Photography Critics, Theorists and Academic Writing: Does Photography Need Them?

Let me put my cards on the table. I came to photography as a fan. A fan of the images I saw in magazines and on record covers in the Seventies and early Eighties before starting to work as an art director on magazines in the United Kingdom. Magazines that exist to be aspirational, entertaining, informative and most importantly profitable. My view of photography was formed within that commercial context, I never studied photography (I studied graphics at art school) so I was never introduced to the sacred tomes of Sontag or Barthes. I had seen John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Robert Hughes’s Shock of the New on television but this was as intellectual entertainment not as academic doctrine to support dissection, deconstruction and debate.

Despite this ‘commercial background’ whilst art directing magazines I commissioned photographers such as Abbas, Leonard Freed, Don McCullin, Jane Bown, William Klein, Steve Pyke, Sylvia Plachy, Chris Steele Perkins, Corrine Day, The Douglas Brothers and Kurt Markus amongst many others. Photographers whose work could sit as easily within areas of traditional photo-journalism or contemporary art as it did within the pages of a glossy magazine, but most importantly the photographers that I commissioned were those whom I admired, respected and enjoyed purely from a photographic perspective.

Fast forward to today and I find myself within an academic, a commercial, a photographic and perhaps most importantly an online environment. Photography is intrinsic to all of these environments but it is the way in which it is viewed and interpreted in each that I believe creates a series of unnecessary barriers for many to engage with photography and navigate its highways and byways.

In a recent interview the photographer and Magnum member Martin Parr declared “Photography is the most democratic art form we have in the world.” I agree with Martin, a photographer whose exhibitions and books are much reviewed, dissected, revered and as often dismissed and vilified but whose work helping to sell frozen food products, luxury clothing brands and streetwear is largely ignored by the theoretic photographic cognoscenti. Which makes me wonder if the writing about photography is as democratic and open as the art itself?

Let’s start with the word ‘commercial’. Despite the influence that this work has on our daily lives, it’s creative impact on our visual awareness and its positive impact in supporting a photographic economy ‘commercial photography’ is too often and quickly dismissed by the critics, commentators and academics who deem it to not be ‘serious’ photography. It is this compartmentation of photography based upon critical, academic and theoretical premise that I take issue with.

I can enjoy all forms of photography from the brash image created to sell me a hamburger to a body of work created over decades shedding light upon a narrative of global importance. I do not feel the need to place either in a position of photographic importance both have their place in our cultural awareness. So why do so many ‘cultural elite’ commentators feel the need to do so? Well, let’s think about that.

My personal experience of conversations with those who adopt and propagate these views, listening to talks and reading too many linguistically verbose articles illustrates one common factor. That is that few of those speakers and writers have any real knowledge of ‘commercial photography’ and even fewer have worked within it in any capacity.

This may take us some way to understanding the dismissive attitude many have towards it but it also I believe explains why other areas of work are so often exalted beyond their actual importance.

To theorize about a subject with any level of authority requires understanding, without that understanding theory is too clearly revealed as ill-informed opinions to those who have the understanding the writer does not have. Many of the critics and theorists I am referring to have never worked as a photographer in any context, they have studied art based theory and continued their studies into a career focusing on themes based on their academic studies and reading. They also continue to use a form of unnecessarily complex academic language (often described as ‘art speak’) in their writing. Within an academic context this is theory as research and when I say research I mean research as is defined by institutions, through papers created to appear within academic journals and at conferences with little if any relevance or impact on or to the wider photographic community.

I have no issue with this. It exists within a niche created for a specific reason. Just as ‘commercial photography’ is created to meet a need and provide an income this academic approach to photography provides a career for those involved with it. In turn reflecting on work created within personal areas of exploration outside of the commissioned market makes sense for those reviewing works that accepted theories and understanding can explain through the academics best friend the attributed reference.

We all benefit from insight into work, to question is vitally important and context helps us with our understanding of all creative endeavour. However, impenetrable academic text, agenda heavy theory and ill-informed criticism does none of these things.

