’s no slippery slope, here.  I’m not advocating for a hereditary right to be a critic, I’m advocating that, when we go looking for books to read, we’re ahead to choose meaningful, insightful ones over crappy, superficial ones.  And, I’d argue that as a general rule, a critic who can’t be bothered to try his hand at the art he’s criticizing will be more likely to produce a book of criticism which is superficial than a critic who has actually attempted to learn the art and craft.

For instance, I love the sounds of Sonic Youth’s guitars and Thelonious Monk’s piano playing. I’m not a musician, and beyond a basic understanding of the mechanics will probably never really know how those sounds are made. Does my lack of knowledge of the technical skills decrease my ability to appriciate it?

Sadly, yes, your lack of knowledge limits your ability to appreciate it.  In the same way, my limited musical knowledge limits my ability to understand and appreciate music.  I’ve tried following John Coltrane in his musical journey, listening to every recording I could locate in chronological order.    With my limited understanding, I can follow along with Coltrane up to a certain point; but by the time I get to “A Love Supreme” I’m struggling and I know I’m only grasping the broad outlines.  Beyond that – whoosh, Coltrane is gone to musical places I can’t follow.  I hit the limits of appreciation imposed by the limits of my knowledge and understanding. 

Is it fair that people with superficial understanding are saddled with superficial appreciation, and people with deeper understanding enjoy deeper understanding?  Maybe, maybe not.  But that’s the way it seems to work.  That’s why we read books about photography, after all – to gain a deeper understanding that will lead to deeper appreciation and greater enjoyment (and, perhaps, just because learning new things is pleasant in itself).  So, given that those are the reasons we’d pick up a book on photography, doesn’t it make sense to pick books to read that are written by someone who engages with the subject deeply rather than someone who brags about his superficiality?

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Bryan Willman said, on March 19, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    I think “understand”, “appreciate” and “enjoy” need to be separated.

    There are parts of music that I at one point understood all too well (per force), and appreciated and understood. But did not enjoy then and do not enjoy now.

    Likewise with many other things. When you understand how wood behaves, you understand better why wooden furniture and decorations are made the way they are. That’s good. But it’s not the same as enjoying or liking them more.

    So yes, understanding the technology, physics, culture, context, of photography, painting, sculpture, music, and so forth will indeed improve your understanding and generally your appreciation of them. It may or may not change how much you enjoy them.

    In the study of art, we might argue that ignoring the means and mechanisms of a particular art will let us see it more purely. That is, that knowlege of how, say, stone sculpture is done, colors our evaluation of a given sculpture. And maybe it would be better to not have it colored in that way.

    That’s not an excuse to make up random fiction about it, or to boast of one’s ignorance.

    By the same token, just because we may know, really, “that was very hard” or “that’s a very refined technique” or “that was a new very very daring thing when it first appeared” do not, of themselves, make us enjoy or like something more. And deciding that something is “important” or that “we SHOULD like it” because it was very hard or very daring is perhaps a fiction one is better off without….

    Disinterest is not the same as uninterest, and neither should be confused with ingorance or stupidity.

  2. tim atherton said, on March 19, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    Well, I’m still not quite sure what calamitous mistakes Dyer made in the book as a result of his having little apparent understanding of the craft and process aspects of photography? (a reader might not like or agree with his conclusions, but I can’t pin this down as the reason why this would be so?).

    In fact for me, the flip side of this is often the case. Photographers, who are obviously usually very aware of these craft and process aspects often have an extremely poor understanding of the historical and contextual aspects of photography.

    You see this in the perennial comments that come up among groups of photographers – Weston (or Evans) disliked colour photography and saw it as second class. Ansel Adams would have been horrified and would have eschewed digital. Or bemoaning the fact that images so often seem manipulated these days, without realising that someone like Strand (among others) removed elements in his photographs that displeased him, or else bemoaning “staged” photographs – without realising that some of, say, Kertesz’s or Winogrand’s best know photographs were – in essence – staged, All based on mistaken assumptions because of a lack of understanding of these aspects of photography (just a few of the almost endless list I could come up with).

    This lack of knowledge so often seems to lead to a level of mistaken assumptions that far exceeds those that result from a requirement to understand the craft aspect of photography

    And this is something that Dyer is obviously well educated in (in addition to actually having looked at first hand and researched the photographs he is talking about). A very good understanding of the history of photography and the context of many of it’s works.

    “And, I’d argue that as a general rule, a critic who can’t be bothered to try his hand at the art he’s criticizing will be more likely to produce a book of criticism which is superficial than a critic who has actually attempted to learn the art and craft.”

    This is just plain wrong. Some of the best writing on art or music has been written by commentators who can’t hold a single note or wield a brush in any meanigful way (there are many examples, but one of the best recent books about Rembrandt was by Simon Schama – who openly admits, he is no sort of artist at all)

    “doesn’t it make sense to pick books to read that are written by someone who engages with the subject deeply rather than someone who brags about his superficiality?”

    again, you seem to be conflating a lack of direct knowledge of the craft and process aspects of photography with a lack of understanding about photography. Dyer is actually very well educated about photography just not about those parts you’d like him to be educated about.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on March 19, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    This is just plain wrong. Some of the best writing on art or music has been written by commentators who can’t hold a single note or wield a brush in any meanigful way (there are many examples, but one of the best recent books about Rembrandt was by Simon Schama – who openly admits, he is no sort of artist at all)

    Please go back and read what I wrote, particularly the words “as a general rule” and “more likely”. I am arguing generalities and you are contesting the generality with specific examples.

    I understand that you disagree. But your counterargument is flawed. If I say “In general, when we drop things, it’s likely they will move toward the center of the earth”, and you reply “But, if you drop them directly over a strong jet of air directed upward, they don’t fall at all, and sometimes they rise” I’m disinclined to think you’ve got a substantial point, there.

  4. tim atherton said, on March 19, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    I’m not misunderstanding you there Paul.

    You say “as a general rule, a critic who can’t be bothered to try his hand at the art he’s criticizing will be more likely to produce a book of criticism which is superficial than a critic who has actually attempted to learn the art and craft.”

    I’d say, in my experience, that’s just not the case. Probably at least as many good, deep, meaningful critical books and essays have been written about art of all sorts by those with no especially developed skill or training in the particular subject area of their work than by those with. In fact I’d probably say it’s more often the case than not.

  5. Mark said, on March 22, 2007 at 8:48 am

    I have seen this discussion in various critique forums over the years, usually initiated by someone saying – ‘hey, why aren’t there a lot of comments?’ – and beginners responding – ‘well – I don’t feel qualified.’

    Everyone is qualified to give an opinion about how an image makes them feel. Putting it into words seems to be more of a struggle for some.

    I generally feel that people experienced in observing and taking in art – no matter what form it is, be it music, painting, poetry – are more in touch perhaps with their own inner reactions in experiencing what they are exposed to. So they are able to articulate that a little better than most.

    (by the way – hey Tim – I would bet Ansel would be a Photoshop master by now. 🙂 He manipulated the heck out of his prints – just in the darkroom of course.)

  6. tim atherton said, on March 22, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Mark,

    well, among other things, in the introduction to his iconic book “The Negative” Ansel wrote “I eagerly await new concepts and processes. I believe that the electronic image will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to comprehend and control them.”

    In Ansel Adams terms, you could think of a more notable place for him to say that – it’s not like it was an aside a lecture somewhere

    Sounds like he was pretty much looking forward to it… 🙂


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: