Posts Tagged ‘Photography Criticism’

This post is something of a departure from the usual business on this blog. It is an essay I wrote on Paul Seawright, focusing in particular on his Invisible Cities work. This work comprises of photographs taken over a three-year period in sub-Saharan African cities. In many senses the work goes against the grain of common photographic representations of Africa. I describe the work and deal with a number of issues that arise from it. The essay is quite long, so I’ll split it into two parts. This is part one.

Photographic representations of Africa tend to be dominated by certain well- worn themes. We have the photo-journalistic images of war, disease and famine – portraying a continent riven by seemingly intractable problems and a living hell for its inhabitants. We have the ma jestic grandeur of the landscape and the animals – suggesting a timeless, Edenic paradise. We have the National Geographic style portrayals of indigenous tribespeople, often accompanied by well-meaning articles describing how their “way of life” is under threat. A pertinent illustration of this can be had by typing “Africa”‘ as a keyword into Google’s image search facility. The majority of results returned are maps of Africa, but if we exclude these, almost all of the rest fit into the categories mentioned above. Those that don’t form minor categories of themselves: smiling schoolchildren; white aid workers or volunteers interacting with Africans; and most interestingly, images illustrating the growing influence of China in sub-Saharan Africa. None of these do much to expand the outsiders knowledge of, or insight into, the continent.

Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities comprises of photographs taken in the sub-Saharan cities of Lagos, Addis Adaba, Lusaka and Johannesburg, and goes very much against the grain of these common representations. Seawright is, of course, not the only photographer working in this manner. A close parallel would be the work of Guy Tillim who has carried out similar projects on urban Africa. In fact, there is a growing body of contemporary African photography that challenges the common representations – for example, the Snap Judgements exhibition held in New York in 2006. I do suggest however, that such work is the exception rather than the rule. (more…)

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In this essay, written in 1995, Lev Manovich explores the ramifications of digital technology and photography. He asks if such a thing as digital photography really exists, and to what extent this really differs from traditional photographic practice.

Manovich starts by referring to a range of digital innovations that have transformed the practice of image production and manipulation, innovations that would lead most people to the conclusion that the fundamental nature of the photograph has radically changed.  The aim of his essay is to question whether this is really the case, and to expose a number of paradoxes at the heart of digital photography that become apparent when we attempt such questioning. His position is that it does not – that, in fact, digital photography does not exist.


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This essay appears in Solomon-Godeau’s Photography At The Dock collection. It deals with a number of post-modern photographic artists, explaining their work, and situating it in opposition to the established canon of modernist art photography. It is deeply critical of many of the fundamental assumptions of modernist photography that would have been elaborated in the work of critics such as John Szarkowski.

Solomon-Godeau begins by noting the extent to which the use of pastiche, in the sense of the appropriation of previously existing styles and work, has become dominant in both the art world and in popular mass media. In tandem with this, much criticism has been leveled at previously sacrosanct notions of the value of originality and authorial autonomy, and many artists are using pastiche as a means of questioning and probing these issues. At the time of writing, not much of this had reached the art photography world though, where most work was still reliant on traditional modernist notions: a key one being that an art photograph functions as an expression of the photographer’s interior, a vehicle for his/her thoughts, feelings and so on. The reason for this can be thought of as an insecurity at the heart of art photography. It had only recently received full status as an art form, and having done so on the back of precisely those modernist notions that post-modern artists are currently questioning. It is therefore reluctant to abandon, or even question, those notions that were integral to the elevation to its current lofty status.


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Peter Wollen’s Fire and Ice is a meditation on time and tense in photography and cinema. It deals with issues regarding what sorts of temporal experiences can be embodied within both forms and how the viewer’s means of engagement impacts upon this. The essay was first published in 1984 but later included in Liz Well’s 2003 book, The Photography Reader.