The ability for everyone to have an opinion and the easy availability of online publishing (I know just as I am doing here, the irony is not lost on me at this point) has resulted in a tsunami of theory based journals and articles. But how much of it is of any real importance or relevance to us as photographers? We are constantly being told that the proliferation of images online is devaluing photography and in turn the role of the professional photographer. Surely, the same could be said of photography based writing.

I love photography but despite my passion for and knowledge of the subject I find myself, regularly confused, frustrated and quite frankly bored by so much of the criticism and theory I am presented with.

I want to understand more about photography, I want to read informed criticism and I’m happy to have these insights come from an academic perspective. But I want that writing to be based upon informed personal knowledge, not just referenced texts. I want it to be open to all areas of practice and I want it to be written in a language which is accessible to all. Great writing is not based on linguistic gymnastics but clearly communicated thoughts, ideas and beliefs delivered with panache and imagination.

Just as my tastes in photography are varied I’d like the writing on the subject to demonstrate a similar level of variety. I believe that we need critics, theorists and rigorous academic reflection on photography but we do not need it to be narrow focused, ill-informed, unreadable and elitist. Critics, theorists and academics are all writing for a reason, to be paid by a publication, to raise profile, to develop a book concept and to fulfil academic research commitments. Just as a commercial photographer shoots to a brief to please a client so the critic, theorist and academic fulfils their brief.

I am not a philistine when it comes to my understanding of photography but I do find myself agreeing with Albert Einstein who said that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

My call to all critics, theorists and academics is for them to think about why they are writing what they are writing and for them to be honest about that intention with the reader. If you don’t want anyone to understand what you are writing, then at least be honest about it. But if you want to communicate with me, inform and maybe even entertain me. Then bring it on. I want to read it!

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).

© Grant Scott 2017

Image Credit: Creative Commons Byron Barrett/flickrCC BY-NC-ND

 

  1. I certainly agree with the gist of this article. I came to photography much the same way Scott did, by being smitten by certain images, initially the stark theatricality of Diane Arbus and the lonesome passing-throughness of Robert Frank. Then, while in Art School, I got to use a darkroom and discovered the magic of panning for milky blacks in a basin of developer. I don’t look down on commercial work per se, and it is true that the line between that and ‘fine art photography’ is always questionable. But I do think much commercial or borderline-commercial photography has a glossy sameness to it, like standard wedding photographs. But I’ve all the time in the world for the oddly brilliant image that leaps off he screen. Actually, I could see how some of my own photographs could work commercially, such as this: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2013/feb/15/photography-guardian-readers-pictures-glamour#img-1 or this https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2011/may/07/readers-pictures-metallic#img-1

    I too dislike theory-jargon, though Berger and Sontag can be brilliant, and the latter’s aphorisms are as sharp and edgy as the best photographs. Jargon too-often masks wilful incompetence, downright ignorance and/or a kind of narcissistic enshrinement of the artist’s ego. The post-postmodern aesthetic is infatuated, it seems to me, with the process/image-series, to the detriment of the singular, powerful image. Often the images or vids in installations/exhibitions are utterly boring, requiring expositions in text which, when you peel away the layers, are wittering on about some idea that really doesn’t stand up to close examination (i.e. it’s a banal, dime-a-dozen idea).

    David Hockney, in the 1980s, thought digital photography (with its ability to photoshop alterations) might make the old decisive moment/witness aesthetic redundant, though it hasn’t really. On the other hand, phone-cameras have democratised photography to such an extent now that nearly everyone is expected to curate their own carousel of images.

    What it comes down to is, I still like images that speak (or appear to dream) for themselves.

