Week 10 – Criticality

This was a very interesting week that touched on the definition and importance of critical theory and its relevance to practice. Francis Hodgson proposes images should have criteria by which we can evaluate them for quality. The term ‘mattering’ is introduced and that people will devote attention to an image that has this quality, anything else that we casually look at is trivial. He states most people have difficulty differentiating a picture of something vs. a picture about something, what is needed is a shared vocabulary of sorts to clarify the distinction. To quote Francis directly:

But looking at pictures with the mind fully engaged is terribly hard, and it’s made harder by the relentless triviality of so high a proportion of photography. To look means to engage memory, argument, hypothesis, imagination… as well as a tremendous filter against rubbish. To look properly means to keep the highest standard acutely in mind through the nth lousy mountain of pictures, training the faculties to be sharp when they eventually need to be. Is it any wonder that I consider that a photograph well seen is as powerful as a photograph well made? It is, you know. Loads and loads of photographs were nothing at all until somebody took the trouble to see that they were something. If it matters enough, it seems, the mattering is communicable. And that is pretty close to the heart of photography.

This leads to the argument that by having such criteria photography becomes elitist and its democratising status somehow diminished. Ultimately, we should be able to say ‘that is not a very good photograph’ even though the subject may be important.

Thinking about how many images I see daily and those I spend any time really looking at and why is something to reflect on. I am going to make screenshots of images I spend more than a few seconds looking at in order to build up a small collection I can analyse. As a practical exercise, to see what criteria I can identify in my own choices that has this elusive ‘mattering’.

Sally Mann’s work and how the images of her children led to unwanted attention, accusations of pornography, exploiting her children and a most unwelcome stalker was sobering. According to Mann, she had acted in good faith and did not expect such an adverse reaction. Interpreting images once they are out in the wild can be unpredictable, and any provisional meaning assigned by the photographer can quickly turn into whatever the consumer chooses.

Critically reflecting on my work and seeing it from differing perspectives is a way to improve my practice and craft the intended narrative. By understanding what it is I want to convey and how perceptions can differ, I can learn to communicate more clearly.

I have to admit I watched the last presentation three times to take in all the information, even then I am not sure I grasped all that was being said. What was most interesting though was how my interpretation changed as I learnt of the concept underpinning the different series of images discussed. Liquidation by Ori Gersht depicts abstract landscapes, with no discernable meaning. Only when explained it was his personal interpretation of the genocide that occurred in that area during the Nazi occupation did the images take on a new meaning.

The high level and steep angle shots of solitary swimmers in the sea by Michael Misrach take on new meaning and interpretation when he explains they are his personal interpretation of figures falling from the WTC buildings during 9/11. Without this explanation, the concept is almost indecipherable. Similarly, the mundane locations of Joel Sternfeld’s ‘On this site’ come alive when connected to the events that took place there.

A lot to take in and process from this week, actually it has been more of a starting point in understanding I need to do a lot more reading, writing and critically looking at the work of other practitioners in order to move my own work forward.

The forum topic was to post an image of your choice, briefly describe it, and provide an additional alternate interpretation. I selected the image below with the included summary/interpretation. There were many other images posted which led to a variety of alternative interpretations. Again I am reminded of an earlier course reading and the provisional nature of an image’s interpretation.

This image, taken by one of the White House photographers, captured a moment during the raid that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Without the context, this could be many crisis moments facing a presidential national security team. The range of emotions, postures and expressions visible in the room creates a complex image to interpret. The reaction of Hillary Clinton has been described as the ‘punctum’ of the image.

There is much ambiguity and missing information, but it can still evoke a powerful reaction in the viewer. It is not a controversial image, but there are several interpretations of what is going on the room and what is happening out of view that is holding everyone’s attention. You can almost write your version of events and story to support that interpretation. 

GERSHT, Ori. 2005. ‘Liquidation 2005’. Mysite [online]. Available at: https://www.origersht.com/copy-of-time-after-time-2006-m [accessed 9 Dec 2020].

HODGSON, Francis. 2013. ‘On The Strange Business Of Mattering’. [online]. Available at: https://francishodgson.com/2013/01/25/on-the-strange-business-of-mattering/ [accessed 9 Dec 2020].

JOHNSON, Ken. 2011. ‘Situation: Ambiguous’, 7 May [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/weekinreview/08johnson.html [accessed 9 Dec 2020].

KARNI, Annie. 2019. ‘2 Photos of Tense White House Moments: Note the Differences’, 29 Oct [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/28/us/politics/situation-room-photos-trump-obama.html [accessed 9 Dec 2020].

MANN, Sally. 1996. Immediate Family. Aperture. Available at: https://aperture.org/books/immediate-family/.

‘Richard Misrach Biography’. 2020. Artnet [online]. Available at: http://www.artnet.com/artists/richard-misrach/biography [accessed 9 Dec 2020].

STERNFELD, Joel. 1996. On This Site. Steidl. Available at: https://steidl.de/Books/On-This-Site-1227384056.html.

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