Article: 19530303009


Minor White started criticism of photographs (he prefers the term analysis) as a "judge" for a camera club in Portland, Oregon during 1938 and 1939. The experience was novel because he judged monthly for two years for the same club, and rewarding for the sense of growth imparted to the members.
minor white


minor white

Minor White started criticism of photographs (he prefers the term analysis) as a "judge" for a camera club in Portland, Oregon during 1938 and 1939. The experience was novel because he judged monthly for two years for the same club, and rewarding for the sense of growth imparted to the members. He feels that the ' judge" in the role of educator has not been pursued in camera clubs for all it is worth.

WITHOUT GREAT CRITICISM THERE CAN BE NO GREAT PHOTOGRAPHS. Bruce Downs made such a statement several years ago. And in so doing handed the critic an enormous responsibility. The responsibility for the photography of his own time.

It is a magnificent idea, a mature one, an idea well known in other creative fields, an idea any critic would favor and most photographers sneer at. Nothing has been done since the statement was published to prove it right or wrong— or some of both; so it is still wide open.

Not even the critic would agree that he is responsible for the photography of his own time—there have to be photographers. What is meant is the role of vital catalyst. He has to be the most sympathetic spectator the photographer can have, the most understanding, and at the same time the most persistent goad. He has to be the source of affirmation for a photographer reaching for new ideas, the first to discern the creative individual and the creative work. That is one of his duties. The other duty is to explain both photographer and medium to the spectator; for the critic is the first to realize that an unenlightened audience limits the expressiveness of any medium and curtails the photographer’s (or poet’s or painter’s) capacity to communicate.

PHOTOGRAPHY IS SHORT ON COMPETENT CRITICISM TODAY; and absolutely lacks great criticism. Who is there being published who is exclusively and passionately devoted to criticism of the medium, and who has at the same time the stature to command the respect—if not the love— of photographers and public alike?

"Judging,” of course, goes on, quantities of it; and all of it kindergarten criticism, if that. A "judge” may ask himself, and everybody in earshot, "What else can I do when I must award from the prints present instead of evaluating against all that I know is in photography?” He is standing, however, in the position to educate, to teach, to lead towards creative work, to encourage expressions of individuality. But somehow, mainly through lack of really knowing what "judging” means, he follows rules that he did not invent for himself, allows competition to be substituted for photography in his camera clubs, and thus does photography as a whole more harm than good. Perhaps he is merely unaware of his responsibility—which does not repair the harm he does.

The subject of analysis and criticism is rather complex, and a competent critic has to have a whale of a lot more than personal preference or his own technical achievement to go on. I realize that to present complexity to a modern reader is to invite yawns; but I think we have pursued the myth that photography is easy long enough—the status of pictorialism today is ample proof that always taking the easy path is as sterile as Lysol.

THE CRITIC HAS A THANKLESS TASK, I might add. It takes a strong, relentless character to stay alive and kicking between the millstones of audience and photographer. The photographer regards him with anger, or a very, very studied indifference, or by darting out in search of a vacuum. The audience exudes a mild interest or says, "If I have to learn anything in order to appreciate—” and tweeks the knob of a TV set. The critic, driven by a passionate love of the medium, persists. The struggles of the beginners excite him, the bad makes him angry, the banal makes him sarcastic, the good warms his heart, the great—as it comes by on rare occasion—makes all the rest worth while.

I suspect that we have several persons among us with the necessary fortitude to be critics. He has to have more than a tough skin, knowledge, sympathy, and verbal power, he has to have an outlet. The block in this direction is big, thick, and stubborn. It is vested in the concept that photograpy IS fun. If the critic can not get hysterical about fun, he is rarely published; and if he does get hysterical, his integrity is crippled—one of his most valuable contributions is lost. One of the jobs that photography can do, is show man to man—and these days that is damned serious.