    I blogged about this some time ago, if anyone’s interested: http://markgranier.blogspot.ie/2007_03_01_archive.html

    Reply

  2. I certainly agree with the gist of this article. I came to photography much the same way Scott did, by being smitten by certain images, initially the stark theatricality of Diane Arbus and the lonesome passing-throughness of Robert Frank. Then, while in Art School, I got to use a darkroom and discovered the magic of panning for milky blacks in a basin of developer. I don’t look down on commercial work per se, and it is true that the line between that and ‘fine art photography’ is always questionable. But I do think much commercial or borderline-commercial photography has a glossy sameness to it, like standard wedding photographs. I’ve all the time in the world though for the oddly brilliant image that leaps off he screen.

    David Hockney, in the 1980s, thought digital photography (with its ability to photoshop alterations) might make the old decisive moment/witness aesthetic redundant, though it hasn’t really. On the other hand, phone-cameras have democratised photography to such an extent now that nearly everyone is expected to curate their own carousel of images.

    I too dislike jargon, and it too-often masks wilful incompetence and downright ignorance. The post-postmodern aesthetic is infatuated, it seems to me, with process/image-series, to the detriment of the singular, powerful image. Often, the images or vids in installations/exhibitions are downright boring; it’s all about an abstract idea which, when you examine it, is pretty banal. I like images that speak (and appear to dream) for themselves. I blogged about this some time ago, if anyone’s interested: http://markgranier.blogspot.ie/2007_03_01_archive.html

    Reply

  3. The simplist answer is no, of course we don’t need them. But this begs the question, what do we need? The Academy for Bad Photographs has everything we need. Enroll today!

    Reply

  4. Interesting piece, firstly I can highly recommend reading Geoffrey Batchen, he is leading the charge broadening the scope of photographic history with a focus on vernacular photography, secondly, commercial work is indeed excellent but it’s function is… well commercial. If the product it is selling succeeds in being bought it’s function is complete. Art on the other hand has no real function, and as a consequence some people deem it necessary to inform others of its function, or to determine it validity. In the end however time is the biggest critic of all and timeless images are the one that become important regardless of whatever critical dialogue is in fashion at the time.

    Reply

    1. One question: how do images become important? strong work begets strong criticism, but it’s the critics that make the canon.

      Reply

      1. Dennis if I knew the answer to that, my work would be already considered important. Self marketing seems to be one, choosing the right market or person to market yourself to another. Having the right/best thing to say another. I’m talking only about the Australian Art market here as its my only area I can claim any expertise after nearly 30 years of exhibiting my work at various small galleries in and around Melbourne. Sure some of those people may be gatekeepers, but not all may be critics, if anything there is a dearth of criticism here.

  5. The Straw Man is to be found here:

    “Let’s start with the word ‘commercial’. Despite the influence that this work has on our daily lives, it’s creative impact on our visual awareness and its positive impact in supporting a photographic economy ‘commercial photography’ is too often and quickly dismissed by the critics, commentators and academics who deem it to not be ‘serious’ photography. It is this compartmentation of photography based upon critical, academic and theoretical premise that I take issue with.”

    Totally ignores how fine art photography is one of the primary drivers of commercial photography. There’s a lag, to be sure, but what’s in the galleries one year, will be on t-shirts and John Lewis catalogues in 18 months’ time, albeit in a watered-down form. I suspect that’s the real reason why fine art photographers/photography critics don’t pay much attention to the commercial. (Example? Could the Celine campaign be done without Lucas Blalock? Alternatively: ever notice how every time you sell a photography book on eBay it gets snapped up by a fashion industry intern?) They’ve seen it before, and seen it done better.

    PS “linguistically verbose articles” – is a tautology. Anything verbose is linguistic. I wouldn’t mention it except there was a rallying cry to be ‘communicative’ at the end of the piece…

    Reply

  6. A good article that highlights the duality of the ease of access to photography, both in taking and viewing. Everyone is a critic, but not everyone is ‘A Critic’. I remain baffled sometimes by what is written about art, including photography.

    Reply

  7. Brilliant editorial Grant,
    Mirroring my own sentiments. When exactly was it that commerciality became a dirty word?
    It’s an applied art (or can be in many contexts).
    Well said sir!

    Reply

  8. […] Photography Critics, Theorists and Academic Writing: Does Photography Need Them? […]

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