Joe Appel on To Critique or Not To Critique… Sarah Parkson on To Critique or Not To Critique… Lena Lux Kiernan on To Critique or Not To Critique… Courtney on To Critique or Not To Critique… Annette Holstad on To Critique or Not To Critique…
Eighty years after Henri Cartier-Bresson began photographing, his work remains the bellwether for assessing modern photography.
Cartier-Bresson spent all but the last two decades of his very long life behind the camera, traveling the world and shunning public attention. Indeed, invisibility was crucial to his aesthetic; drawing attention to the process would have shown his hand. Although he would become a photojournalist before there was such a practice, John Thompson and Roger Fenton aside, Cartier-Bresson’s pictures didn’t tell stories. Instead they offered a particular view – the artist’s point of view concealed, nonetheless.
Cartier-Bresson used a Leica, a small format camera that was then new and, like all else in his career, uncharted. It’s not hyperbolic to say he pioneered the use of the hand camera any more than it is to say he was the architect of modern photography. His photographs were unprecedented, and they were beautiful.
Cartier-Bresson’s photographs are so highly piqued formally that they seem almost impossibly produced. This quality comes, in part, from his involvement with academic painting. His imagery no doubt was affected by surrealism, which the then-young artist admired. Besides, the hand camera lends itself to re-presenting reality in surreal sorts of ways. It also lends itself to juxtaposing fleeting relationships in an instant, and herein lies Cartier-Bresson’s genius. He called this intersecting point in time and space The Decisive Moment; this was a picture problem… not one of visual semantics or calisthenics. It was his way to realize meaning.
Although structural integrity is central to Cartier-Bresson’s oeuvre, an ideal of formal rigor was not for everyone, especially younger photographers. Robert Frank’s quickly grasped images were at odds with the older photographer’s monumental imagery. Frank griped that it seemed Cartier-Bresson was moved less by what he photographed than by the sheer beauty of his compositional skills. This claim was akin to Cartier-Bresson’s own expression of disbelief in Ansel Adams and Edward Weston’s photographs of pristine landscapes made between world wars, when the humanity was being redefined and the world was seemingly falling apart. Even curator-to-the-stars John Szarkowski quipped that Cartier-Bresson seemed to put his camera away and go out for dinner when the sun set. Indeed, he favored natural light and made few photographs at night, but, still, this comment sounds more like wordplay than criticism.
Behind the formal order that puts in check the chaotic world is the actual world with an otherworldliness that drew Cartier-Bresson to photography. When he tapped into the forces and rhythms of the world, Cartier-Bresson made as photographically rich and descriptive images as can be coaxed through the lens; they are as surreal as floating wristwatches or misplaced apples, but much less illustrative than image-based ideas. Cartier-Bresson’s images are purely photographic. “Every force evolves a form,” goes the Shaker saying, and it is an appropriate testament to Cartier-Bresson’s ideal.
As is often the case in the public arena with any public artist, certain Cartier-Bresson photographs became canonized, identified as his masterworks. These were the ones that were shown and sold over and over again; they were blue chips. They weren’t, in my estimation, Cartier-Bresson’s finest works. These seem to me to be the most accessible; ones to marvel at at first glance, which isn’t necessarily a measure of one’s finest art. But achieving sheer beauty was not his motivator; his work wasn’t a case of art for art’s sake. The photojournalist in him, perhaps, drew images that existed more on the surface than in the mind. Yet, to me, these often resonate as much as does many of his early more-jazz-than-journalism imagery; those unprecedented photographs he made during his freewheeling days before he called himself a photojournalist.
Print media requires quick takes, but Cartier-Bresson’s seemingly detached eye was as piercing and insightful as that of his successors. Robert Frank’s brilliant works in the Americas and Garry Winogrand’s jaw-dropping images, evidenced everywhere but especially in Manhattan, were actualized by every touch of their shutter release buttons. They pushed camera work along with the ideas their practices generated to the extreme. Their images may have been less traditionally oriented than their predecessor’s but that is because Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs gave them a trenchant starting point, and that starting point was ridiculously high.
To Critique or Not To Critique, or How to Fight Against the Mindless, Approximate and Inattentive in Photographic Imagery
To Gary Metz, in memoriam
1. What On Earth is Constructive Criticism?
I don’t criticize students or their work. I coddle, stroke and give soccer trophies for grades. All of our photo faculty members tend to be pushovers, but none so much as I. I teach the incoming students the fundamentals of photography and I believe that since my primary concern is their integration of photography and ultimately their internalization of the medium into the fabric of their lives, grades play no meaningful role – and they may even be deterrents. In the arts, one competes against oneself, so how high one jumps has little if anything to do with anyone else – right?
