Terry Barrett, Thinking about Photographs

Barrett (1980) Thinking about Photographs

  • In this essay, Barrett is interested in increasing the understanding and enjoyment of photography in art through art criticism that is more interpretive than evaluative.
  • Barrett agues that photographs are too often confused with what they depict.  That distinctions between subject matter and a picture of subject matter are frequently not made with the photos being regarded as reality rather than a photographers point-of-view.
  • Modern media uses the camera as witness; so re-enforcing an unquestionable credibility about photography.
  • Photographs by Lee Freidlander deliberately incorporate his shadow or reflection in his pictures to make his point-of-view visual to the audience.
  • Barrett, points out that some artistic photos are very obviously created with artist’s intent.  Such as Jerry Uelsmann’s work that uses multiple-exposures and other forms of manipulation to the image. Or Duane Michals’ images that are obviously staged with costumed models and constructed sets.  But some photos do not so easily reveal their artistic intent.  Such as Diane Arbus’ portraits of Nudes, Transvestites and the Mentally ill that have posed in their natural environments.
  • Barrett argues that the current system for categorising photos (Landscape, Portrait, Nudes, Still-life, etc.) does not consider aspects of the image’s meaning.
  • Barrett proposes a new system that does not allow naming a category with a ‘false comfort name’ such as Landscape or Portrait, etc. Without including aspects of the image’s meaning.
  • Barrett proposes a six part category system that is analogously based on different types of language statements.  The categories are overlapping in that any given photograph may be placed in one or more catagories.
  • These categories are designed to engage the viewer in interpretive thought.  The viewer is asked to consider a photo as if it were functioning in a similar way to one or more types of language statement.

Types of Photographs.

  1. Descriptive.
  2. Explanatory.
  3. Interpretive.
  4. Ethically evaluative.
  5. Aesthetically evaluative
  6. Theoretical.

Descriptive:   Photos used in Passports/I.D., views from Space, medical and x-ray images.  These are images as a statement of fact.

Explanatory: –  falsifiable explanation or non-falsifiable interpritation.  Images that attempts objectivity in explaining how things are and could be used empirically to demonstrate truth or false, accurate or inaccurate.

Interpretation – Statements that purport to give information about the Universe are asserted independently of empirical evidence and in cases of dispute can not be verified or disproved.  Eg. A statement such as “There is life after death.”  These statement are often fictional such as conspiracy theories and cornfield circles, etc.

Ethically evaluative – Statement of moral or ethical issues and practice. Eg. wars, environmental concerns, social issues, man made disasters and suffering.

Aesthetic evaluation – Eg. Visual statement of the artist’s ideas of beauty and ugly.

Theoretical – Statements that address issues in art as criticism – art about art, rather than art about life.

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