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The Art of Seeing  #01

Terry Barrett’s approach on photography criticism – Part 1

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In 1976, photographer, curator and critic John Szarkowski had said that there are more photographs than bricks, and each one of them is unique. Today, more than ever before, it is a hard case to explicate and account for the number and the uses of all those photographs. Even more, if we wish to understand photography deeper and to translate our feelings and thoughts into words, then, we need to step into a sort of critical process. This critical process constitutes the ground for a deeper understanding of an artwork and to this purpose it employs certain methodological tools. Apparently, there are plenty and different ways to approach a work of art. Nonetheless, there are some basic principles according to which we can approach art, and, in a primary and simplistic level, we will attempt to draw close to them. Furthermore, for reasons of structure and cohesiveness of our approach we will sketch out the workflow one can follow in order to ‘critique’ a work of art, a photograph in particular, according to Terry Barrett’s* guidelines described in his book «Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images» (2000).

The meaning of criticism

According to Barrett (2000) criticism is

«…an informed discourse about art to increase understanding and appreciation of art…»


«…thought and feeling are necessary components that need to be combined to achieve understanding and appreciation. Criticism is not a coldly intellectual endeavor»

This perspective inevitably leads to statements and ascertainments and in simple words expresses what one likes and what he doesn’t in a work of art. Of course criticism cannot be neutral and objective as long as it depends strongly on the perspective, the experiences, the knowledge, the preferences and the socio-economic views of the person exercising it. However, critical analysis is a very useful procedure since searching and finding the proper words comprises an instrument of thought for the one who writes it but also for the one who reads it. Finally, the purpose and function of the critic is not solely to state negative connotations (as many people think when they hear the term ‘criticism’), but to:

«…translate the complex thoughts and feelings about an artwork into words that can be understood first by themselves and then by others»

From the above it is clear now that the content, the language and the depth of a criticism varies depending on the public to which it addresses.

Description --> Interpretation --> Judgment/Evaluation

The common workflow of criticism begins with the description of the artwork, then follows the interpretation process and finally it concludes with the Judgment and the Evaluation. However, critics do not follow strictly the above sequence and they usually blend description, interpretation and judgment in order make their texts more attractive and less boring. But let us see a little more extensively what is included in each of these stages of criticism.

Description of a photographic work

Barrett argues that description is a process of ‘data collection’ where the critic observes and collects evidence about a photographic work, attempting initially to answer to questions as:

-What do I see here? Is it a photograph, an exhibition, a series, an electronic portfolio? -Who is the artist? Do I know something about him? -Do I know with certainty anything about this photograph?

In addition to these initial questions, we can distinguish inside the description process, certain stages where the following terms can be explored:

Subject Matter. By describing the subject matter the critic usually recognizes and classifies people, objects, events etc. Firstly, he names what he sees and then he returns, using carefully selected words, a first attribute or a characteristic. For example, if he recognizes a man in the photograph he may describe him as ‘a mysterious figure’, ‘a tall and spare, enigmatic silhouette’ or ‘a solitary young man’ etc.

Form. Barrett refers here to the way the subject of photography is being presented. It is about the effect the elements of form have upon the subject matter. Starting from the basics, the elements described here are lines, shapes, light, color, texture, mass, space and volume. Additional elements that play an important role could be tonal gradations of black and white, contrast, perspective, distance, frame borders, depth of field, sharpness, grain etc. Barrett comments that the way these formalistic elements are used, define the principles of design such as scale, proportions, unity and cohesiveness within variety, rhythm, repetition, juxtaposition, and more. We can take a look at an example** of relevant kind of description in the text of Weston Naef which accompanies a Charles Sheeler’s photograph, taken in 1917:

Charles Sheeler, 1917

«...In this composition Sheeler concealed the light source behind the iron stove, leaving it in silhouette, while the opposite wall is bathed in light, creating a mosaic of shapes. No attempt has been made to illuminate fully the architectural details; certain parts are obscured in shadow while others are overexposed. Through his handling of light, Sheeler drained the room of space and transformed the whole into a bas-relief composition.» (Naef, 1978)

Medium. Description here concerns the medium that has been used in order to create the artwork. In case of photography we could describe the camera and lenses type, the procedure followed by the photographer, the kind of printing, the film type or other technical information which may matter in relation to the expression and the overall impact of the photograph. We cite bellow a comment about the way photographer Paul Strand had been using his camera on the occasion of one of his photographs taken in 1916 in New York:

