Thursday, 10 October 2013

Exercise: An essay on reviewing photographs


'Read the essay Words and Pictures: On reviewing photographs by Liz Wells in your course reader.'

I used the skills I picked up on how to analyse an essay earlier in the course and put them to use here. Namely, I read the whole essay through once and then on a second read I noted down the salient points from each sub heading and paragraph as concisely as possible.

Origins of Essay

Wells notes the newsletter where the seeds of this essay were originally published. She acknowledges that the newsletter was 'an initiative to stress 'regional networks' and resist the hegemony of the metropolitan.' By doing this Wells is informing the reader that she is using Postmodern Feminist methods of critique whereby the critic/writer is self aware and acknowledges their own subjectivity, political bias, etc.

Words and Pictures

Wells states that it is difficult to describe visual art in words. Therefore the critic must be aware of his/her responsibilities to the audience and the artist. Once an exhibition is over the review will form a large part of the historical archive.


The critic operates in a context of changing ideas of critical art theory and academic study. The art market and gallery also have their personal agendas. Sometimes those values compete with one another.

Reviewing Photography Now

Criticism has been undermined by Postmodernist theory. Feminist theory proposes a constructive role for the critic. To break down the old hierarchies by writing reviews that are self aware, come from many different critical positions, and take into account the artists cultural context.


Traditional power structures have been assailed by new modes of critical thinking - but they still exist. Moving forwards more enlightened thinking will prevail by not perpetuating a hierarchical intellectual order and bringing about a more creative, many positioned, approach to criticism.

I then looked at my notes to get an overall concept of the essay before answering the following questions:

What is the basic argument of Wells's essay?

That criticism should embrace the Postmodern and Feminist approaches to critique of art in order to break down established power hierarchies. Critics moving forward can be more creative and look at art in its cultural context through different critical approaches. This will 'counter status quo agendas.'

Is the essay's title a fair indication of the essay itself?

It is difficult to answer this. The essay is more about the historical development of the art critique and how critical theories from the time of Modernism have been put under scrutiny in the Postmodern age. How the Modernist theories were found to have been elitist and metropolitan and in the new era a more egalitarian approach is required if the status quo is to be resisted.

This to me is more of a political essay rather than a practical one. From an academic standpoint the title is understandable. It gives a nod to the title of the famous 'On Photography' essays by Susan Sontag. I would say that the title was written for its audience (an academic one) and therefore the title is perfectly suited to its content.

To what extent does the writer rely on Postmodernist doctrine?

I would say that the writer fully embraces Postmodern and Feminist doctrine, approves of it and uses it to illustrate her argument. The opening paragraph, "Origins of Essay' illustrates a self aware methodology and is keen to show us her political viewpoint. In saying this I guess the Postmodernist argument goes that ALL critics should do the same so that we are aware of the thinking behind a critics review rather than them making artistic pronouncements as 'fact' when the critic could possibly be clouded by their own prejudices.

Wells gives a breakdown on the critical development of Postmodernism and how this has affected criticism. She goes on to describe Feminism's suggestion of how criticism can be re-made and used to positive affect using many different viewpoints - explaining that this is to provide a more balanced view rather than an elitist one that entrenches power hierarchies and reinforces the status quo.

Wells also includes some text from Bill Jay's 'Occam's Razor' where the author takes to task the notion of female nudity in art as representing oppression and control by men in a paternalistic society. She refutes this argument putting forward her own ideas using contemporary Feminist theory.

The essay raises the issue of the qualifications and duties of a critic. How important do you believe it is for a critic of photography to have deep knowledge of the practice of photography?

I do think it is important where critics are concerned. We all bring our own knowledge, cultural experience and emotional/social baggage to the photographs that we look at. In some respects it doesn't matter that a viewer may be unaware of the artistic/theoretical intent of the artist. If an image speaks to them and brings about some sort of emotional or intellectual response then that is all that matters. But, a critic's review is another matter entirely. A review is expected to be written with the historical and theoretical underpinning of the work - placing it in a context against that which it can be measured. If that context is not understood then how can a critic judge a piece of work or an exhibition a success?

The duties of a critic as explained by Wells are also clear. The critic should openly make their biases known. This, coupled with their critical knowledge, will allow the reader of such reviews to be able to make a clear judgement on the value of the review itself. For instance, I would always take a review on photography (if there were ever likely to be any) by Brian Sewell the art critic with a pinch of salt. He is well known for his distaste of photography as an art form. He belongs to the old guard of considering painting as at the top of the fine arts with a few old blokes at the top of the tree like some sort of god-like geniuses. This view has been considered terribly old fashioned for many decades and is the kind of status quo power hierarchies that Wells is alluding to. I should imagine that Sewell will reject photography as art with his dying breath - The Postmodernist and Feminist approach takes this bias into account and puts it into context. We are then able to make our own judgement on any reviews that come from such sources.


  1. That's a very good summary, clear and easy to understand.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Catherine - that is good to know.