I Had A Dream or How to Judge Photographs…

I had a dream that I was sitting next to someone teaching others about photography using my images. The images were black and white and from a time when focus, and exposure where of little interest as I explored the possibilities of how far I could push image making with my Hasselblad and fast film. The man teaching (it was a man with little hair on his head, my dream was quite detailed!) was using my work as examples of poor technique. He was unhappy with the blown out highlights, excessive grain and lack of, as he saw it, photographic ability.

The dream seemed to go on for some time as the people he was talking to questioned his assertions and inquired as to why what he was describing was a problem. My dream was detailed but it was also in black and white.

Dreaming is a means by which the brain processes emotions, stimuli, memories, and information that’s been absorbed throughout the waking day and according to research, a significant percentage of the people who appear in our dreams are known to us. I did not recognise the man in my dream, and I had not been discussing either my photographic abilities or early work during the day, before I had my dream, but perhaps I should tell you more.

I did not allow the critic to continue with his monologue concerning my work and spoke up within the dream. I said that the work was mine, and that everything he had been critiquing was deliberate. I did know what I was doing when creating the images, and the highlights, grain and composition were deliberate. The dream faded and I received no response. I woke up.

The man in the dream’s negativity was based on his expectation of the work not mine.

My defence was based on a sense of injustice and a need to defend. I had no self-doubt about the work, but the comments had hit a raw nerve, a sensitivity. I have no formal technical training in photography, I am self-taught and therefore if I have an achilles heel in photography the man in the dream had found it. Contrary to the rationalist beliefs that dreams aren’t real, research shows that dreams are very real. They convey real information, real impact, real emotions, and can have real consequences if ignored. Dreams are a way for your subconscious mind to communicate with your conscious mind, and I therefore decided to take notice and reflect on the man in my dream.

To judge a photograph on the basis of an expectation detached from that of the maker is therefore both flawed, and irrational. The maker’s intention is central to the creation of the image and directly related to their expectation. It has nothing to do with the viewers expectation.

The images you create may fulfil your expectations but never meet the expectations of others, and that is how it should be unless the work has been commissioned to a specific brief. Alternatively, they may not meet yours, and yet receive wide approval. But which of these two things are important? Different contexts will give different answers to this question, but it is possible to construct some loose guidelines by which to live and work by.

The problem with critics is that they can only ever bring an interpretation, it may be an informed interpretation but it can rarely if ever be the truth, unless confirmed as such by the maker. Interpretations can be interesting and informative, if well written and researched, but they can also fall too easily into subjective opinions with little value.

If identified as such they can be accepted as words to be considered or dismissed, but if presented as fact they can easily become misinformed doctrine. The judgement of the photograph or a body of work then becomes toxic and distanced from the work and the photographer who created it. It becomes about the critic and not the work, informed by their expectation and not the original expectation of the photographer.

Therefore, I am always careful to never judge a photograph, only to express opinion, clearly defined as such. I will look for evidential fact to understand an image, and the words of the person who made it. I will listen to other opinions, but never accept them as definitive. I apply the same logic to my own work. The opinions of others are welcomed but always challenged, questioned, analysed and reflected upon. They are never accepted as fact at face value, allowing me to remain in control of my own expectations.

What that says about my dream, I have no idea although I am sure that it is open to interpretation. I’ll just pass the end of this article to Bob Dylan who said this in his song Talking’ World War III Blues.

“Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time,
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time,
I think Abraham Lincoln said that,
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
I said that.”

I think Bob got it just about right, now back to sleep…

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

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