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the color printing area with Patrick Van Dusen and a few students when another student approached and handed me some photographs – four lackluster images – and asked me what I thought. I flipped slowly through the prints, giving up after a third round of searching hopefully for something to praise. I was transformed by each unremarkable image, and not in a way that I would have liked. I was somewhat trancelike, automatically speaking when I said, in effect, that “These are boring… uninteresting, uninspired…. Why are you showing them to me?” My unstated message was, “Why would you show these to me or anyone else? What are you thinking? What are you looking for?” We both knew that nothing about them was praiseworthy. The student responded candidly, “Yeah, I wasn’t inspired when I took them, either.” She didn’t appear to be upset, but this brief exchange affected me and got the attention of the other students there.
I was surprised at my own lack of restraint; I prefer to be discreet and meet students on their turf. My teaching MO has long been to accentuate the positive. I prefer encouragement as my means of empowering students to be independent thinkers and eventually to be independent of their teachers. But then, rather quietly, one of the students who had already earned a bachelor’s degree in business commented that she wished that I would be so direct and forthright more often. The others seemed appreciative, and talk turned to how effective this would be if the entire faculty shored-up and held students to the high standards that we all, students and faculty alike, profess are needed.
However, there are additional factors to our adopting such a different, and somewhatdifferential, approach to student evaluation. We have an open-door policy, one which faculty members embrace because we know that the arts differ from academics and that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to encouraging an individual’s creativity. We know that students, especially in the arts, learn differently than those in academics, and that this is a primary reason that many gravitate to the arts. I know, for example, that those with ADHD possess something special and I see those with obsessive tendencies as having gifts that can be channeled toward wonderful outcomes. Also, we get a mixed bag of students, many of whom are testing the water, whether or not they know it. Most of our 350 students do not come for the sole purpose of being exposed to the fine art of photography. Most come for commercial instruction, while some gravitate to the more abstract world of the arts. One student told me, unabashedly, that he transferred here because we are cheap.
Nevertheless, as an accredited college with a good reputation, the students, as well as the faculty want to keep and maintain high standards. Today, more than ever before, to receive a technical training is to be short-changed. Perhaps the choice of our institution could be as simple as this: most of our students want to become professional photographers and they want the strong technical foundation that we offer. Since most of our students are business-minded, they may not even appreciate the significance of imagery guided by intellectual posits or aesthetic concerns. Whatever one’s area in the world of work, being relevant in it is a prerequisite to being successful in it.
I was thinking about the brief exchange over those aforementioned uninspiring photographs so the next day I raised the issue of student evaluation in another class. Mostly I went into a brief soliloquy, freely associating. I addressed photographic literacy – how one’s photographs function both internally and in the world. I told the students it’s time to think carefully about their photographs and not just make them indifferently and so casually as to render the images vague and meaningless. I revealed that I cringe when students tell me that they like texture, pattern and abstraction. Such observations do not lead to interesting photography. Years ago, a friend told me that when students asked her to teach them the zone system (Ansel Adams’ refined method of exposure, developing and printing) she knew that their wells had run dry. The same holds true for students who seemingly really want to photograph squirrels, sailboats, and shiny objects.
Being visually illiterate is symptomatic of cultural deprivation and poor schooling. A student’s shortcomings aren’t necessarily his/her fault. Besides, faultfinding is largely useless. I’ve learned that when a student is asked what he/she likes to photograph and the reply is “portraits and landscapes,” that student is in the default mode, clueless of his/her own potential.
“What is it about portraits and landscapes that interest you?” I often ask. Is it anything more than copying the tenets of the Hudson River School of Art by capturing interpretations of the land glorified? Isn’t that mere sentimentality today? Are you aware of its movement’s etiology – that these artists worked in accord with Manifest Destiny, their canvases bolstering westward expansion? But I get ahead of myself….
I had to rethink my words when a student commented, “What if I like landscapes and you don’t like landscapes?” Not this again, I thought. The innuendo, of course, was that photography is all-subjective and that I do the grading. I pointed out that subjectivity is a reality but it is also not just about one’s opinion. Yeah, I thought, sure you’re entitled to your opinion, and you’re also entitled to eat Twinkies, smoke cigarettes, and get a mullet cut. I then added that I have nothing against photographs of the landscape and can, in fact, assess such images critically and that I have been photographing the landscape for ten years. I then asked, “What is it about the photograph, do you have a point of view? A sensation, an awareness or insight, a clue?” Inevitably, the photographer’s worldview emerges from his/ her work. I ventured down the all-important path of form and content, and relevancy. I also reminded them that it’s easier to earn an A than a C in my class. Just let it go, and work. “You’ll surprise yourself,” I tell my students.
