20 February 2009

How Not to Write Criticism ~ Sevigny on Rio Branco

As I have noted here and here I quite like Miguel Rio Branco's work. There is a brief homage to him by John Sevigny at the blog run by the folks Guernica. Sevigny apparently got out of the bed on the wrong side the day he jotted down this post. His essay displays a bit of more or less strained free association, comparing Rio Branco's work to Eggleston and Koudelka. OK, maybe. He rightly pushes the point that Rio Branco's work tramples more or less indiscriminately across the conventional documentary-art divide into which too many folks try to push photography; but that is neither new (. . . if I have noted it before, which I have, how profound can that be!?!) nor is it unique to Rio Branco. Finally, having started by taking more or less gratuitous swipes at a half-a-handful of other photographers, Sevigny ends his comments by complaining about David Levi Strauss who contributed an essay to one collection of Rio Branco's photographs. I happen to think quite highly of Levi Strauss's writing (including the essay that draws Sevigny's ire) and have provided some reasons here. John seems to have his knickers in a knot because Levi Strauss actually treats his readers as literate - he (gasp!) refers to writers and thinkers and assumes we might know who they are and what they've done! I guess I don't find that a problem. My point? Sevigny has some modestly insightful things to say about Rio Branco. I'd much rather have had him develop those than listen to him take pot shots. If he'd re-calibrated the post it might've been interesting.



Blogger John Sevigny said...

Thanks for reading my piece on Miguel Rio Branco and for taking time to comment on it.

Just to clear things up, I didn't get up on the wrong side of bed the morning I wrote it. My comments about Levi-Strauss -- that he's a snob who lacks the ability to write with clarity -- didn't occur to me as I was rolling out of bed, either. Your own writing is far more clear and concise than Levi-Strauss' and I appreciate that.

As you know, there is an endless debate in media circles about whether to burden your readers with looking up references with which they may not be familiar -- Jean Genet, who I have read in depth, comes to mind as someone who might not be a household name -- or to communicate on a more conversational level. Obviously, I prefer the latter approach.

"How not to write criticism" seems a little harsh for a title but that's just my opinion and you're entitled to contribute yours. I've had a good amount of critical writing published in print and I'm on top of what I do. If you don't like what I do, that's another matter entirely.

Thanks again for extending the conversation I started with the Rio Branco article. In the end, I think a wide array of viewpoints on any given matter benefits everyone.


J Sevigny

24 February, 2009 00:17  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for writing. To start on a constructive note - I think we pretty much agree on Rio Branco. I think his work is terrific and wish it were more widely known.

Having said that, when you say of Levi Strauss "He’s just dropping names and showing off" I think you are just off base. I think he is responding or reacting to Rio Branco's work not explicating it. And that may mean drawing associations to other thinkers and writers and artists. And, as I suggested in my post, it seems to me that he simply presumes that readers will be familiar with some or all of the thinkers to whom he refers. (And that if we are not familiar with them we might go figure this or that one out.) In other words, here is no particular reason to think that Levi Strauss sees it as his job to "explain the work in the volume." I don't see that the he is wrong in the regard.


24 February, 2009 21:56  

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