This week’s focus was on critical theory and how we view, analyse and discuss images. I would admit that my initial stance was one of scepticism about the merits of critical theory, as it seemed to be a discipline that largely served to exclude the uninitiated from being able to participate in the discourse surrounding works of art. While I still believe this to be true in some cases, I would say that on reflection there certainly is a role for critical theory in photography. The breadth of potential contributions to the debate around the practice of photography, as well as the analysis of individual or related images, allows for many people to access or contribute to some form of discussion around photographic work. It's also possible to argue that critical theory serves to legitimise and elevate the practice of photography from merely a leisure pursuit to something that does merit consideration and discussion as an art form.
As we saw Francis Hodgson arguing this week, it's important to establish a common measure of photographic ‘quality’ as we seek to identify images that ‘matter’. I felt this to be an immediately challenging and somewhat troublesome idea (eg. who judges quality?). Of course, the concept of quality in photographic imagery could be considered to be largely dependent on the intended purpose of the image and also the audience to whom it's targeted. The family snapshot, the advertising image and the documentary project are all aspiring to different standards of aesthetics and efficacy and different measures of their ‘success’. That being said though, I don’t think this renders the pursuit of quality entirely futile. It still seems to me to be an ideal worth pursuing at least at the level of the individual practitioner. It surely behooves each of us to seek to produce ‘quality’ work, aspiring to reach as closely as possible the mark that one sets for oneself at the very least, even if I personally believe that a universal and standardised measure of quality is probably an unattainable goal.
Of course, on the other side of this argument is the risk that those who are assigned the role of adjudicators of quality end up being such a homogenous group that there's an implicit and unconscious elitism both in selection of images of merit and provision of access to them. One could already argue that the ‘art world’ is not the most inclusive or welcoming environment and by seeking to establish a visual hierarchy there is certainly a concern that it is possible for inequality to become further entrenched.
Save Your Own Damn Self
Another interesting question posed this week was whether we approached our work in a predominantly emotional or cognitive way. Reflecting on this I feel that since starting to take photographs I have largely proceeded in an emotionally-driven manner and put very little thought into things at all. One of the main drivers for pursing an MA in photography was the hope of changing this and finding a more informed basis on which to continue creating imagery that was hopefully improved by being better informed. I suppose as much as I don’t feel that my approach has yet shown much sign of this, the very act of writing this CRJ is a step towards a more considered cognitive approach.
Finally, I recently read a book by David Campany – Photography and Cinema as part of my research into the link between photography and cinema and how this might help to contextualize my own practice and help me understand how I see scenes and create images. While I can’t say that after having read this book I have a clear idea of how my own work can be considered ‘cinematic’, one thought from the book has stuck with me, that being that ‘an image could simply be narrative without belonging to a narrative’. I really like this and hope to work towards producing images with more narrative content moving forward.
Falmouth university ma photography critical research journal