Photographs have been thought to not lie. They were originally believed to be an absolute reflection of the truth. Unfortunately that is far from the reality of the matter. Photographs are quite perverse entities. According to Michael Lesy they are like “Tweedledum and Tweedledee standing at the crossroads in Wonderland, pointing in opposite directions, rolling their eyes and grinning fiendishly while Alice, as earnest as a historian, asks in which direction the truth, disguised as a white rabbit, went.”

Analyzing a photograph requires several different approaches. One must consider those elements from which the photograph is constructed. Stephen Shore refers to these as “Depictive Elements.” In his book, The Nature of Photographs, he lists four such physical elements. These are:
1. the frame;
2. the depth or flatness;
3. the focus;
4. time.

He then turns to those elements referred to as the “mental elements.” These include vantage point, contrast, use of color, intent, subject and a long list of potential elements. The second part of this is less strong and useful to me because it is so open. I don’t think things such as intellectual meaning or emotional intent should be constrained in their interpretation by setting up a rubric. The starting point of considering the depictive elements seems to work for me as a good way to approach each photo because it forces me to look closely and in a structured or organized fashion. This more intensive “looking” can then morph into “seeing”—seeing what the photographer saw and felt. I have said to students that the difference between a serious photo and a snapshot is that in each photograph the photographer has left maybe only a few, but they are still real, molecules of their soul.

Grammar provides the backbone of language. Without the discipline of grammar how would serious people communicate? There are certain writings that require precise and thoughtful attention to language. Treaties, patent applications, laws, medical histories, and many other similar things demand this sort of knowledge and precision. Perhaps it is unrealistic to gather a group of photographers who by their very nature are visual people and prefer to communicate by imagery, and then to demand of them that they write grammatically correct essays or letters. That is a separate issue.

It is reasonable and essential that those visual communicators understand the grammar or structure of what it is that they are doing. Becoming visually literate is just what it says—being a visual person who is literate. If you can’t evaluate photographic work how can you claim to be literate in your chosen profession? If you can’t evaluate photographic work how will you ever know that your work is good enough?

In Lesy’s essay regarding Visual Literacy he says that “no matter how mundane, utilitarian, or circumscribed a photograph’s origins may be, an image is not a sentence. Images are forms of sensory data, processed by the right brain. No matter how judicious and objective a historian fancies herself, a photograph will elicit projections and associations in her, stir her imagination, before she even notices what is happening to her.” He goes on to draw from the great teacher and photographer Minor White stating that a photograph “is a function, an experience, not a thing,” said Minor White, a mid-twentieth-century photographer whom Walt Whitman would have recognized as a fellow poet. “Cameras are far more impartial than their owners and employers,” White went on to say. “Projection and empathy [are] natural attributes in man. . . . the photograph invariably functions as a mirror of at least some part of the viewer.”

Lesy hastens to point out that most scholars of photography, especially historians, are visually illiterate. Photographs are photographs. Why learn to take pictures if one wants to do research in photo archives? To quote his essay further, “Depending on who is looking and when, an image changes its meaning: Look now, see a rose. Look again, see a butterfly. How can a scholar use the equivalent of a Rorschach blot to reveal anything except the state of mind of some viewer? Such fears will be allayed by the “workshop/critique” portions of a photo course. Built into a course’s curriculum are classes set aside for students to show their work and for others to respond to it. Because all work must be edited before being shown, students are obliged to look at their images from a critical distance before presenting them to others. Some workshop/critiques are as quiet as Quaker meetings. Some responses are as opaque as, “I liked that.” (Instructors always ask, “Why?”) Some critiques are self-referential monologues; some are diatribes. The best critiques are spirited conversations that engage the whole class. The worst are charades of mutual nonaggression.”

This sums up what a good critique should do for us. It should inform the photographer whose work is being critiqued what is good and what might be improved. This information can and should be communicated in a non-threatening manner. Using the workshop/photographic critique for a detailed analysis and grade by the instructor is a perverse application that makes the experience at least useless if not damaging to the student.

Having said this and taken a position on the critique, I also take a position on learning how to speak in an informed way about photographs. Learn the grammar, learn the words, and learn the components that go into a good photograph. Speak up, be heard, and create a foundation from which you can grow your own personal work be it practicing photography or studying the history of photography.