Photography is inextricably bound up with time. A photograph stops a moment and preserves it as a fragment of the past. The moment captured is of near-zero duration and located in an ever-receding ‘then’. By contrast, the spectator’s ‘now’ is of no fixed duration – the spectator can spend as long as he/she wishes, looking at the photograph. This contrasts sharply with cinema where the spectator’s experience is of fixed duration and often only available at set times.

Wollen applies these observations to Barthes, and claims that this temporal distinction between photography and film explains Barthes’s love of photography and antipathy towards film. Barthes privileges what the spectator brings to the work over the input of the author (as evidenced for example in Death Of The Author), and hence favours a medium like photography, where the spectator is in control over the time and circumstances of the viewing of the work, over film, where that control is ceded to the author. As Wollen puts it: ‘Time, for Barthes, should be the prerogative of the reader/spectator’. The implication of this is a bias against an author-imposed narrative structure and a preference for a freer, more interpretative approach controlled by the spectator. (more…)

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John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye was based on an exhibition of the same name held at the Musuem Of Modern Art in New Work in 1964. It featured the work of Friedlander, Evans, Strand and many others, and attempted to give an overview of the fundamental challenges and opportunities of the photographic medium. In the introduction to the book, he offers a brief historical overview of photography in terms of how it has evolved and how he sees it as a unique artistic medium.

Szarkowski begins by stating a core tenet of his outlook on photography which is that it is fundamentally different from other picture-making processes in that it is based on selection rather than synthesis – the photographer takes elements of the real world for his picture, whereas the painter makes the elements of his picture from scratch. This immediately posed a new creative dilemma – how can this process be used to create meaningful pictures and valid art? This question would not be answered by means of recourse to existing theories of visual art, but instead tackled by a rag-bag consortium of commercial photographers, amateur enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters, who may not have been consciously trying to answer it at all, but nevertheless have managed to evolve an aesthetic practice that defines what photography is. (more…)

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After finding aspects of Stuart Hall’s text difficult to grasp in parts I turned to a chapter from Photography: A Critical Introduction (edited by Liz Wells) to try and get a better handle on the relevance of psyschoanalytic theory to photography criticism. It explains Freud’s take on voyeurism and fetishism clearly and concisely.

Representations of the human body have become a central part of photographic practice and consequent critical discussion since the 1980s. Numerous issues have driven this – body politics, feminist challenges to the representation of the female body, the AIDS crisis, censorship struggles and the foregrounding of issues around gender and sexuality. Henning’s piece discusses how the human body is represented photographically, both in a historical and a contemporary context.

She commences with a description of some historical attemps to use photography to read the human body. Physiognomy and phrenology were employed from the mid 19th century onwards as a means of classifying people according to social and racial types, with photography acting as the key enabler of this. While these ideas have long been discredited, both John Tagg and Allan Sekula have pointed out that they continue to be used as a form of social control by way of photographic police archives. The implicit racism of these 19th Century ideas were later made explicit via Nazism, with its insistence on the moral superiority of certain races and classes. (more…)

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In this article Levi-Strauss writes about the relationship between aesthetics and politics in social documentary photography and essentially mounts a defence of the role of the aesthetic within this genre.

He starts by observing that the right in America have always recognised the subversive, and deeply political role, of the aesthetic in art and this explains their hostility to it. On the other hand, left-wing critics and theorists (Rosler et al.) have made ubiquitous a view that denies a central role for aesthetics in genres such as documentary. An example of this in mainstream writing would be Ingrid Sichy’s criticism of Sebastiao Salgado, which upbraids him on numerous fronts, but in particular accuses him of being more interested in the aesthetics of his images than in the plight of his subjects.

Levi-Strauss identifies the roots of this viewpoint to be the writings of Walter Benjamin in the 1930s but denies that Benjamin’s criticisms are applicable to contemporary photographers such as Salgado. His basis for this is that Benjamin had in mind a particular movement (New Objectivity) which explicitly presented poverty and political struggle as objects of “comfortable contemplation”, whereas Salgado’s work shows real solidarity with his subjects and aims to confront viewers with the reality of hunger, tragedy and suffering. (more…)

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