We Need Better Critical Writing about Photography


General Photography

I was going to pen a little piece about the state of critical writing about photography when I came across a new post by Paddy Johnson. Paddy takes a long and convoluted paragraph of art writing and boils it down to what it actually says, which can be summed up in two short sentences. (more)

Paddy describes this kind of art writing as using

“what a friend describes as linguistic privilege — the practice of using big words as means of ensuring the reader (and typically the author) doesn’t know the essay lacks substantiated ideas.”
I suppose I don’t quite see it this way, even though Paddy and I are in complete agreement about what it does.

I’ve worked in academia long enough to know how it uses writing. In fact, I’ve written a bunch of papers (just for the giggles, here’s one), and they’re filled to the brim with jargon. Of course, there’s a reason why they’re filled with jargon. When I wrote

“We find star formation to be a somewhat stronger and tighter function of local density than BH activity, indicating some difference in the triggering of the latter versus the former”
that’s a sentence that inside the academic environment it was created in and for makes perfect sense. Outside… not so much.

The problem with art writing usually is that when it leaves academia and is taken into a non-academic context, authors typically make no effort whatsoever to account for the fact that academic jargon not only is incomprehensible for non-experts, but that it also strikes non-experts as pretentious bullshit (of course, even inside academia you can have pretentious bullshit, but there’s no need to go there). And people know that when you bullshit your way around, you got something to hide. I think this is what made Paddy write “using big words as means of ensuring the reader […] doesn’t know the essay lacks substantiated ideas.”

We don’t even have to agree on whether such academic writing is merely tone deaf in the sense of the author not realizing that non-experts don’t talk like that and thus will be unable - and/or unwilling - to deal with it, or whether it’s really just pretentious vacant nonsense. What is obvious, though, is that outside of academia such writing is bad writing, and we - the large number of people interested in art - deserve better than that.

When I write “art world” of course I’m including the photo world. A little while ago, a friend of mine offered me a copy of a magazine that shall remain nameless. He said he somehow had got two of them, and he was happy to give me a copy. I politely declined. He probably thought that I was just being polite, so said I could really have one, it was no big deal, he had two etc. This made me break down and tell him that while I truly appreciated his offer in reality I never look at the magazine because the articles for the most part are unreadable. For a split-second I thought I had committed some sort of faux-pas, until he told me he complete agreed, he never read the articles, either.

Another example. Almost two years ago, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried was published. When I first heard of the book I was thrilled: A book talking about why photography matter as an art form. Oh boy! That excitement lasted until I got a copy and started reading it. Unless you’re an academic, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before is completely unreadable. It’s filled with jargon, convoluted sentences, references to obscure articles etc. The trooper in me had me read quite a bit of the book, and there are indeed some interesting ideas in it, but they’re hidden underneath a huge pile of truly terrible academic writing. Don’t believe it? Here we go. This is the first sentence of chapter 3:

“Wall’s involvement with absorption and with what, following Heidegger, I have been calling the worldhood of the world is closely related to his longstanding interest in the ordinary, the commonplace, or, his preferred term, the everyday, a topic that comes up frequently in his many interviews.”
And it’s just the first sentence, which actually is pretty harmless compared with the rest of said chapter.

Just yesterday, I had an email exchange with a photographer who mentioned the “atrocious contemporary critical art writing.” Mind you, that was just the most recent of the many email exchanges and conversations with people who complained about just that: Why is so much critical writing about art/photography so unbelievably terrible?

With ever more people getting interested in and becoming exposed to photography via the internet it really is time to have better critical writing about photography and art in general. I have the feeling that the internet is where this is going to be happening. We’re already seeing some examples - if you’ve followed this website you’ll remember them from the various links I posted. Hopefully, there will be more and more…