Paul Strand, 1916

«…Paul Strand used various devices such as dummy lenses and viewfinder prisms to enable him to appear to be focusing his camera in one direction while actually focusing it in another In this manner he was able to catch his subjects off-guard, as he has in this untitled photograph taken in New York in 1916.» (Naef, 1978)

Style. With the term ‘style’ we refer to the characteristic handling of the subject matter and of the formalistic elements. Criticism here consists of the description of similarities and differences between diverse artworks, movements, time periods, geographical locations and so on. Example questions that can be addressed in this case could be:

-What subjects does the photographer shoots? -How does he use the photographic medium? -How does he treat his subjects? -Is there a common element or characteristic among his work? -Is there a special way the elements of form are used? -Can I give a name or recognize an attribute to the photographer’s style?

A sample of analysis of the photographer’s style can be found in the following text on the occasion of an Ansel Adams’ photograph entitled ‘Winter Yosemite Valley’.

Ansel Adams, Winter Yosemite Valley, 1933–34

« exemplifies the movement toward hard-edged realism, dubbed by Adams and its other founders as the "f/64"*** (for the smallest lens aperture, the one yielding the sharpest pictures). The subtle detail in the snow and rich shadows are typical of Adams's masterful gelatin-silver printing style.» (Naef, 1978)

For the same picture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York quotes in its website:

«...As a result, this, like most of Adams' photographs, functions as the graphic equivalent of natural experience. »

Comparing and Contrasting. One more step in the description of a photographic work, and consequently in its critical analysis, is comparing and contrasting the photograph with photographer’s other work or with work from different photographers and even from different arts and fields. In the following example, Alvin Langdon Coburn has been compared to impressionist painters of his time, based on the photograph below (The White Bridge – Venice, 1906):

Alvin Langdon Coburn, The White Bridge – Venice, 1906

«By 1900 young American painters like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent had evolved a particularly American variety of impressionism, and it was natural that young American photographers should look to this style of painting for inspiration. Here, in a 1906 composition entitled The White Bridge-Venice, Coburn adopts a typically impressionist pictorial device of shifting attention away from the natural subject, the picturesque bridge and striding figure, and directing it to the play of light on the water. The gum-bichromate process used for this print was particularly suited to the painterly effect that Coburn desired»

Sources of Information. As mentioned before, description constitutes in a way a collection of information about the photographic work. In this sense, aside from the information issuing from internal sources (the artwork itself), it is useful to utilize information from external sources. This information can be extracted from sources such as press releases, the artist’s texts and interviews, publications, exhibition’s catalogues, but also the history of photography and art in general. Exploring external sources is particularly important, especially when the critic intents to compare and contrast as described above. However, as Barrett argues, biography cannot substitute criticism, and the descriptive information of external nature which a critic choses to include should not mislead the reader; it should be relative to the criticism and help on the understanding of the artwork.

Adolph De Meyer, The afternoon of a Faun (series), 1914

«…The model, with a strange mask over her face, is shown in a dancelike gesture against a very shallow space, which resembles the narrow nontraditional stage upon which the ‘Faun’ [ballet] was performed in 1912. Her tense left hand and provocative pose make this enigmatic picture even more mysterious» (Naef, 1978)

Concluding, the reader of this article may have already realized from the examples mentioned, that description is not a neutral and autonomous procedure. Description encapsulates interpretation and judgment. Upon this, Barrett argues that it is impossible for someone to describe without interpreting at the same time (and vice versa of course). Furthermore, description procedure usually involves evaluation and judgment, indirectly or not, as the critic tends to ‘color’ his texts accordingly. In any case, description is a core part of criticism, and to use Barrett’s own words:

«…Description is not the prelude of criticism. Description is criticism…»,

In an upcoming article, we will continue with the discussion about the other two stages of criticism: the interpretation and the evaluation/judgment procedures.

(to be continued)

- - - - - - - -

* Terry Barrett (1945) is an American art critic and professor at University of North Texas and The Ohio State University. He has written many books and articles about modern art, art criticism and teaching art and he has significantly contributed to the field.

** The examples and the photographs in this article are adopted from the book «The Art of Seeing: Photographs from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection» (Naef, 1978)

*** ‘f/64’ was a group of seven photographers from San Francisco in the beginning of the 20th century, which proposed a modern aesthetic based on precise and detailed exposure of photographs picturing natural forms.


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Naef, W. J. (1978). The Art of Seeing: Photographs from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection. (W. J. Naef, Ed.) (1st ed.). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Winter Yosemite Valley, 1933-34 by Ansel Adams. Retrieved from


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