We can not wait till this phenomenal critic appears spontaneously, from under a flat rock, to bring photography to greatness; he can only be the result of training on an appropriate set of genes. Many men must be trained, both among photographers and spectators if he is to appear at all. Such training is extensive. It has to start in many places, in schools, universities, editorial desks, museums and wherever photographs are looked at and evaluated. We have to start with people who are already "judging.” Consequently this paper is aimed directly at the bottom rung of criticism, at the man who takes judging at camera clubs as a high responsibility.


If we assume that the critic (or judge) knows his duty towards the photographer on one hand and the audience on the other, has the temperament and background, what else does he need to have to exercise his function? First an objective attitude; second a sturdy tool for the objective analysis of photographs. Two are enough, but I might add that he needs to apply these two with such intensity that the curse of objectivity is balanced by a healthy amount of personal bias.

THE OBJECTIVE ATTITUDE AS OPPOSED TO PERSONAL PREFERENCE IS ESSENTIAL TO JUDGE OR CRITIC, because anything but an impartial judgment becomes a kind of editorializing—as if the critic were hiring the photographer for his persona’ cameraman.

THE CRITIC CAN REACH AN OBJECTIVITY QUICKLY BY ASSUMING THAT WHAT HE SEES IN A PRINT IS NEITHER GOOD NOR BAD, BUT FACTS. The facts may add up to romanticism, to classicism, to realism, to fantasy, to pictorialism, to documentation, to snapshots and the critic has only to determine which category the print belongs to and how successful an example of its class it is. He does not have to evaluate the relative merits of romanticism, or realism, or any other "ism” — as happens in practice when a "judge” throws out a documentary photograph because he understands only pictorials.

Many times judges have said, "Now I would have photographed it this way.” Objectivity would lead him to forget his own methods in an appreciation of the virtues of a totally different approach to the problem. Such a statement is dangerous at any time because it ends up twisting the personality of the photographer towards the judge’s. A broad minded, and well trained, judge would never make such a statement; when he had a suggestion he would phrase it, "What would happen if it had been photographed this way?” Then the photographer is given a choice, not a dictum. The trained critic offers suggestions that are in the same direction as the photographer seems to be headed. His suggestions arise from the implications deeply imbedded in the photographer’s work, and his "advice” will tend to strengthen and perhaps clarify what the photographer is trying to do. Oftentimes an outsider can see the same solution to a problem better than the man himself can.

MOST JUDGES PRACTICE CRITICISM AS A HOBBY. Nevertheless the seriousness of "judging” demands that they learn the craft of criticism, that they know about value judgments, esthetic response, perception, semantics, as well as the nature of the photographic medium as a means of communication. I refer the reader to two books by George Boaz, A Primer for Critics and Wingless Pegasus, both of which are clear and readable discussions of a common basis of criticism for all the arts.


A means of analysis is needed if the critic is to be able to keep a high impersonal attitude towards a print and still actively study it. Without some such tool the objective approach may leave the critic dangling between objectivity and having no feeling at all like a parachutist dropped in a tree. Such a tool would include six major points — or more or less: purpose, craftsmanship and technique, composition, style, and subject. They will be discussed separately.


Did the photographer deliberately wish to imitate Rubins or Picasso, try to sell a jar of lurid lotion, explain a new uplift movement, or make a personal statement? Purposes have a wide range and the critic has a hard time deciding in some cases the difference between snapshooting to tickle the memory, scientific records that reveal the unseeable, propaganda that infects the thinking, the purpose of beauty, or the case of the instinctive worker who never bothers to define his inner drives. Once the critic has established a purpose, objectivity is easy enough; the worker’s craftsmanship, his technique, his style, presentation and so on either contribute brilliantly to the purpose, are competent, or cripple purpose.