2. Exploiting the Inherent Characteristics of the Medium
I told our senior computer lab technician, Roger Linke, that I broke form by speaking rather candidly to the student with those unfortunate prints and the attending small group. He offered that when he taught Photo One, our general elective class for non-photo majors, he had to urge students to take more pictures. However, now that things are digital Roger is finding that students take too many photographs – too many without thought, reason or structure.
I considered Roger’s observation as a lack of engagement with the medium, which leads to too many vacuous photographs. Roger contends that students indiscriminately point and shoot in the general vicinity of whatever’s there and push the button, again and again and again. They may see or, more likely, have a vague awareness about the nominal subject but do little beyond that to construct an image.
This was hard for me to hear because, each semester, on the first day of class I point out that merely looking at the object of interest is insufficient because typically it is in the center of the frame, where the focus field is located… and pushing the button then is not photography but target practice. That is the message of my first lesson.
My second lesson revolves around this concept: everything you need to know about art you learned when your mother told you that “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” That is, in fact, a life lesson about form-and-content.
The world described as it really exists is interesting enough. It is even more interesting when one is earnestly photographing. Interesting images will emerge when one is always interested, in tune. Embrace the world as it is. The game is easy: one makes choices from an infinite array of possibilities. Every glance carries the source of meaning. And as easy as is the process – a click of the shutter – it’s equally as daunting, or could be if one allows room for doubt, hesitation, or self-consciousness. I suspect Garry Winogrand’s contact sheets are laced with mindboggling images, moments so knowingly seen that they are more than records or documents. He has created something else, something whose relationship to what was photographed is tenuous at best. A whole new reality was created – a photograph whose meaning is more about wonder than explanation.
Lesson number three: This is the only medium for which conception and execution are simultaneous. The photographer starts and finishes at the exact same time; with the click of the shutter the image and idea are realized, one in the same. One needs to learn early on to “see photographically” and trust his/her intuition. I don’t quite mean to see like a camera – perhaps “think photographically” is more apt; a camera transforms reality into a picture, distinguishing an aspect of it in the process: the image embodies more than it shows. It bears repeating – the photographer has to be interested, that is, fascinated by the world in front of his/ her lens. Genius – whatever that is – is not required here. Indeed, it might even be a hindrance, keeping us mere mortals feeling and thinking like mere mortals, keeping us at bay while we are feeling disenfranchised, if not belittled. I’m even suspicious of talent, which I think is a result of hard work and a little good luck. There is no mystery here: he who practices the most plays it the best. Maybe some good coaching is needed, which I’m increasingly convinced means pointing students in the right direction and then getting out of their way.
I’m beginning to think that my conservatism is radical, if not cutting edge. I know that what I, like many others of my generation, did – prowl the streets with a Leica in hand, pouncing instinctively – is not just out of vogue, but it is near-impossible to practice today given the camera-paranoid world. Yet I sense that young and older photographers admire this dying art. I suspect that given the myriad approaches to photography today, some of which do not require the use of a camera, straight photography is the most difficult. And not because of the social inhospitality, but because there are a million and one choices available at every given second from any and every vantage point, a triangulation of space and intersection of time which will not be repeated… and is best perceived (not calculated) while most assuredly yielding unresolved imagery. Further making a mess of things is that I tend not to break stride (anymore) while photographing. As the vantage point changes, the visual problem is compounded exponentially. The odds are against the photographer.
So, lesson number four is No Cropping. There’s just one shot at the potential image and you either get it or you don’t. When the stars align, a photographer can enter the realm of magic, although failure is almost guaranteed. Nevertheless, you might as well nurture the process, give yourself up to it. Fail willingly, with a smile on your face. You’ll be teased by the emergence of a few transcendent images, and you will recognize these as being well beyond your ability. (Ever wonder why photographers sign their prints on verso?) You’ll learn to work without being overly hopeful of similar strikes or you’ll surely fail. You’ll learn to work intuitively, without expectations. Your ego will dissolve. You’ll realize how insignificant you really are and you’ll be turned over to what you behold, and the process will likely yield interesting images.
No Cropping may seem capricious but it is necessary. Consider it as discipline, if you need to. Henri Cartier-Bresson said that photographs are made by millimeters and that you can’t save a bad perception in the darkroom – these are allusions to the virtues of the full frame. Cropping is easy and may seem effective – but it’s not. In fact, cropping is capricious. Right or wrong aside, cropped photographs lack grace. I cannot look at them.
