Let’s Not Abandon Photography to the “Experts”

I recently attended a portfolio review where I had my work critiqued by 20 curators, gallery owners and publishers. In addition to receiving their feedback on my work, I learned two interesting things about the people who did the reviewing:

  1. They couldn’t agree on what makes a good photograph.
  2. They cared more about whether photographs belonged in a group together than they did about the merits of individual photographs.

18 Masterpieces and 18 Failures

Let me explain.

On the first point, of the 20 reviewers who looked at my 18 photographs, there was no consensus on which photographs were the good ones and which were the weak ones. The same photos that some reviewers called “interesting,” “strong,” “excellent,” etc. were viewed as unworthy of being included by others.

Out of 18 photographs, there were 18 masterpieces and 18 failures.

Not only that, but some of the reviewers saw them as being printed too dark and others as not dark enough. Some of the reviewers liked the rich saturated colors — and others thought the colors were too extreme and abnormal.

All of which affirms the fact that looking at photographs and appreciating them is a highly subjective process.

As to the second point, the one thing that the reviewers did agree on is that as a “body of work,” my series of photographs did not have a clear message.

Each reviewer pointed out certain images that did not belong in the group. However, there was little agreement on which images did not belong. They seemed so focused on looking at the images as a group that they could not separate the wheat from the chaff in their analysis of individual photographs.

The Photography Exhibit

During the review, I had the afternoon free. I decided to attend an exhibit (I won’t say which one) by a group of photographers (I won’t say who) assembled by a guest curator (I won’t say who). It was in a wonderful space, and each photographer had a large area in which to show their work.

Each section began with an artist’s statement, followed by their “body of work.” Their statements were rather interesting and made me want to continue. But when I did, the actual photographs were a letdown.

Even though the images followed the “theme” of each photographer’s “body of work” in a very literal way, they could not stand on their own as strong, interesting photographs. There was a lack of passion, and it showed.

The exhibition and the portfolio review, I realized afterward, had something in common. In both cases, photographers and/or photography lovers were being aggressively encouraged by “experts” to look at images in groups and not individually.

This is not a new idea. Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, for example, was a masterpiece of photographic storytelling.

But there is a big difference. In Frank’s case, the photographs were distinct little gems that also held together as a group. We didn’t need a “statement” to know what he was saying; the individual pictures said it all.

Ordained to Interpret

This trend in photography — of letting experts tell us what is worthy and what is not — threatens to disconnect our work from the general public.

In religion, adherents depend on the ordained to interpret the message, and then the “truth” is filtered through that person’s eyes. In the art world, painting, as one example, was long ago abandoned to the “experts,” who we now allow to tell us what is good and bad.

Is photography next?

13 Responses to “Let’s Not Abandon Photography to the “Experts””

  1. Ah. I think you have to take into account their interests. Curators, gallery owners, and most probably the publishers too, don't need a heap of diverse photos. They need something they can present as a group and put under a label: "this photographer explores the theme of social injustice", "that photographer deals with environmental issues" and so on.

    There was quite a lively discussion over at The Online Photographer not long ago about the difference between a collection and a motley. The groups you listed need collections. It's apparently how they function. I have no stand on whether they are correct or not, although I myself have different interests, which reflects in what I shoot.

  2. The one thing one always has to remember is that the critic, and to some degree by extension, the curator, is always anachronistic. They need the work to be in existence in order to make a response.

  3. Good read, but you didn't answer an important question. Why have your "work critiqued by 20 curators, gallery owners and publishers" if the critiques are so varied?

  4. I had never done this before but I really think the experience was worthwhile. Out of all the varied comments, there is a common thread that I can relate to. I would probably do it again but keep this in mind

  5. I understand your position. I posted something on my blog yesterday about my reaction to an "expert" saying something similar.

    However, I think the difference between worrying about a strong image vs. a strong portfolio is context.

    If you're trying to sell a client on your work, they want to understand your style so they can determine if you fit with their needs or not. When you show up with a diverse portfolio and a lot of nice, but unrelated, photos, the client doesn't know what she's going to get on the assignment. They're looking for consistency.

    That's why a portfolio review follows the same kind of theme. They're trying to help you shape the message that you send about your work.

  6. The issue requires a little tact and it might take a while to answer in a detailed manner, although the task might seem tough here is my point of view.

    I agree upon what the other commentators say: it all depends on the reviewers and their background.

    I think the remark also indicates a distinction between amateurs and professionals. To belong to one cathegory or the other is not a matter of labels, it's a matter of quality and most of all consistency.

    The web is a flourishing ground for on line galleries of pictures, call it Flickr, JPG magazine or else, there is not much difference they all gather the attention and the work of people that want to share their pictures.

