Library   PhotoRant

The Critique

So many good books recently, and some good ones that I've never sung about here though I've had them for many months. There has been a special bounty of books that have no or very few photos, though they are indeed photography books. I'd like to mention four (well, four and a half) of them.

And a video.

Philip Perkis's The Sadness of Men, a true "photobook," is one of those books that has grown on me through multiple visits, until it has become one of my favorites. The pictures often need to be given time. I was a bit underwhelmed at first, despite my adoration for Perkis's and his short book Teaching Photography, Notes Assembled. which he's now put on Lulu for $19.99. I had gone too fast. Notes Assembled is short enough to read quickly during a long lunch and will reward with nourishment enough even then -- but like his photo book, it rewards repeated thoughtful chewing. Broken into a number of little anecdotes and short meditations, assignments, and puzzles, Notes comes from his experience of teaching for many years, and also includes a short passage on critiques that I think should be widely circulated (it's on pages 47-49 -- only page 48 is visible in the Google Books preview, though it contains a critical passage about practice... I've copied it below).

Perkis teaches in a university setting (and, recently, at ICP), and I expect that plenty of his experience comes from teaching university students who are less interested in photography per se than they are interested in getting their Humanities distribution requirements out of the way. This is rather different from teaching at workshops or exclusively in advanced programs, where one can be reasonably sure that the students are motivated by some desire to create and discover. Perkis starts at the root, in his exercise #1: "Go to a museum. Find a photograph that interests you. Look at it for five minutes. Don't take your eye off the picture."

No lenses, f/stops, chemistry, electronics. Don't take your eye off the picture.

Picking up a camera shows up around exercise #5.

A similar sentiment animates John Blakemore's Black and White Photography Workshop. Sure, he's going to get around to the Zone System and split-contrast printing and how the principles all map to digital but -- he spends the first half of the book talking about pictures, about photography's strength and bane, the inescapable subject, about the process of thinking and revising and rethinking and trying and discovering. Oh yeah, and here's some technical stuff to support that.

On top of it, there are some great Blakemore photos in here, and this is the cheapest way to see them, as copies of his Stilled Gaze are running in the hundreds of dollars on the usual used-book sites. In the meantime, I managed to pick up a new but remaindered copy of Black and White Workshop for a mere $3.95, a price that seems downright criminally cheap.

Back in the let's-just-talk camp, the Charles Traub-/Stephen Heller-/Adam Bell-edited The Education of a Photographer constitutes another book based on years of teaching. And like the others, it largely ignores technology as merely a fact of the photographer's life. In his foreword Heller writes that "while photography students had a wealth of material on the technique, technology, history, and theory of photography, there was a surfeit of inspirational and informative material on what it means to be a photographer." Other than the foreword, Traub's introduction and Bell's one-page afterword, the editors are largely absent from the visible stage -- the book is composed of the writings of others on photography and photographers -- always with the practitioner themselves front and center, either as the subject of someone else's writing, interviewing, or the photographer is writing for themselves (including an excerpt from Perkis's book).

Here we have Rodchenko, Levitt, Model, Brodovitch, Sultan, Wall, Crewdson -- an excellent selection of personal glimpses, even in a few cases where the glimpse has to be a bit sideways given the artist's indirectness or playful obfuscation (hi Garry). I found Clarissa Sligh's "The Plaintiff Speaks" would be moving writing even if I had no particular interest in photography. There are also some clips that can't help but raise a familiar smile among modern flickerati when we read Berenice Abbot's 1951 anxiety about too much concern over flattering, "pretty pictures" (placing the blame all the way back to Henry Peach Robinson's 1869 Pictorial Photography) or Ralph Hattersley's 1962 protests against "undercooked and nonsensical" "critiques" such as:

"Great portrait! Best skin texture I ever saw."
"The girl in the red jacket really made this landscape."
"Never put a subject in the middle of the picture."
"A picture shouldn't need a title."

Perhaps conspicuous in their absence are the pictorial and f/64 canons and their famously-talkative members. Calvino, but no Cameron. Warhol, but no Weston. Which suits me fine.

Finally, a book with a lot of pictures -- Joe McNally's The Moment it Clicks, which aims most squarely at the punchy, colorful, readable-at-all-sizes, celeb-heavy sort of photography that magazine layout directors and web site media managers love. The book has been already widely pitched and hyped all over the internet, with good enough reason: McNally's pictures are appealing, many of them familiar, and his clean though tech-centric style is one that's perfectly aligned with the commercial ambitions of thousands of Canon and Nikon customers -- the same people that he has been pitching in workshops for years. He includes the technical details, which is invaluable for those who would like to learn that craft. He knows his audience, and he so clearly genuinely enjoys what he does, what's to dislike? Nothing. As my friend Jeff Pidgeon once said so succinctly: nothing to offend everyone.

Addendum: It's tragic that McNally's strongest work, imo, isn't in the book -- not easily crowd-pleasing, perhaps? A great remedy is to spend an hour and watch this great video of Joe McNally lecturing a week or two ago at Google in Mountain View.


Here is a slice from Perkis's description of critiques in his classes,
from Teaching Photography: Notes Assembled:

A few rules and principles that are quite strict.

Here's the main principle:

The person whose work is being addressed can answer factual questions in the beginning, i.e., where was the picture made, what film, lens, etc. They can say nothing about intention, content, or other meaning. At this time, the rest of the group can say anything they like about the work, be it craft, aesthetics, politics, art history, et al. The are free to say anything. They can report associations in their minds, dreams and fantasies as long as it's about the work and not about the person who made the work.

Something very interesting starts to take place if this is done with openness and intelligence; the student is getting real information about what their work is communicating to a group of people who are being as honest and caring as possible. This information is for the use of the student and they can do anything they want with it. The work never has to be defended, justified, or explained. At this point, if a student wants to talk about the work just discussed, they can do so as much as they would like, and a long back and forth discussion can take place.

The role of the teacher in this process is to moderate, and to be a participant along with everyone else.

The sole purpose of the critique is for students to gain insight about their work and have information that will help them proceed to the next stage of development. As a group works together from week to week, a level of trust and understanding can develop so that people are more willing to take chances both in the discussion, but more importantly, in their work. Then you've really done something worthwhile.

It is vitally important for the group, and especially the teacher, to make clear the difference between fact (a smaller aperture gives more depth of field) and opinion (this picture has a violent edge). Making this difference clear allows the discussion to range much bigger.

Get a signed copy of Teaching Photography, Notes Assembled from PhotoEye.


May 26, 2008

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