Being critical vs. being negative


General Culture, General Photography

There appears to be fairly wide-spread consensus in the blogging community that there’s a dearth of critical discussions of photography online. You wouldn’t really know this from reading blogs, because nobody posts about it. However, the many email exchanges and conversations I’ve had with people tell me that there are lots of people who would actually like to see photography being discussed in a more critical manner.

(updated below)

The problem, of course, starts with what I mean by “critical”, since being critical is widely seen as being negative, even though there is a vast difference between being critical and being negative. If I was to write “photographer XYZ is a dick” that would obviously be negative (and, just to make that clear, I have no interest in any of that stuff). In contrast, if I wrote something like “Photographer XYZ’s show fails to fully work for me, in part because the prints are actually too large, which makes the photos lose some of their impact; and the choice of view points in the images also doesn’t fully convey what XYZ is after” that would be critical.

A critical discussion is something you can disagree or agree with, something you can engage with (e.g. “No, Joerg, I think you’re wrong. If the prints were smaller they would lose some of their impact, which is actually based on their scale and on their ability to allow the viewer to gain different perspectives by physically approaching the images”). If you have a blog you could write a counter-post and present your point of view. What is more, a critical discussion doesn’t diminish either the photographer or her/his work.

When I talk to people about this - and I usually bring it up after having discussed some work in exactly the manner that I’d like to see online (believe me, everybody has an opinion about all the shows and Chelsea!) - I notice that most people are simply worried about their careers. I can’t and I won’t say that I do not understand this concern, and I’m actually not all that much interested in whether or not that concern has any merit (because, simply by it being a reality for most people, it simply does), but, instead, I am interested in why in our culture (by “culture” I here mean the larger context photographers, bloggers, etc. exist in), being critical is so closely tied to being negative and thus to being a risk for one’s career.

Isn’t that everybody’s loss?

Update (7 Oct 2008): Noel responds; and I have to disagree: No, curating is not the same as being critical in the sense that I was talking about. Of course, selecting work to showcase is somewhat critical (given that I have done this kind of stuff for over six years I am quite aware of this), but that’s not what I was talking about. In fact, Noel is hanging the bar way too low.

Also, the fact that you can’t leave comments here is a total red herring for this discussion, for very obvious reasons. The dearth of critical commentary on photo blogs does not depend on whether or not you can leave comments on this or any other blog.

I think one gets a bit closer to what the actual problem is when one looks at the following, which someone sent me in an email. I’m quoting this with the person’s permission, and I promised to withhold the person’s identity:

“I just wanted to say that I think many emerging photographers are afraid of stepping on someone’s feet. There seems to be a very selfish role in being this type of a one-sided blogger because, well, you’re everyone’s friend and maybe you’ll get something out of it. The majority of photobloggers, myself included, are all emerging, young, and feed off the praise.”

Let me repeat this: I cannot and will not blame anyone for thinking/feeling that way because, frankly, I know that there is a reason for it. But again, what I’m interested in is why “being critical is so closely tied to being negative and thus to being a risk for one’s career” (to simply quote from the above), and in how this all can possibly be changed a little bit. Again, for everybody’s benefit.

Update 2 (7 Oct 2008): “It seems to me that many people, bloggers and occasionally myself included, are as concerned about being considered wrong or ignorant as they are about being negative. As a culture, complete with raving and often very negative pundits filling the airwaves and Internet, we have moved away from civilized discourse where both speakers can exchange views and work toward understanding and enlightenment or at least respect. The current political ‘debates’ are promoted as boxing matches with winner take all, dissolving away from the time honored form and intent. The ability to agree to disagree without character judgement does fade as criticism becomes more and more about character judgement (Jim Johnson’s posts on the Susan Meiselas and Martha Rosler reviews being a good example). We have moved to black/white, right/wrong, love it/hate it. However, to make critical statements, and I have seen it in a live critique setting with professionals as well as students (Is this why there is such a boon in paid portfolio reviews? We can’t get good, solid criticism from anyplace else?) as well as the blogosphere, concerning object, subject, process, comparing and contrasting puts one out a a limb. It is safer (I won’t address easier although that is also a part of it) for egos and, for some, careers to simply state facts.” - Mel Trittin, in an email to me.