The Critique

I spent this past weekend sharpening my knives and taking my war hammer down from above the mantel where it perches much of the semester. Yes, critique season has arrived, at least here in South America. It is the time for electric insights to alternate with profound communal boredom which no words can cover, for tears and arguments to dissolve in conciliatory post-critique beers, to watch some students twist in the wind and others be born as artists.

It seems an appropriate time for a post on critiquing photography in an academic setting.

This post expands on ideas presented in the introduction to a post from 2013 called "Considering a Photograph" and is part of a series of loosely connected posts based on looking at photographs that would include the just mentioned essay as well as "How Do We Understand a Photograph?" and "The Cliché in Photography."

Academic critiques, especially semester ending critiques, are usually strongly modernist, top-down affairs in which each person plays a defined role. It is a tradition calling out for reinvigoration, but that's beyond this post. Today we're just investigating the critiques as they currently exist. Students face a combination of visiting artist, professors and fellow students. Invited artists ideally bring an "outside" mentality and provide comments that move beyond the conversational tendencies of a given institution or professor's classroom. Professors work on the same plane of authority, but given their presence the entire semester, they usually give the visiting artist the space to talk as much as they'd like. Fellow students also participate, although they generally work on a lower level of authority and frequently decorum insists that they wait for the heavy hitters in the room to hash out the main conversational lines first.

Critiques as a whole fall into two categories – the "cold" and the traditional. The cold critique is when the student says nothing prior to receiving comments on the work and reviewers must respond directly to the work itself. In the traditional critique, the student gives a little talk to supposedly guide the conversation, offering some words about what the work is about, the way they approached making it, perhaps adding a few questions they have about it that they would like the reviewers to address.

Both have potential benefits and also involve the risk of derailing things from the start. The cold critique can be helpful by not allowing for issues in the work to be obscured by some well-chosen preparatory words. Giving no information at the beginning, however, tempts the fate that the conversation will go far astray of what the artist would like it to focus on and it also probably means there is less of a chance that the conversation will address their specific doubts and concerns.

The traditional critique has the potential advantage of the initial words by the student being a conversational short cut to get the reviewers' comments focused on the issues the student considers important from the beginning. It also provides the opportunity to present specific questions and doubts. The risk is that a student could give some not-so-well chosen words that reviewers then won't let go of, leading the conversation into brackish waters and prejudicing its outcome. Students, my humble advice: consider beforehand your starting words and select them well.

Systems have the inherent problem of forcing information to fit a preconceived structure. That being said, allow me lay out for you my critique system. I've sat around academic critiques for 20 years and I can redeem that investment of time only by distilling it into something resembling a gift-wrapped packet of acquired knowledge for any that are interested. Get pencils and notepads and prepare yourself for insight.

Anyone can talk about art. Images can be discussed in many ways, with or without some overarching ideas of how to engage art. I find it helpful to have a basic series of concepts in mind for looking at any photography, regardless of whether it is made by my students, by professional photographers or by well-known members of the Gods of Photography in a gallery or museum setting. There are four parts to this approach: technique, form, content and context. I also consider carefully the bridges created by the photographer between those four parts.

So let's unpack those terms. Technique means everything to do with the camera or image-making process that replaces the camera, including photograms and grass exposures and the like. It encompasses the camera and format choice, focus, shutter speed, exposition, etc. Technique also includes - in my world and I'm writing this - paper choice, print size, projection size, installation space and all other matters of presentation. It is, in sum, the physical elements, choices and abilities that manifest in a photographic result.

Form encompasses the visual elements that, taken together, give the physical appearance of the image itself. These elements would be things like color hue and saturation, palette, tonality, depth of field, quality of light, composition and geometry.

Content is where the meat is. It could be subdivided into subcategories like physical, intellectual and emotional content....even spiritual content, but there’s no need to make this too complicated. Content might be something like "the isolation of rural populations in Oklahoma." It would then be, in this case, the buildings, people, streets and water towers used to depict that isolation, the analysis of how that isolation impacts the inhabitants and also, one step further, the weight we feel inside ourselves looking at their isolation because it reflects on our own ultimate isolation in the universe that we usually strive to forget. In order, that's physical, intellectual and emotional-spiritual content in the previous sentence.

Taking another step, content has another paradigm within it to consider - the proposal/resolution. In this hypothetical case, the content proposal is "the isolation of rural populations of Oklahoma" and the resolution would be the way that theme is worked through in the body of photographs. One needs to consider the quality of the artist's proposal and how gracefully, ingenuously and intelligently they have resolved their proposal. If it's a common, boring proposal excellently done, that's probably not half as promising and engaging to reviewers as a challenging, fresh proposal that's (so far) not fully developed. Content, then is the subject proposed in the photographs, but also how it's resolved and - again, this is in my world, you can write your own post - the meaning generated by that resolution.