Students in my classes responded to my dilemma of not seeing “depth” or worth in too many photographs. I pleaded that all I want is to see diligence. I’d trade depth for astute descriptiveness. With earnestness all will work out, I assure my students. Then someone offered this to explain the malaise: “Because it’s summer.” That sounds hollow at first, but students say the workload is oppressive, that they are learning three new things (color printing, Final Cut and the view camera) in a compressed time frame. There aren’t enough cameras or darkrooms to go around. The computer lab is too often closed. They’re broke and it’s hot outside. The humidity is oppressive. I plead, “Liberation comes from persistence. No struggle, no significance.” They claim drudgery more than being overwhelmed; the former places the blame elsewhere while the latter suggests self-reliance. I’m not being critical; students were citing self-responsibility. They acknowledged that the faculty / program gives them the proverbial occasion to rise to, with occasional nudges. And bumps.
They talked about pleasing professors – not a priority to us, I believe – and self-examination. Students acknowledged the pleasure of their successes and that the process leads to a new self and worldview (better living through art). They said my angst was in response to student-photographers displaying “no vision” in their work.
We acknowledged that our students prevail, and that college classes do weed out students in a self-regulating sort of way. I told them I’d put their work that is in the building’s display cases up against any photo students’ work, anywhere. It’s consistently terrific. They are technically way ahead of the pack. They print very well. But this is not nearly enough, not what it’s about. It is about formally resolved photographs, not about getting the color right.
A recent guest to our department, Ben Van Hook, offered: “You don’t get hired because of the camera you own but because of your vision.” He added that he worked diligently when he was in school, that he had “no life.” He had drive and a strong work ethic. And he, like all success stories, didn’t settle for mediocrity. But I’ve come to understand that listening to our students is a better form of teaching than telling them right from wrong, especially the wrong parts. I think that a person is just about born with a point of view, a take on things and the world. Learning is about bringing these sensations and ideas to the fore to become embedded in one’s work, haunting his/her images. There simply is no dependable road map, no reliable instructions to follow when it comes to making something from nothing. Photographers are authors, creating new realities.
This bonus lesson is about light: Many years ago a close friend invited me to accompany him on an assignment to Tarpon Springs. I went along for the ride. We got up early, and went walking around to photograph. Come 8:30, my friend said, “It’s time for breakfast,” so we returned to the hotel. When we finished I grabbed my camera bag, and he asked me what I was doing. “I’m going to photograph,” I said. He was puzzled then, a look of astonishment on his face. I should point out that my friend is rather dramatic, speaks with a heavy Cuban accent, perfected here in Florida. “What! You cannot do that! The light! I will be by the pool.” He went on to explain, in a somewhat indignant tone, “I cannot photograph now, not between 10 and 4 o’clock (maybe it was 9 to 5).” I will be by the pool.” And off I went.
My friend is an incurable romantic who subscribes to the beautiful light notion. He needs long shadows. He’s disgusted by midday light, or anything that comes close to something so common, so vulgar. Early morning and late afternoon light streaks across surfaces, raising texture and adding a faux sense of mystery – it’s a shadow thing. Simply, it’s pictorial. I never thought much about light, though every other photographer talked about it all the time. It seemed irrelevant to me. I didn’t much care if the light was beautiful. I liked the hard, mid-day light, in all its unforgiving lack of glory. The hours between 9 and 5 are when people are out living their lives. It is why, and therefore when, I have to photograph. It’s an exciting time.
Unlike my friend’s more formulated practice, my photographic approach is experimental; each of my photographs is a roll of the dice. He’s almost guaranteed success, the way he approaches camera work. Perhaps all professionals, especially photojournalists, are; they need to be. I am not. He makes many very good and lovely photographs, all the time. I do not; most of mine are awful, increasingly so… But I came to understand early on that good is not good enough, that a few photographs which are laced with magic is more than enough, more than I can ask for.
The approach I espouse is also experiential; and if an experience is by definition new, fresh and exciting, it follows that a photograph made in response will be new, fresh and exciting. It’s guaranteed to always be unexpected and, likely, revealing. It comes down to the difference between illustration and discovery. The photographer just needs to connect, to be in tune and form will follow experience. Once in a great while he/she will find that allusive moment and place when an image emerges that speaks to some common human experience. Achieving this is, relatively speaking, hard labor on a good day.
Post Script: Two months passed since the young woman to whom I spoke directly and harshly sent a note to me saying, “It has helped me in my shooting and editing process, but has also opened my eyes a little wider.”
The photographs that accompany this essay were made by first semester students in our Fundamentals of Photography class: Alyson Bowen, Kelli Frazier, Stephanie Lister. All rights reserved.