The critic’s duty towards the accomplishment of the photographer’s purpose finished, then, and only then may he attack the purpose. If he feels that imitating Rembrandt or last month’s competition winner is reprehensible he can say so; but not until he has determined how well done the imitation was. What he can not do is to keep one kind of purpose in mind—his preference—and compare all prints to that. And this often happens. If the "judge” at a pictorial show happens to be a news photographer, he relates everything on the walls to his passion for reportage. He has to forget his own training and judge according to standards of pictorialism. The prints are rated according to pictorial purposes; then, if he wishes to say that "pictorialism” is not as "good” as "reportage” it is his privilege to introduce that futile argument and do what he can with it.

Charitable as it may be, discerning the purpose of the photographer is rarely easy, for the critic or anybody else. If the maker is not present to explain his intentions (even then he can not always explain why he made a certain picture), or if he has not left a written credo of some sort, or if he is dead, or if he comes from another culture—does Oriental pictorialism have the same goals as Occidental?—the purpose may be undiscoverable. In such cases the critic assigns a purpose. He can say, "this picture affects me this way,” or "I believe that it serves such and such a purpose,” and then proceed to examine the accomplishments of the print in the light of the assigned purpose.

The critic is not out on a limb when he does this; photographers frequently "photograph better than they know” and his pictures are loved for entirely different reasons than he intended. Also the meanings of photographs change with the years. For example, D. O. Hill and his helper Adamson, set out to make a huge painting of a couple of hundred persons. They used the camera to make the sketches. To us the painting is no more than historically interesting; the "sketches” are magnificent, human portraits that take us back to a period and place and individual.


Craftsmanship can be defined as the skillful employment of tools and processes; whereas Technique stands for the welding of craftsmanship to the man and his purposes.

A tremendous amount of intergive and take between man and his equipment and processes must take place before a technique emerges. At the start, the man is wholly at the mercy of his tools, they block everything he has to say. As mastery is approached, the conditioning of the man by the tools is the means to freedom of statement. The critic finds that the selection of tools is important to an evaluation of the man’s temperament. There is a real difference between a man who habitually uses a view camera and one who has chosen a miniature camera. Compare Edward Weston with Cartier-Bresson. Also, there is, to the sensitive critic, a noticeable difference in the work of a man who has chosen the wrong camera for his temperament. When a man tries to paint with a camera, it is a sure sign the man has chosen the wrong means of expression.

For both craftsmanship and technique "appropriateness” is the critic’s guide. The seeing in a print might be exciting and intense—if one could get through the layer of fingerprints, blurred areas or tonal muddiness; or, conversely, the exquisite craftsmanship may be carrying no statement at all—like no passenger in a limousine. If the grain of a board is to be used expressively the image must be sharp; a face which needs to be more accurate of spirit than of skin, may require a diffused image. A building may require the utmost sharpness and corrections possible with a stand camera, while the people walking past would require the action of a miniature for appropriateness. The critic has to know the whole gamut of camera possibilities from the intensification of reality found in the sharp contact print to the equivalents of reality found in the "derivations”—solarization, multiple exposures, negative prints and the whole wide range of what can be done to an image on light sensitive gelatin.


The critic may find that the word "composition” is a hindrance in talking about photographs simply because to use the term "composition” is to instantly get involved and confused with painting. Another term is needed, and "analysis” or "space analysis” can be so defined that it leads directly to the heart of the visual occurrences that are seen in photographs. "Composition” does not describe the activity of the photographer looking on his ground glass or through his view-finder. He is always confronted with a total image which can only be analyzed to see how directions move, how forces are projected and absorbed and countered, how the subject influences the balance, what the tones are doing, what the shapes are evoking and so on through the many visual elements, combinations and occurrences that are seen in a print or ground glass. All so called "composition” or "organization” in photography is really a series of analyses. However, photographers are so under the influence of the idea of composition, they will work endlessly to impose a preconceived idea of composition on the found subject. They look for natural occurrences that are reasonable facsimiles of the painting compositions with which they are acquainted. And find them.

Consequently the critic has to recognize such photographs and evaluate them according to standards of painting composition.

