Introduction - criticism
Originally published as an introduction in the 2008 blog site www.PhotographyMatters.com, in March 2008.
In New Zealand, we are actively discouraged from having opinions. Voicing an opinion on anything is like farting in church. How many times have you heard someone say, ‘So and so is terribly opinionated. Does he have to inflict his ideas on everyone? He should keep them to himself.’ With respect to Sir Ed, this issue arose constantly following the great man’s recent death; that the paramount New Zealand qualities are humbleness and reticence. Keep your opinions to yourself and just get the job done.
Another national characteristic is our lack of self confidence—the major way in which we are different to Australians, and thereby not as good at sport and business—we are like adolescents in this respect. If you disagree with a Kiwi, he is highly likely to take umbrage, never talk to you again and hate you and badmouth you forever. Disagree with, say, a German, and he will delight in engaging you in debate and go away thinking better of you rather than worse. You may agree to disagree, or shift his opinion, or he may alter yours. Hell, you might even learn something.
No, if someone criticises something we’ve put a lot of effort and emotional energy into, like our artwork, we crawl away wounded and bitter, vowing revenge. We have to get over this. If we are going to progress, mature and develop as (photographic) artists, we must learn a more mature attitude towards criticism. And we need to toughen up a bit.
Part of the problem also arises from our low population; we operate in relatively small communities. In a large community, serious critics may be relatively detached from those whose work they evaluate. We cannot have that luxury.
All this is leading up to my decision to contribute to this blog. I have said for ages that what is missing from the photographic equation here is critical feedback. There’s a heap of photographers; there are plenty of places and opportunities to exhibit photographs, both actual and online; but there is almost no critical writing. No feedback. How can exhibiting photographic artists (Photographic artists? It’ll have to do for now or I’ll get lost in digression.) develop and progress in this country without the input of active critics. The current situation is like a two-legged stool, and about as useful.
As well as for the reasons above (national characteristics and small community size) there is a lack of publishing outlets for people wanting to write about photography. The New Zealand Journal of Photography (now titled ‘Photomedia’) has a scant record of publishing reviews but is improving somewhat in that regard. [Note: the NZCP Journal is now defunkt.] Art New Zealand has been active, but much passes under its high-altitude radar, and like the NZCP Journal, it is read only by a shrinking and somewhat elite minority. And Photo Forum now has some young blood (Abby Storey has started a blog), but frankly that organisation has had its day, losing its momentum through the 90s. [Note: Wrong - Photo Forum has risen from the almost-dead and is once again a relevant and worthwhile organisation.] The major newspapers and magazines don’t seem much interested in publishing critical writing, and television only reacts to the sensational; if you have a clever enough gimmick you might get a look in there. A recent example is coverage of an artist who used a car boot as her gallery, (but did they show the actual art? No.).
So I believe I have justified the need for this blog. Now me. When Deb [Sidelinger] approached me with the idea for it, I was at first hesitant. The only time I ever wrote a published review under my own name, it landed me in a bit of hot water (see NZCP Journal #61, 2006). So as a photography gallery owner, I really should not be entering this arena. There are simply too many possible conflicts of interest, etc. It’s just Not The Done Thing.
But you know what, I don’t give a monkey’s about that any more. Apparently no one else is prepared to do this, so I feel I have to step into the ring. (Where are the hundreds of graduates of the many photography degree programmes we have now?) The following is one of many coffee-fuelled rants (and if you’ve tried Photospace gallery coffee, you’ll understand) that will eventually get me into more hot water, boiling oil and molten lead than I can imagine at this stage. Potentially, this blog will wreck my gallery business and make me a social outcast (if enough people read it, of course). Good. Bring it on.
by james | 13 March, 2008
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Photography Matters II