The temporal-spatial environment in which photographs are made is their context. Images created during World War II by Italians under Mussolini or work made in San Francisco during the 1990s worked in relationship to different contexts than we do today. Recognizing the social milieu, academic arguments, political climate and the many other dynamics at work around the process of creation is important for understanding and responding to photography. No act of creation is in a vacuum.

From the series Infra © Richard Mosse

As a concrete example, let's sketch out a critique of Richard Mosse's Infra. Going through those four parts sequentially, Mosse uses a large-format 8x10 camera and Kodak Aerochrome, an infrared film specially developed by Kodak during World War II that turns anything with chlorophyll pink. His prints are the size of Manhattan. Formally, the images are dominated by that pink. Many landscapes have the undulations in the hills and rivers and the wide-view overhead angle of classic landscape work. Portraits have a general symmetry and central placement of the figures and he includes a few images of groups in which there is a tendency to represent them as a band of people across the landscape. There is little movement or action in the body of work. Mosse made these landscapes and portraits in the context of the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The project was created amid a societal and critical conversation about the visual exhaustion of the traditional approaches to depicting war by photojournalists.

Ideally, a body of photographic work closely relates technique, form, content and context so that they are working together – these relationships between them are the "bridges" I mentioned earlier – and here Mosse does exactly that. In this way, for example, technique and form support the content and the content, in turn, is relevant to and considers its context.


Mosse has stated in interviews an interest in reinvigorating war photography. His argument is that we have seen so much photojournalism employ the same tired tropes that as viewers we pass over the bodies and blood without a true consideration of what it is we are actually viewing. He shows how he works in relationship to that context in an interview with The British Journal of Photography: "I wanted to export this technology to a harder situation, to up-end the generic conventions of calcified mass-media narratives and challenge the way we're allowed to represent this forgotten conflict… I wanted to confront this military reconnaissance technology, to use it reflexively in order to question the ways in which war photography is constructed."

From the series Infra © Richard Mosse

The qualities of the camera chosen for a body of photographs has to be intelligently matched to both subject matter and content. One project deserves one camera, another project another. Here Mosse does so by selecting a large format 8x10 camera not typically used for war photography, at least not in this century, which produces sharp prints at a size far beyond those created from the dSLRs used by most war photojournalists. His film choice also has a strong rationale, beginning with its development for use in war settings. He wanted to reawaken our eyes to the conventions of war photography, present an alternative construction of the war photograph and raise our awareness of the ongoing civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and indeed he did all of those things through the care of decision-making in his technique and form that created his desired content and addressed the contemporary context. His massive pink images shocked at first glance, and in our visually tired culture, that's incredibly hard to do.

Mosse, to be thorough, could be attacked in a critique for many reasons: a carelessness about showing anything beyond the surface of his portrait subjects (an issue of the form of his portrait subjects reading as content), the question of the pink being a sugar-coating on images that are otherwise average in both compositional structure and content (technique as content), his aestheticizing of war (form over content), his personal career growth and the selling of prints for thousands upon thousands of dollars as exploitation of the misery of a country (crapping on context) and the fact that these photographs failed to do anything about the war beyond light up the eyes of a small detached band involved in art photography and art collectors who saw the pink as green (failure of expectations for content to change context). Yet my belief stands that this is a body of work that is overall successful in how it works across technique, form, content and context and additionally creates successful bridges between the four parts so that they work together and reinforce one another. This is, in my experience, rare.

You can see here why work that's great technically or that is "pretty" (i.e. formally harmonious) is so weak in an artistic context if it doesn't offer anything more than technique and form: it fails to engage both content and context. Two major elements of exploring an image or body of photographs through conversation are completely dismissed by the photographer. In exchange, a body of work that's not-quite-perfectionist when it comes to technique (but that gets the job done without poor technique being a distraction) and that surprises or subverts our expectations in form and in how it considers context and the content it proposes gets a much stronger response in reviews for involving us in so many more ways.

One final thought on the role of the reviewer or critic. It's my belief that it is their job to describe what they see happening in the work and to relate the work to the contemporary context. It is NOT their job to tell the photographer what to do. The exception, perhaps, would be very early students asking for visual exercises. Too often the critic will cross the line into imagining themselves as maker: "Have you tried..." or "What if you..." or "I would..." The job of the critic is to describe and interpret what they see happening at the moment in the work presented, not to imagine work that's not there or suggest where the work might want to go; the job of the artist is to listen and incorporate the critic's comments into their work.

And one final thought - more of a summary - for the fellow student looking at their classmates work. You can, with this handy four-part system, take part in any review easily. I only wish I could make the Internet with a perforated edge so you could tear this out. Think about the image and/or body of work in terms of how it was created, the form it takes, its proposed content and resolution as well as how it relates to the context in which it was made. Ask yourself if these four parts function together to create a united body of work or if they contradict and work against each other, undercutting the work's strength. Good luck!