Narratives about what we see are fundamental to good photography. Capturing what we see in a deliberately composed frame adds a well examined viewpoint and inculcates ideas and emotions into what we see in the photograph. It changes the narrative but doesn’t eliminate discussion.
This is where it begins; the 1000 words theoretically embedded in every photo. Art and photography depends on language translation. The narration begins in our heads as we create. Just as music rises above its mathematical roots, imagery is descriptive.
Beyond “that’s nice” a good photograph excites curiosity, inspires imagination, and invites empathic exchange. How do we know it’s beyond a nice photograph? “Beyond nice” translates into language without straining our vocabulary.
Good art students learn through classroom discussion to translate the visual into language. We learn to ask ourselves the right questions. What was I feeling at moment of capture? Why did I make that frame that way? What am I feeling while viewing the finished photo? What changes would increase the volume of that feeling? Is the volume loud enough to reach an audience? And so on.
Motivated by massive frame numbers, a competitive market, and an incessantly starved ego, among other things, our nuanced talk begins to morph into criticism. Criticism breeds authority; influence embodies itself while meaningful relevant discussion corrodes erodes.
What is an expert? “Unless you’re an academic” – I’ve read like phrases repeatedly in reference to art writing. In your face academia, I’m an expert by default; by working in the field for 30 years post relevant college degree. Furthermore, so is every vaguely accomplished human who’s learned to translate visual to language despite published pedigree.
Art criticism has a few inherent problems. It’s irrelevant to most everyone but the critic and those interested in assigning material value, plus, it’s inwardly focused. Critics talk to other critics in some “other” vernacular. At best it’s readable and at its worst, comedy bait.
The value of most expert criticism to the artist is minimal if not destructive. Divide art discussion into two piles: 1) What you know 2) What you think you know, and you’ll find one pile much larger than the other. The challenge is that the latter is typically presented with more authority than the former.
What we know belongs to the artist and viewer but involves no speculation.
The Artist: I know why I made this photograph and listen as I describe why it’s important to me and what I hope viewers take from it.
The Viewer: This is what it makes me feel, how it’s changed me, and why I find it important.
The Historian: This body of work has changed the way people respond to (insert subject here) . It is evident for these reasons and through these examples, and influenced the art era in these ways.
The Critic: This is why this photo will be important to society. Listen as I describe why art endures in the historic body of collected works; this is why it’s a collectible piece. This is how it should make you feel and why this body of work has overestimated value.
Tell the difference? Undeniably, there is room for intellectual discussion about art. In fact, I enjoy it. The challenge, in my opinion, is to keep it relevant to viewers, artists, and historians while at the same time rejecting speculators. Speculators are non-value adding to the process. They are typically outsiders offering “expert” opinions about speculative artistic value. They wallow in the pile of “what we think we know” beyond nice.
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