An introduction to understanding images
5th ed. Terry Barrett
Barrett, T. (2011) Criticising photographs, an introduction to understanding images. 5th ed. NY: McGrawHill.
[23Jul19] The latest edition in Amazon is 5th, 2011. It would be interesting to see what has changed, but not at £64.60 used: perhaps there's a new edition in the pipeline.
The front cover Ocean View, 1997 by William Wegman. [24Jul19] most of the earlier editions sell for only a few pounds, so I have #2 and #4 on order. Barrett is 74 this year so perhaps a sixth is unlikely, but why the 5th is out of print is a mystery.
I usually finish a book before writing a response, but I need some of the contents for EyV Asg. 5.
[15May20] a last a copy of the 5th, fully-priced at £31 on ebay, but that's half the going rate on Amazon used. More details on the blog, I'll update this page later.
[28Aug20] despite my speculation to the contrary based on Barrett's age, there might be a 6th edn. on the way - due 26th November, hardback £120, paperback £37.
And there's a good commentary on the book by Darryl Godfrey during his C&N studies.
The book aims to establish a framework for understanding and criticising photographs (as did Szarkowski and Shore). During his analysis, Barrett usefully cites many photographers and quotes many critics as examples (it might be worth starting a who's who of critics and writers). The Chapters are,
- 1. About Art Criticism
- 2. Describing Photographs
- 3. Interpreting Photographs
- 4. Types of Photographs
- 5. Photographs and Contexts ( as in the essay)
- 6. Evaluating Photographs
- 7. Theory: Is it Art?
- 8. Writing and Talking about Photographs
The chapter I need is 4, Types of and so I will start there.
4. Types of Photographs
Barrett traces the history of photo-categories, but let's start with Beaumont Newhall in The History of Photography (1964) who listed four: straight (e.g. Stieglitz, Adams), formalistic (Man Ray,Moholy-Nagy), documentary (where the subject matter is dominant) and equivalent ("charged with emotional significance and inner meaning"). [p.53]
Then on to Szarkowski [p.54] who very cleverly proposed in 1978 that all photographs since 1960 can be placed on a continuum between mirrors (which tell us more about the artist) and windows (which, you guessed it, tell us more about the world). Earlier, in The Photographers Eye (1st edn. 1966) he listed the aspects of a photograph as: the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, vantage point
Time-Life's 1970s series of photography books included The Great Themes which used: the human condition, still life, portraits, the nude, nature, war.
The work of Gretcher Garner, Sally Eauclaire, Estelle Jusdim, Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock and Anne Hoy in this field is also mentioned.
Barrett's own six categories are listed below, but first some points regarding their use.
1. They refer to photographs, not to photographers.
2. They are not based on "subject or form" but (my words) intention, use and interpretation.
3. A photograph may fit into more than one category: nearly all photographs are to some extent descriptive, but the idea is to find the category(ies) in which it is a strong fit.
4. Categories can change over time, for example, NASA's photographs start as descriptive and explanatory, but when later used in advertising, some may become ethically evaluative.
5. This is a subjective matter and individuals will apply different categorisations. In some ways, the process of attention and thought is more important than the conclusion reached.
6. Barrett’s three contexts (internal, external and original) as explained in the next chapter of the book, and in his essay,
- Descriptive — showing the surfaces of objects and people. As noted, all photographs are to some extent descriptive but for some, for example medical diagnostic photographs, that is their entire purpose. This category also includes surveillance and ID, reproductions of works of art and, the scientific (but, see the point on NASA above). It is important for these images to be detailed and accurate.
- Explanatory — there is some overlap between the descriptive and the explanatory. Barrett contrasts the ID photograph on a driving licence with Muybridge's studies of motion and concludes that they must "merit separate categories". Also included are Edgerton's flash revelations and most press photography, although some of that is ethically evaluative. Barrett states, "[to] be accurately placed in this category, a photograph should provide visual explanations that are in principle verifiable on scientific grounds" (p.66, 3rd edn.).
- Interpretive — these also seek to explain, but through fictional photography, staged by the photographer. They are usually "dramatic rather than subtle" (p.70, 3rd edn.). They tend to be ambiguous and therefore have to be interpreted by the viewer.
- Ethically evaluative —these describe, but they make ethical judgments on that which they depict: they "praise or condemn aspects of society" (p.76, 3rd edn.). An example is the FSA work in the 1930s of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others documenting the Depression: Barrett notes that many of these images are now displayed in galleries and traded as art. Portraits can fit into this category, for example, Wendy Ewald's collaborative and therapeutic portraits of disturbed children.
