An excerpt from
The Cruel Radiance
Photography and Political Violence
A Little History of Photography Criticism; or, Why Do Photography Critics Hate Photography?
In 1846, Charles Baudelaire wrote a short essay called “What Is the Good of Criticism?” This is something that virtually every critic asks herself at some point, and that many have had trouble answering; it has been known to evoke hopelessness, despair, even self-loathing. Baudelaire didn’t think that criticism would save the world, but he didn’t think it was a worthless pursuit, either. For Baudelaire, criticism was the synthesis of thought and feeling: in criticism, he wrote, “passion… raises reason to new heights,” and he urged his fellow critics to eschew antiseptic writing that “deliberately rids itself of any trace of feeling.” A few years later he returned to the subject, explaining that through criticism he sought “to transform my pleasure into knowledge”: a pithy, excellent description of what criticism should be. Baudelaire’s American contemporary, Margaret Fuller, held similar views: she urged her colleagues to reject dogma—“external consistency,” she called it—in favor of “genuine emotion.” The critic, she wrote, should create an I-thou relationship between herself and her readers and guide them “to love wisely what we before loved well.”
By “pleasure” and “love” Baudelaire and Fuller didn’t mean that critics should write only about things that make them happy or that they can praise. What they meant is that the critic’s emotional connection to an artist, or to a work of art, or to a genre, is the sine qua non, the ground zero, of criticism. Who can doubt that Edmund Wilson loved literature—and that, to him, it simply mattered more than most other things in life? Who can doubt that Pauline Kael found the world most challenging, most meaningful, most vivid when she sat in a dark movie theater, or that Kenneth Tynan felt the same way at a play? This same sort of intuitive connection was at the heart of James Agee’s approach to writing about the movies. Introducing himself to the readers of the Nation in 1942, he wrote that he had been lovingly immersed in movies since childhood and yet—just like his readers—was “an amateur” who knew little about them; he must, therefore, “simultaneously recognize my own ignorance and feel no apology for what my eyes tell me as I watch any given screen.” A similar emotional affinity led a young woman named Arlene Croce, who knew nothing about dance, to begin writing criticism after a life-changing evening at the New York City Ballet in 1957; that performance, she said, “made an addict out of me.” Croce, who developed an uncannily astute understanding of Balanchine’s modernism, would go on to become the best dance critic of the twentieth century. “All I can tell you is, dance is the thing that hit me the hardest,” she explained.
For these critics and others—those I would consider at the center of the modern tradition—cultivating this sense of lived experience was at the heart of writing good criticism. Their starting point was, always, their subjective, immediate experience, which meant that they had to be honest with themselves. Randall Jarrell wrote that “criticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness… All he has to go by, finally, is his own response, the self that makes and is made up of such responses.” Alfred Kazin agreed; the critic’s skill, he argued, “begins by noticing his intuitive reactions and building up from them; he responds to the matter in hand with perception at the pitch of passion.” For such critics, emotional reactions and critical faculties weren’t synonomous, but they weren’t opposites, either. These critics sought, and achieved, a fertile dialectic between ideas and emotions: they were able to think and feel at the same time, or at least within the same essay.
The great exception to this approach is photography criticism. There, you will hear precious little talk of love, or terrible nakedness, or passion’s pitch. There, critics view emotional responses—if they have any—not as something to be experienced and understood but, rather, as an enemy to be vigilantly guarded against. For these writers, criticism is a prophylactic against the virus of sentiment, and pleasure is denounced as self-indulgent. They approach photography—not particular photographs, or particular photographers, or particular genres, but photography itself—with suspicion, mistrust, anger, and fear. Rather than enter into what Kazin called a “community of interest” with their chosen subject, these critics come armed to the teeth against it. For them, photography is a powerful, duplicitous force to defang rather than an experience to embrace and engage. It’s hard to resist the thought that a very large number of photography critics—including the most influential ones—don’t really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all.
Susan Sontag’s On Photography was published in 1977, though the individual essays that comprise the book began appearing, and making an impact, in 1973. The book remains astonishingly incisive, and has been immensely influential on the thinking of other photography critics—and immensely influential, too, in setting a certain tone of photography criticism. Look, for instance, at Sontag’s description of photography in the book’s first chapter, which establishes a voice, an attitude, and an approach, all of which she maintains throughout. Sontag describes photography as “grandiose,” “treacherous,” “imperial,” “voyeuristic,” “predatory,” “addictive,” and “reductive.” Photographs, we learn, simultaneously embody “seductiveness” and “didacticism,” “passivity” and “aggression.” Sontag’s coolness is unfaltering, as is her unfriendliness: photographs are described as “a sublimated murder—a soft murder” and as “the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” A typical Sontag sentence reads, “The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate—all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.” Metaphor indeed!