    What do you look at when you browse a gallery or a portfolio? I would call CONSISTENCY for help.

    I was asked many times to look for a better consistency in my work and little by little I was able to put together "groups" of pictures that would speak the same language.

    Naming a Master like Robert Frank is quite interesting, just keep in mind that his work is mainly editing, not only and not simply shooting. I do not agree upon the idea of the value of the single picture, not even if we mention someone like Ansel Adams, otherwise we pretend to associate photography to painting. We are talking about two different techniques that require a different timing and that definitely demand a different level of attention.

    Photography is more likely to be associated to POP ART for its repeatability than to Renaissance.

    A professional photographer is someone that is able to give consistency to the message, sometimes editors are better than photographers at emphasizing the value of an image or a group of images, by subtle associations and comparisons that arise naturally following the stream of thoughts that the main piece of an exhibit might have suggested.

    Think of the famous exhibit "The Family of Man" edited by Steichen, a photographer and painter, playing with the work of others to put together a masterpiece in the cathegory of exhibitions.

    And to conclude I would mention a fellow photograèher that once told me: "Fortunately photography is RELATIVE and PERSONAL"

  7. "18 masterpieces and 18 failures" - very well said. The question now is which reviewer did you trust the most?

  8. Any chance we could see the 18 photographs to 'judge' for ourselves? Thanks,Rohan

  9. If the "experts" couldn't give a solid reason (being "interesting" doesn't count, that is the kind of critique you get on flickr) of why one picture was strong or then they are not really experts.

    Photography is subjective to a point, but ultimately we are trying to represent a three dimensional world on a two dimension plane (not to mention within boundaries) and there are ways of achieving this that will be more successful than others. How you lead the viewers eye through the image, creating the illusion of depth, and many things beside all contribute to this.

    Also, the end use of the image always must be taken into account. Show an excellent editorial portrait to a beauty photographer and it may not have any impact.

    Just my two cents.

  10. 'Experts' in almost any sphere have a need to justify their own existence, a virtual impossibility if they don't have a unique 'take' on the subject matter that can't be found elsewhere. I frequently wonder if it is this need that actually dictates what they say/like/dislike about a piece of work, rather than any actual merit, although as others above point out, their own particular needs as publisher/curator etc play a large role.

    What I do know is that our own premier contemporary photographic gallery in London has been running exhibitions of increasingly mediocre and frankly inexplicable (in almost every sense) work for most of the last 20 years, work that very few photographers I know, professional or amateur, see much merit in at all - although there are a few exceptions. The experts who curate these shows seem obsessed with increasing the opacity of exhibited work; the more dense the work is, the harder it is to divine any narrative or message, the more likely it is to get a show. The format is always the same, a carefully worded (and very wordy) intro, packed full of buzz words (divining, reinterpreting, juxtaposing etc), followed by a series of bland, souless images whose chief selling point will be an archaic process or choice of mounting material (aluminium, linen, hand cured wildebeest intestine) that apparently imbues some deeper meaning to the work that the 'experts' will happily interpret for you. The entire process seems to lay waste to the simple thing that photography excels at, which is to tell a good story in a way accessible to all.

    So yes, spare me the gurus and 'experts'. The only experts whose opinion I am interested in are from those who see my published work, those who commission and pay for it, and that of my respected contemporaries.

  11. I totally understand what you are saying which is very simple. It is a very clear statement on the state of photography today. In the past and in my opinion single images each much stand on their own as well as a group. Whether a single image or a body of work a story must be told WITHOUT the artist telling you what they are about. Just my opinion. In today's world I think many new/emerging photographers have lived in a more privileged environment rather than experienced "life" and therefore they do not have a "voice" in which they speak through single images grouped together to make an even more concise statement. I assisted during a portfolio review and found several "artists'" work had very powerful statements without saying a word, yet the chosen "best" portfolios were flat, emotionless pictures. Just pictures. I did not feel anything from the "winning" portfolio. I can understand your frustration. It would be nice if you could post those images you showed.

  12. I totally agree with you,like fingerprint each persons view will be different.So i feel it's better to go with what we feel good.

  13. The idea that paintings should be in a group is long-standing. Painters who approach individual paintings with different styles and subjects are quickly dismissed (at least until they've earned the right). People want to see a cohesive body of work.

    It wasn't that long ago that it was hard to convince New York galleries that photography was art. It seems to me, the idea that photographs need to be in groups is part of the way old institutions try to compare photographs to paintings and in doing so validating them as art (or high art).

    I'd also wager that it's a business decision as well. It's also a lot easier to sell photography as a unit as opposed to an individual image. Galleries want to know how to market the photographer. The 'random genius' thing is hard to sell.

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