12 May 2012

Why Keep a Blog On Photography? The Place of Criticism

Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, Near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) ~ Photograph © Jeff Wall.

Over the course of the nearly half dozen years I've kept this blog, I have, on a pretty regular basis, met with a dismissive attitude from photographers whom I've met or with whom I've corresponded. When they discover that I just "talk" about photography and that I do not myself make images, they simply cannot see the point. Some, finding that I am not a photographer myself, or even that I am not a photographer of this or that specialized sort (usually their sort), dispute my standing altogether. On what basis - by what 'right' - they ask, do I think I am allowed to have and express views, especially critical views, about them and their work.

I have to say that I find such such reactions tiresome and defensive. But I've never felt I had a real clear idea of what an appropriate response to such dismissiveness might look like. I recently came across this characteristically incisive piece by David Levi Strauss that offers an appropriate retort:
". . .  Without criticism, the only measure of value in art is money, and that measure has proven to be both fickle and stultifying. As a subject of inquiry, it’s a bore. I know why investment bankers and hedge fund managers prefer it, but why have artists put up with it for so long?

[. . .]
Among other things, criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things. If criticism is devalued, artists and curators have no other choice in the current crisis of relative values but to heed the market’s siren song.
[. . .]
Why does art need criticism? Because it needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism."
Substitute photography and photographer for art and artists in this passage and it seems to me to be just right. I myself tend to think that the distinction between art and documentary photography is bogus, so you might not even need to do that. But when, as also often is the case, I hear photographers - for example, Salgado or Nachtwey (to take just two impresarios) - suggest that they hope their work will enter into and influence political debate and social dialogue, I think that Levi Strauss's comments are, well, pretty devastating to my dismissive interlocutors.

Ironically, I came across the Levi Strauss essay at just about the same time that I noticed the news reports that the photograph by Jeff Wall I've lifted above, broke records at Christie's auction house. I've written about this image here before. But then again, I wrote about Wall because Susan Sontag singled out just this image at the end of her Regarding the Pain of Others, not because I suspected it would soon fetch a record price on the market.

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Blogger John Pitsakis said...

This is the kind of mentality that disassociates photography (and Art) from reality and the community.

Me, I'm so grateful that you keep up with your incisive and insightful critique that I couldn't care less what the "photographers" say.

15 May, 2012 08:23  
Blogger Lillie Langtry said...

Great post.

16 May, 2012 11:09  
Blogger Sunil Shah said...

Well said. I really see that despite it finding itself within the realm of art, that documentary has found its critical home. Yes, it does need media dissemination in order to 'enter into and influence political debate and social dialogue' but without discourse on the politics of representation how can we ever be certain that those recording and presenting images can be held to account for what they broadcast?

20 June, 2012 17:44  

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