Three years later came Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. This book, delicate and playful, is a love letter to the photograph (and to Barthes’s dead mother). Barthes celebrates the quirky, spontaneous reactions that photographs can inspire—or at least the quirky, spontaneous reactions they inspire in him: “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Still, Camera Lucida is a very odd valentine, and it shares an intellectual approach, if not a literary style, with Sontag. Barthes describes photographers as “agents of Death” and the photograph as “flat,” “platitudinous,” “stupid,” “without culture,” a “catastrophe,” and—the cruelest cut—“undialectical.” The photograph “teaches me nothing,” Barthes insists, for it “completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires.”
Continuing this tradition of photography criticism is John Berger, the most morally cogent and emotionally perceptive critic that photography has produced. “My first interest in photography was passionate,” Berger has written; and when you read his work, you know this is so. (As a young man, Berger dreamed of composing a book of love poems illustrated with photographs.) Berger has frequently included photographs in his books. More important, he has argued that photographs represent an “opposition to history” by which ordinary people affirm the subjective experiences that modernity, science, and industrial capitalism have done so much to crush: “And so, hundreds of millions of photographs, fragile images, often carried next to the heart or placed by the side of the bed, are used to refer to that which historical time has no right to destroy.” Like Sontag, Berger is acutely aware of the central place that photography occupies in modern life; unlike Sontag, he respects the prosaic yet meaningful ways in which people throughout the world use photographs.
Yet in Berger’s canonical essays he, too, took a decidedly dark view of photography, and he was especially critical of photographs that document political violence. Such images, he insisted, were at best useless and at worst narcissistic, leading the viewer to a sense of self-conscious helplessness rather than to enlightenment, outrage, or action. Thinking about photographs by Don McCullin of the then-ongoing Vietnam War, Berger observed that “McCullin’s most typical photographs record sudden moments of agony—a terror, a wounding, a death, a cry of grief.” He continued:
These moments are in reality utterly discontinuous with normal time.… But the reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy. And as soon as this happens even his sense of shock is dispersed: his own moral inadequacy may now shock him as much as the crimes being committed in the war.… The issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised.
More generally, drawing on a metaphor clearly derived from the atomic bomb, Berger described the photograph—all photographs—as a “fission whereby appearances are separated by the camera from their function.” Yet the particular instance of the Vietnam War that Berger cited undermines rather than supports his thesis. Photographs of that conflict—such as the one taken by Eddie Adams of a streetside execution or by Nick Ut of a naked, napalmed girl—didn’t foster feelings of moral inadequacy. (Neither did McCullin’s.) On the contrary, they mobilized political opposition to the war.
Barthes, too, held no brief for photographs of violence. Writing about an exhibit of “Shock-Photos” in Paris, Barthes argued that “most of the photographs exhibited to shock us have no effect at all.” Such images are too finished, too complete—“overconstructed” is Barthes’s word. As such, they deprive us of our freedom of response: “We are in each case dispossessed of our judgment: someone has shuddered for us, reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing.” (Walter Benjamin, as we’ll see, also feared that photography impairs independent judgment.)
Sontag’s objections went further. Because photographs present us with scenes of catastrophe but can do nothing to explain their histories or causes, she was highly skeptical of the photograph’s ability to be either politically or ethically potent; photographs, she argued, present archetypical abstractions, whereas “moral feelings are embedded in history, whose personae are concrete, whose situations are always specific.” And she insisted—an insistence that has now become the conventional wisdom—that the cumulative effect of such photographs is to create a society of moral dullards: “The shock of photographed atrocities wears off with repeated viewings… In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”
Starting in the mid-1970s, the postmodern and poststructuralist children of Sontag, Berger, and Barthes transformed their predecessors’ skepticism about the photograph into outright venom; in an influential essay written in 1981, for instance, Allan Sekula decried photography as “primitive, infantile, aggressive.” Indeed, for the postmoderns, a relentless hostility to modernist photography—and to any belief in the photographer’s authenticity, creativity, or unique subjectivity—was an ethical stance, though I see it as more of a pathological one. At the same time, the postmoderns were attracted to photography precisely because they saw the medium—with its infinite capacity for mechanical reproduction—as the worm in the modernist apple. In assaulting photography, the postmoderns hoped to undermine modernist “claims to originality, showing those claims for the fiction they are,” as Douglas Crimp wrote; the aim, he continued, was “to use the apparent veracity of photography against itself” and to expose “the supposed autonomous and unitary self” as “nothing other than a discontinuous series of representations, copies, fakes.”
