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:
- They couldn’t agree on what makes a good photograph.
- 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?