• John A Lewis

Criticising Photographs An introduction to Understand Images by Terry Barrett, fifth edition 2012.



I have been studying this book now for a number of weeks and have found it to be one of the best books available for someone interested in understanding how images are looked at by professional critics, but more than that it provides a framework for looking at images which will enhance my act of viewing and describing images for this point onwards. The process, (and it feels like a process), starts by describing the picture. The difference between subject matter and the 'subject' of the image is discussed, together with what form and style mean in the context of photographs.

After describing the image the interpretation of the image can be done. What does this image mean? From what perspective has the interpretation been taken from? How are your feelings, meanings and personal significance playing a part in the interpretation?

The third stage is judging photographs (are they good?) This chapter is very helpful in putting the various attitudes to image judging as it explains by what criteria the judging takes place. Throughout the history of photography the prevailing attitudes of the time come into play which forms the basis of the criteria. The positioning and historical significance of Realism, Expressionism, Formalism and Activism as well as other criteria are examined, and for the first time these 'isms' have been placed in a context which makes sense to photography.

The final stage is relating the image to photographic theory (Is it art? is it true? is it moral?) and again the issue of photographic theory is explained in terms of different perspectives on theory, which is very revealing. Ontological concerns (what is a photograph) particularly interesting in relation to the recent blog on family albums and their role in maintaining relationships with family members. Epistemological concerns (Are they true?) and Realist theory, conventionalist theory and photographic truth are covered. The old question "Is photography art? is considered in the light of Modernism, and post modernism in photography. Finally ethical concerns from the perspective of Marxist, Feminist, multicultural, queer and postcolonial theory are described.

A highly valuable piece of work and one which I think will have a profound impact on my viewing, describing, interpreting, and judging of images. Taken together with how the images fit into a 'theory of photography I hope will enhance my own work and my critical comments on the work of fellow photographers.


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