These critics weren’t really alive to photographs per se, much less to the world they reveal; what attracted them to photography—especially the postmodern photography of appropriation—was, as Rosalind Krauss wrote, “photography’s travesty of the ideas of originality, or subjective expressiveness, or formal singularity,” its ability to “undermine the very distinction between original and copy,” and its “refusal to understand the artist as a source of originality.” The assault on photography was, in short, a servant to the larger postmodern “project of deconstruction in which art is distanced and separated from itself.” To attack photography, especially high-modern and documentary photography, was to storm the bastions of modernism itself.
In the view of the postmoderns, one of photography’s original sins was its supposedly supine relationship to capitalism. In particular, photography’s admittedly maddening (and obviously false) claims to objective truths—truths divorced from class and culture—made it a particularly dangerous ideological tool that could hinder critical thinking about the prevailing class system. The postmodern refusal of the fiction of objectivity—and of its close cousin, neutrality—was a genuine intellectual accomplishment.
But whereas Sontag had written that advanced industrial capitalism requires a ceaseless production of images, the critics who followed her were far more reductive. For the postmoderns, photographs were not just an integral part of capitalism but its obedient slave. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, for instance, charged that the documentary photograph commits a “double act of subjugation” in which the hapless subject is victimized first by oppressive social forces, then by the “regime of the image.” John Tagg went further, describing photography as “ultimately a function of the state” that is deeply implicated in the ruling class’s “apparatus of ideological control” and its “reproduction of… submissive labour power”; he added, in a particularly inapt metaphor, that photography is a “mode of production… consuming the world of sight as its raw material.” Martha Rosler proclaimed that “imperialism breeds an imperialist sensibility in all phases of cultural life”; and photographs, it turned out, were the most imperialist of all.
Photographers are usually drawn to, and excited by, the new. In contrast, a deep sense of fatigue permeated postmodern photography and the criticism that praised it. In 1986, the critic Andy Grundberg observed that postmodern photography “implies the exhaustion of the image universe: it suggests that a photographer can find more than enough images already existing in the world without the bother of making new ones.” Fredric Jameson described this enervated worldview:
In a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles… Contemporary or postmodernist art… will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past.
Postmodern criticism and photography became notable for embodying, indeed celebrating, this sense of weary repetition; as the artist Richard Prince wrote, the way to make it new was to “make it again.”
The postmoderns declared war on the formalism of high-modernist critics like John Szarkowski who, they charged, isolated photography from its social and political context. (They reviled Szarkowski as a cold mandarin, yet failed to notice that he wrote about photographs with more empathy and insight than they.) But they were equally hostile to documentary photography that rooted itself in the social and political. Sneering at liberal, socially conscious photojournalists who clung to old-fashioned ideas such as progress and truth became common, if not mandatory; Rosler, for instance, charged that the “liberal documentary assuages any stirrings of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch.… Documentary is a little like horror movies, putting a face on fear and transforming threat into fantasy.” Similarly, Sekula assailed the photographer Paul Strand’s belief in “human values,” “social ideals,” “decency,” and “truth” as “the enemy”—a statement that, I admit, I have always found shocking.
The depiction of powerless, vulnerable people is a fraught enterprise that can easily veer into condescension. But from these critics it evoked a tsunami of too-easy scorn. Carol Squiers dismissed photojournalism’s depictions of suffering as the “tableaux of profound abjection.” Rosler, in a rising tide of fury against social documentarians, castigated images of “pathetic, helpless, dispirited victimhood,” “victims-turned-freaks,” “the marginal and pathetic”—enough! She went on to describe contemporary photojournalism as “the petted darling of the monied, a shiver-provoking, slyly decadent, lip-smacking appreciation of alien vitality.” There are, I suppose, some documentary photographs that fit this description; but it’s odd that Rosler and her colleagues ignored the challenging work then being done by, among others, Gilles Peress and Abbas (in Iran), Susan Meiselas (in Nicaragua), David Goldblatt (in South Africa), Eugene Richards (in the U.S.), and Don McCullin (everywhere). One could react in various ways to their difficult, unsettling photographs, but it is doubtful that their images relieved any itches or provoked a proliferation of smacked lips.
