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The Art of Seeing  #04

Terry Barrett’s approach on photography criticism - Part 4:

Reviewed Interpretation

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It is a fact that the different interpretations and perspectives can shed light on the different aspects of a photographic work. Therefore, we are not just talking about the “truth” or “falsity” between competitive interpretations. Instead of seeking for the truth of an interpretation, maybe we should contemplate on the plausible interpretations under the light of a variety of different perspectives. Naturally, though, interpretations which are not logically justified cannot be seen as especially useful. As Barrett points out:

«…To dismiss a carefully thought out opinion with a comment like ‘That’s just your opinion!’ is intellectually irresponsible... …a reasoned opinion or conclusion deserves a reasoned response. …»

The counter-argument that, in art, everything is subjective cannot lead us anywhere, as it does not allow the discussion to take place on a rational basis and does not contribute to the understanding of the particular work. The discussion around art is possible to be rationally confirmed, provided that the spectator relates his statements with the work of art. Whoever judges carries inside him knowledge, values, attitudes and experiences, but this does not mean that he cannot become understood in a way that promotes the finding of photographic meaning.

However, the evaluation of an interpretation as “good” or “bad” is not something obvious and easily measured. Barrett recognizes the existence of two criteria for such an attempt of evaluation: correspondence and coherence. As far as correspondence is concerned, interpretation ought to respond to the photographic work and communicate with all the elements which are included in it. If some elements are ignored or the interpretation distances itself from what lies before our eyes, then, we could characterize it incomplete or faulty. On the other hand, coherence in an interpretation deals with the fact that it should stand autonomously and have meaning on its own, regardless of the photograph. In other words, it is not allowed to be subject to internal contradictions and inconsistencies. Interpretations include arguments and suppositions based on evidence. An interpretative attempt, in order to be convincing, is necessary to respond to the elements of the image in a rational and valid way. As a result, for the same work of art there is enough room for many and different “good” interpretations, in the sense that they comply with the two aforementioned principles which Barrett suggests.

Harry Callahan, ‘Eleanor’, Chicago 1951 (MoΜΑ collection)

Feelings, meaning, and personal significance.

A good interpretation should not set aside feelings no matter how intellectually impossible it may seem to support the latter exclusively by logical arguments.

The feelings consist a basic element of critical process in general. Critique, Barrett mentions, relies to a great extent on:

“…that flash of insight based on gut feelings, life experiences, and perceptual information coming together just right…”

Obviously, interpretating and finding meaning are not solely intellectual procedures. Here, of course, we should make a distinction between meaning and personal significance. According to Barrett meaning is more objective than significance as it refers to the particular photographic work and to what may become visible to an experienced or informed viewer. On the contrary, personal significance may be of value to each one of us, but it may also be too idiosyncratic and emotional to be understood by everyone. In particular, if interpretation is very personal and idiosyncratic then it reveals more about the person interpreting rather than the photograph itself. Therefore, while feelings consist an essential source of insight and inspiration, they need to be dealt with carefully if we wish our interpretation not to fall in the attractive trap of our personal idiosyncrasy and eventually subjectivity.


The aforementioned discussion obviously does not aspire to be panacea for the way one should approach art and, in our case, photography. In fact, it rather depicts a practical intellectual procedure which concerns those who would like to express themselves through reason on photographic artworks in one way or another, and develop, or understand, a critical approach. Terry Barrett provides the basis for such an educational discussion, and maybe for an introspective process about the way one conceives art, through a number of essays, like the one chosen to be presented in The Art of Seeing. During this intellectual endeavor, however, we should not forget the importance of feelings. Without feelings, without this internal truth and emotion of each one of us, what we are left with is an exhaustively analytical and sterile perspective which tears the image apart, dividing it into elements of form and content; a perspective which simply attributes properties providing information which lacks emotion, and eventually deals with it fragmentally and out of what the image itself as a whole entity really is.

Works Cited

Barrett, T. (2000). Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. California: Mayfield Publishing Company.


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