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Criticizing Photographs



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This brief text is designed to help both beginning and advanced students of photography better develop and articulate thoughtful criticism. Organized around the major activities of criticism (describing, interpreting, evaluating, and theorizing), Criticizing Photographs provides a clear framework and vocabulary for students' critical skill development.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 • About Art Criticism

Definition of Criticism

Sources of Criticism

Kinds of Criticism

The Backgrounds of Critics

Stances Toward Criticism

Relations Between Critics and Artists

The Art of Criticizing Criticism

The Value of Criticism

Chapter 2 • Describing Photographs: What Do I See?

Defining Description

Describing an Exhibition: Avedon’s “In the American West”

Describing Subject Matter

Describing Form

Describing Medium

Describing Style

Comparing and Contrasting

Identifying Internal and External Sources of Information

Describing and Interpreting

Describing and Evaluating

The Importance of Description to Readers

Principles for Describing Photographs

Chapter 3 • Interpreting Photographs: What Does It Mean?

Two Exemplary Interpretations

About Interpretation

Definition of Interpretation

The Objects of Interpretations

Interpretive Claims and Arguments

Interpretive Perspectives

Three Interpretations of Eleanor

Other Interpretive Strategies

Combinations of Interpretive Approaches

“Right” Interpretations

Interpretations and the Artist’s Intent

Interpretations and Feelings

Interpretation, Meaning, and Personal Significance

The Community of Interpreters

Chapter 4 • Types of Photographs

Categories of Photographs

New Categories

Descriptive Photographs

Explanatory Photographs

Interpretive Photographs

Ethically Evaluative Photographs

Aesthetically Evaluative Photographs

Theoretical Photographs

Chapter 5 • Photographs and Contexts

Internal Context

Original Context

External Context

External Contexts and Connotations

Interpretation of Barbara Kruger’s Untitled(“Surveillance”)with Contextual Information

“Surveillance” and Internal Context

“Surveillance” and Original Context

“Surveillance” and External Context

Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (“Surveillance”) and the Categories

Descriptive Photographs

Explanatory Photographs

Interpretive Photographs

Ethically Evaluative Photographs

Aesthetically Evaluative Photographs

Theoretical Photographs

The Interpretive Process: A Summary

Chapter 6 • Judging Photographs: Is It Good?

Examples of Judgmental Statements

Positive Judgments

Negative Judgments

Implied Judgments

Opposing Judgments

Comparative Judgments

Judgments and Reasons

Judgments and Criteria

Different Criteria





Other Criteria

Choosing Among Criteria

Differing Judgments

Judgments Are Arguments


Judgments and Preferences

Intentionalism and Judgments

The Objects of Judgments

Judgments of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Photographs

Hilton Kramer’s and Grace Glueck’s Views of Mapplethorpe’s Work

Other Critics’ Views of Mapplethorpe’s Work


Principles for Judging Photographs

Chapter 7 • Photography Theory: Is It Art? Is It True? Is It Moral?

Photography Theory and Practice

Ontological Concerns: What Is a Photograph?

Digital Images and Ontology

Epistemological Concerns: Are Photographs True?

Realist Theory

Conventionalist Theory

Photographic Truth

Aesthetic Concerns: Is Photography Art?

Modernism and Postmodernism

Digital Images and Aesthetic Concerns

Ethical Concerns: Are Photographs Moral?

Marxist Theory and Ethical Photography

Feminist Theory and Ethical Photography

Multicultural Theory and Ethical Photography

Queer Theory and Ethical Photography

Postcolonial Theory and Ethical Photography


Chapter 8 • Writing and Talking About Photographs

Writing About Photographs

Observing and Taking Notes

Quick-Writes and Careful-Writes

Students’ Interpretive Writings

Building Visual Interpretations

Making Personal Meaning

Judging Photographs

Writing Criteria Statements

Four Student Views of Immediate Family by Sally Mann

Writing Metacritically

Writing Artists’ Statements

Processes of Writing

Talking About Photographs

Studio Critiques

Kinds of Critiques

Conducting Successful Critiques

Principles for Effective Critiques


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