It is no accident that many of the postmodern critics were women: the fear of sentimentality is particularly potent for female intellectuals, especially those who address a primarily leftwing audience and who write about popular rather than high culture. (Pauline Kael was an invigorating exception: she could write about movies with girlish enthusiasm without losing her edge or seeming too girlish.) Along with this anxiety—this fear of frivolity—comes the mistaken idea that chronic negativity equals fearless intelligence. Mary McCarthy, looking back on her days as the theater critic for Partisan Review, addressed the problem:
Aesthetic puritanism… has, like all puritanism, a tendency to hypocrisy—based on a denial of one’s own natural tastes and instincts. I remember how uneasy I felt when I found myself liking Thornton Wilder’s Our Town; I was almost afraid to praise it in the magazine, lest the boys conclude that I was starting to sell out.
Far worse than the postmoderns’ rigid negativity, though, was their utter denial of freedom. They insisted that even a scintilla of autonomy, for either photographer or viewer, was impossible; insisted, that is, that the photographer could never offer, and the viewer could never find, a moment of surprise, originality, or insight when looking at a photograph. To invest a photograph with meaning is always a sad delusion: “The wholeness, coherence, identity, which we attribute to the depicted scene is a projection, a refusal of an impoverished reality in favour of an imaginary plenitude,” Victor Burgin wrote. In the view of these critics, it is impossible to see the world anew, for we are all helpless, brainwashed spiders caught in capitalism’s ideological web, which is spun, apparently, of unbreakable iron. Indeed, Burgin condemned the activity of looking itself—an odd stance, one would think, for a photography critic: “Our conviction that we are free to choose what we make of a photograph hides the complicity to which we are recruited in the very act of looking.” Photography, he claimed, can offer only a grim Sophie’s choice between “narcissistic identification” and “voyeurism.” In short, the postmodern critics viewed photography as a generally nasty business—the photograph is a prison, the act of looking, a crime—which may be why reading their work often feels like trudging through mud.
There are fine contemporary photography critics who have rejected the congenital animus of the postmoderns—I think particularly of Max Kozloff, who began writing regularly in the early 1960s, and of younger critics like Rebecca Solnit, David Levi Strauss, and Geoff Dyer, who have responded to the postmodern critique without succumbing to it. Indeed, it may seem as though the “corrosive, hermeneutic irony about pictures” fostered by postmodernism is no longer in fashion. But if fewer essays like Sekula’s and Rosler’s are written now, it is in part because their ideas have been absorbed and accepted by so many in the academy, the art journals, the museums, and the galleries; as theorist W. J. T. Mitchell has written, “reflexive critical iconoclasm… governs intellectual discourse today.” Thus, in more recent publications, one bumps up against casual phrases like “the now-discredited authenticity once attributed to photography,” as if the question of photography’s truth-value has been tossed without regret into the dustbin of history. Even worse are the ways that these ideas have seeped into the general public, encouraging a careless contempt toward documentary photographs. Since such images are cesspools of manipulation and exploitation: why look? It has become all too easy to avert one’s eyes; indeed, to do so is considered a virtue.
It is interesting to compare all this—the postmoderns’ obsession with victimization, their refusal of freedom, their congenital crabbiness—to the opening pages of Pauline Kael’s essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” written in 1969. Kael, too, set a certain tone, both for her readers and other critics. Here it is:
A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again… make you care, make you believe in possibilities again.… The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense.
If On Photography was written by a brilliant skeptic, “Trash, Art, and the Movies” is the work of a smitten lover. And what Kael showed is that the lover can see just as clearly, and be just as smart, as the skeptic.
Kael had two great insights in “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” One was that trash, far from contaminating judgment, can help the viewer develop an autonomous aesthetic that will lead her to art. Second, she argued that the only truly capacious, truly mature way to experience movies is to combine our deepest emotional reactions, which should never be disowned, with a probing analysis of them. She did not, as some have mistakenly thought, champion unadulterated emotion or unexamined fandom; on the contrary, she insisted that the viewer who approaches movies in such unthinking ways “does not respond more freely but less freely and less fully than the person… who uses all his senses in reacting, not just his emotional vulnerabilities.” Kael urged her readers to reclaim their emotions as a key part of their aesthetic, intellectual, and moral lives: feeling could enhance rather than undermine critical thinking.Yet this, after all, is the same insight that Baudelaire had when he wrote of seeking “the why of his pleasure”; it was the view of Randall Jarrell when he explained that the good critic combines the “sense of fact” with the “personal truth”; it was what Alfred Kazin meant when he claimed that “the unity of thinking and feeling actually exists in the passionate operation of the critic’s intelligence.” This quest for the synthesis of thought and feeling—and the essentially comradely, or at least open, approach to art that it suggests—was the central project for generations of critics, especially American critics in the twentieth century. Yet it is just this project that photography critics reject. The question is: why?