A critic’s value

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Sometimes I enjoy writing; other times, I hate being a writer.

For those of you who think it would be just wonderful to publish a book: think again.

There’s few things that can make you more vulnerable than to work your butt off on something and then have it trivialized, panned, and dismissed–usually by some anonymous pundit. Months of writing, months of editing and production work gets reduced in five minutes by a critic with an attitude.

One is tempted to reject all critics but there is value in criticism, even when such is unpalatable or unpleasant. Via 3QuarksDaily’s, I found the Boston Review article, Why Photography Critics Hate Photography to be an intriguing writing; especially the part on the critic’s rejection of the emotionalism of photography, and hence their suspicion of same:

Brecht was right. Photographs don’t explain the way the world works; they don’t offer reasons or causes; they don’t tell us stories with a coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end. Photographs live on the surface: they can’t burrow within to reveal the inner dynamics of historic events. And though it’s true that photographs document the specific, they tend, also, to blur—dangerously blur—political and historic distinctions: a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Berlin, circa 1945, looks much like a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Hanoi, circa 1969, which looks awfully similar to a photograph of a bombed-out apartment building in Baghdad from last week. Yet only a vulgar reductionist—or a complete pacifist—would say that these three cities, which is to say these three wars, are fundamentally the same cities or the same wars. Still, the photos look the same: there’s a very real sense in which if you’ve seen one bombed-out building you have indeed seen them all. (“War is a horrible repetition,” Martha Gellhorn wrote, and this is even truer of photographs than of words.) It is this anti-explanatory, anti-analytic quality of the photograph—what Barthes called its stupidity—that critics have seized on with a vengeance and that they cannot, apparently, forgive.

But the problem with photographs is not only that they fail to explain the world. A greater problem, for Brecht and his followers, is what photographs succeed in doing, which is to offer an immediate, emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of monopoly capitalism or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or suffering, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs, also, to find out what our intuitive reactions to such otherness might be. (This curiosity is not, as the postmoderns have charged, an expression of “imperialism,” racism,” or “orientalism”: the peasant in Kenya and the worker in Cairo are as fascinated—if not more so—by a picture of New Yorkers as we are by an image of them.) None of us is a creature solely of feeling, and yet there is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, on an emotional level.

One of my favorite photographers is Walker Evans, who took what he called a ‘documentary approach’ to his photography–rejecting any hint of emotionalism in his work. About his most famous work, in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, one reviewer wrote:

The images are quintessential of Evans’ “documentary style”; Evans’ dis-interested approach to these families resulted in portraying them with dignity and strength, although they lived in complete poverty. He sought to show the beauty of order and respectability within such an impoverished condition. Thus, many of the photographs are posed portraits, often made with the 8×10 view camera…Evans’ use of objects, as well as interior and exterior(architectural) shots, which were all components of his strategy to build a comprehensive documentary work. Although at times Evans used his Leica(35mm),a small format camera, he did not take “snapshots” of daily activites; he despised that journalistic approach. Evans kept his images, as usual, in sharp, hard-focus, and also varied his focal length–sometimes up close, other times, wide-angle.

Reviews of the book referred to the “naked realism which is the truth as Walker Evans’ camera eye sees it.” The effect is one of confrontation with the reader–not with Evans, but with the tenant-farming families themselves. In this regard Evans became the visual translator of these people to the rest of the alienated American public. In so doing, and in conjunction with his work for the FSA, Evans revolutionized the concept of documentary photography. That is, he artfully removed himself from the equation. His objective style brought the viewer into confrontation with the subject, with no hint of subjective authoritarian influence. These images are the best example of that fact, and accordingly were the hallmark images for which Evans became known.

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