Friday, February 23, 2007

Part 2: Photography Critique

Title: "Alien Fetus"
Series: Smoke Figurative
By Nawfal Nur
Creation Year: 2007



I think that basically all of my photographs are failures... I'm not saying that as a self negation or anything like that, I just don't judge it upon how "good" it was, but rather upon how I'd fail upon what I was trying to say... I think this [Tokomo in her Bath] personally is the best photograph I ever made, it came to say what I was trying to say...” -W. Eugene Smith, "Myth and Vision on the Walk to Paradise Garden and the Photography of W. Eugene Smith" by Menning Hansen, ISBN: 9179002668 , page: 6

You can see Smith's photo here:

The Tokomo photograph is very powerful and emotional: the lighting, the facial expressions, the care and gentleness in the mother's posture and glance at the severely deformed child, and the situation seems to fill the image with tragedy and love. In Smith's own words, "It grew and grew in my mind that to me the symbol of Minamata was, finally, a picture of this woman [the mother], and the child, Tomoko. One day I simply said […] let us try to make that symbolic picture." (Source: Minamata, by the way, is a type of mercury poisoning.

Recently I saw some photographs by Ron Haviv (a well-know conflict and humanitarian photojournalist), of famine in Darfur, and his series on Torture seemed unreal. I am fully aware of how human beings are capable of such despicable crimes against others, but the people responsible for the chaos where he has photographed may be 'devils' and incapable of being humane to other people. Haviv's photos are simply gut-wrenching with emotion. His photographs are the kind that have that punch in the gut impact.

I'm not going to pretend to be a photography critic: I'm not.

But please allow me to say this, besides taking photographs, I also like seeing other people's photographs, and sometimes I may have something to say about them. Does that make me a critic? Well, if it does, I always strive to be as 'professional' as I can. I think, however, that my comments are more along the lines of friendly conversation, as if talking to a friend about a work of art.

If I do find the inclination to speak up about someones work, then I hope I can effectively say what the photograph means to me in the context of the day and time when I'm seeing it, and the emotions the photograph hits me with. If it is a 'powerful' photograph, I usually get a feeling for it right away.

The photographer can add more insight into their work by telling the viewer what they were thinking when they took the photograph, why they took the photograph and under what circumstances the photograph was taken. These comments can be added with a short Artist's Statement to accompany a photograph. Some critics say that a good photograph does not need to be explained, but I'm not convinced that is the case. I like to hear input from photographers about their work. I like to see a work and also hear what the artist has to say about it - who would know more about the piece than the artist - no one.

Brooks Jensen, Editor of LensWork Publishing mentioned in one of his podcasts that two of the worst things ('the most deadly form of comment'), someone critiquing a photograph can say is: 1) “I like” or “I don't like” this; and 2) “If it were mine, I would do it this way...”

Both of these types of critiques mean nothing.

A secundum sententia: OK, it 'means nothing' is not exactly true. Of course, it makes me feel great if another artist likes my work. It makes me feel like my work has become accepted into the fraternity of artists' work, if I get the nod of acknowledgement from other photographers and artists. This is an important feeling but a little difficult to is something that could maybe be explained within the science of Sociology-of-the-Arts-World.

However, if the artist or photographer is looking for advice that they can "use" to improve themselves and their work, then 'likes' and 'dislikes' just won't quite cut it.

Number 1) If the critic says, “I like,” or “I dislike,” a photograph it only tells their audience something about the critic's likes – it says nothing about the merits of the photograph. I must say I am guilty of this type of critique sometimes, when I've talked about other photographers' works. I'll try harder not to do this again.

Number 2) If the critic says “If it were mine, I would...” Again, that is also a meaningless statement, as the photograph is NOT theirs, and it is already finished...the work is completed.

As Brooks Jensen puts it, these two types of critiques are 'Non sequitur' and after thinking about it for some time, I would have to agree. In the past, when I have told someone I like their work; indeed, I was only stating something about myself and really had no helpful benefit to the artist or photographer.

I suggest that a more strategic and successful way of critiquing a photograph is to look at it and see it well for some time before saying anything.

I guess I have difficulty sometimes when it comes to my own work and contemplating the feeling that my work expresses. And thus, being the docent for my own work presents its unique challenges.

Typically, as you can see from the collection of images here at my blog, “Behind the Lens,” I shoot very few people, (pun, kind of intended).

In my humble opinion, a scene that includes a person's face (or whole body), capturing them full of emotion and life, and seeing that person's (or people's) connection to their environment, makes a photograph emotional and story-telling. This is my opinion...I suppose it is a fair assumption to grasp hold of, but may not be shared by everyone.

Now, in the context of what I do – my immediate response is...ARGH!

I've been drawn to taking photographs of macroscopic subjects, like water drops, figurative smoke scenes, text on pages of books, conceptual science images, insects and other such things. Most of my subjects are not 'alive', as in breathing, and they lack the 'human element'.

Nevertheless, I know why I enjoy the things I photograph, and the pleasure I get out of it, but does the viewer of my photographs understand what my photographs are all about, and can they conjure up a story to accompany my photographs? I guess that is another question I have no answer for. Maybe my photographs can be analyzed more profoundly from a scientific standpoint? ...It is possible. Perchance, my photographs are more illustrative of physical laws and showing the beauty in seeing 'small things' and 'moving subjects' for which most people do not give a second, or a third thought about. Whatever my motivation is for what I photograph, I must keep the following quote in mind, as stated by photographer, Manuel Alvarez Bravo:

The word 'art' is very slippery. It really has no importance in relation to one's work. I work for the pleasure, for the pleasure of the work, and everything else is a matter for the critics.” -Manuel Alvarez Bravo

So, let me wrap this up with Manuel's quotation: Many people will have something to say about photographs, but I believe that as a Photographer, I should be more concerned with the work and enjoying the work – Manuel's comment was very wise. In addition, to help me grow as a photographer, I am grateful for helpful and meaningful critiques; however, as for Non sequitur statements about my work, I weed those out, brush it off, pick up my ego, and then carry on.

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