- Aesthetically evaluative — these make judgments about aesthetic issues: often beautiful things photographed artistically. Barrett lists as examples, Mapplethorpe's nudes, John Coplans' self portraits, Ansel Adams' landscapes and Edward Weston's still lifes. Most street photography belongs here too, although the subjects are chosen rather than arranged by the photographer: Barrett mentions Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand and Friedlander.
- Theoretical — these are "photographs about photography" (p.91, 3rd edn.), commenting on photo-theory. Barrett cites Cindy Sherman as a prime example [I was surprised that Sherman had not placed as aesthetically evaluative, with a side order of the ethical]. Richard Prince is also mentioned. The conceptual art and photography of the 1970s is in this category with Baldessari and Jeff Wall being mentioned.
And now some examples
(everything from here on is from the 4th edition, 2003)
In addition to NASA and a reproductions of prehistoric cave paintings, Barrett mentions, in the context of descriptive photography "as art":
Lynne Cohen's "complex institutional interiors";
Merry Alpern, sexual encounters occuring in the bathroom of a nearby office building ("Mary" in 4th edn.);
Hiroshi Sugimoto's long exposures within movie theatres (long in the sense of the duration of a whole film);
Manabu Yamanaka's series of nude elderly Japanese women.
These two exemplify the process of going beyond the purely descriptive, into the realm of explanatory photographs.
Lauren Greenfield's exploration of socio-economic groups, such as Los Angeles wealthy youth culture and poor black and Hispanic neighbourhoods;
Songs of my People, a travelling exhibition about African Americans photographed by photojournalists of the same background;
Tina Barney's study of privileged Americans.
Barrett states that, "[most] press photographs can be placed in the explanatory category", when taken with a neutral, dispassionate approach, but there is a spectrum from this to ethically evaluative photography which seeks to portray the subject negatively of positively. He recalls Szarkowski's observations on windows and mirrors, the former applying to the explanatory, often taking a wider-angle view to provide explanatory context.
These explain, but through through the photographer setting up or creating the scene to be photographed. On Szarkowski's "mirrors and windows" spectrum, these are mirrors, reflecting the photographer's subjective viewpoint.
Barrett cites Sally Mann's portraits of her family, Jerry Uelsmann's multiple exposures, Ralph Gibson's surrealistic works and the manipulated self portraits of Judy Dater and Lucas Samaras.
These demonstrate ethical judgments and this may be through scientific illustration or through personal interpretation. They are often political.
In addition to Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange documenting the Depression (whose work, he notes, is now traded and collected as art), Barrett cites Nazi propaganda before and during WW2, John Heartfield's anti-Nazi montages. In deep contrast, most advertising photography promotes attributes of the items they are selling and also a wider associated life style, as is photography illustrating the ecological effects of a consumerist society. As already noted, portraits can be ethically evaluative, notably Wendy Ewald's collaborative photographs of disturbed children.
Increasingly, press photography is moving from the expanatory to the ethically evaluative as the media become more partisan.
There is no need to elaborate on the earlier definition — beautiful things photographed artistically, examples, Mapplethorpe's nudes, John Coplans' self portraits, Ansel Adams' landscapes and Edward Weston's still lifes, most street photography notably Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand and Friedlander and most nudes.
Other names mentioned are Paul Caponigro's Stonehenge, William Clift's landscapes (in contrast to Ansel Adams), Irving Penn's still lifes,
Barrett quotes Szarkowski, from Mirrors and Windows, p.17, "a love for the eloquently perfect print, an intense sensitivity to the mystical content of the natural landscape, a belief in the existence of a universal formal language, and a minimal interest in man as a social animal".
The 4th edn. mentions Sherrie Levine who copies the work of photographers Walker Evans and Edward Weston and artists such as Mondrian and Schiele as "attacks on such modernist beliefs as artistic genius, originality, the preciousness of the unique art object, and the expense of the art commodity" (4th edn. p. 101).
Also Les Krims 1972 book Making Chicken Soup that "makes fun of ethically evaluative photographs" (4th edn. p. 103). The book comprises photographs of his mother, wearing only a girdle, making soup and makes the point that the efforts of "concerned photographers" are akin to concerned mothers making chicken soup for sick children.
5. Photographs and Contexts
The choice of images used on the front cover over the editions is interesting