He also has to be able to recognize the "analytical” approach. In these balance is achieved by the most unlikely means, by means the man could not have invented for himself, but recognized, decidedly recognized; the found subject determines the order and location of the visible occurrences in the print—and again recognized by the photographer and critic alike. Curiously enough abstract and non-objective painting, for the spectator, reach balances the same way photographs do, by means that a man is not likely to think up — but can recognize if seen.

After the critic has decided whether "composition” or a "space analysis” prevails, then he can decide whether the visual occurrences in the print augment and strengthen the subject or tear it down—again “appropriate.”


Style is determined by what is seen over and over again in a man’s work. Since they are repeated with great frequency they become a kind of trade mark — the tall cumulus clouds that appear in photographs of Ansel Adams, or Paul Strand’s evident preference for low overhanging ones; or the obvious selection of subject matter such as Ylla’s specialization in animals. Style, however, is also concerned with the other visual elements, habitual use of low tones, or high, foglight, sunlight, variations of space, balance, structure, sharp images or diffuse ones; they are numerous and the combinations are endless.

Since the camera takes calligraphy (or handwriting), a very telling part of style, out of photography, the critic finds that usually several photographs are needed to get at a man’s style. Once the flavor is caught, however, a sensitive critic can frequently spot a photographer from one example.

A stylistic analysis of a photograph is unsurpassed as a means of objective contemplation of pictures. To explore how the photographer has comprehended the effect of edge, surfaces, texture, movement, light, space, structure gives the mind of the critic, that is, his conscious mind, active work to do. While he is observing to a kind of formula his unconscious feelings are left alone to reach their own conclusions. The activity of the hidden feeling plane is about the most important attribute a critic can bring to a photograph. Unfortunately it can rarely be brought to bear directly; fortunately it will work behind the "screen” of an objective analysis. Frequently while analyzing a print the meaning will come through, almost independently of the analysis; or days or months afterwards the critic discovers what a print means.

This is a large subject, and to date there is nothing in the photographic literature on it. A situation aperture hopes to remedy in the near future.


A consistent choice of subject can be as revealing of the photographer’s temperament as style. Edward Weston’s choice of Point Lobos as his major work of a life time is a good example. (Probably the place chose him.) It is as fine a visual match of his inner personality as Yosemite is of Ansel Adams or workers are of Paul Strand.

A consistent treatment of subject matter is another clue to temperament. Treatment can be classed into two groups; one a direct attempt to take part in the object photographed, which is characteristic of the documentary and photojournalist approaches. The other is harder to describe but no less powerful. It is a direct reproduction of the original object with the knowledge that the image the spectator sees is a fusion of what appears in the print and what goes on in his mind. That is, there is a physical photograph and a mental image—which may be somewhat dissimilar. The mental image can be called the "esthetic picture” and depends largely on what the spectator brings to the photograph. It’s unpredictable, but not entirely so. It’s unpredictable, nevertheless this is the approach used by the creative photographers; it is the one the pictorialists talk about and have not practiced since World War I.

When the direct approach is used—a kind of eye-to-eye idea, the response of the spectator is evoked by the representation of the subject. The spectator takes part in the human emotions and places he sees represented.

It is not always possible to photograph directly and get the feeling, mood, or emotion—sometimes not even the truth. In such cases an equivalent is required. The photograph which is an equivalent employs design, and depends heavily on the "esthetic picture” for both its force and its communicability.

When the photographer uses representational material, the critic is not always sure whether a direct approach is intended or an equivalent until he analyzes the photographs. With the "derivations” (negative prints, multiple exposures and all the rest) there is no question but what an equivalent is intended.

As an example we can take the classic cloud. A cloud can be photographed because it is interesting for one reason or another. The spectator’s response is related to the cloud, its shape, what it means, rain, decoration or whatever. This is the direct treatment of the subject. A cloud can also be used as a kind of raw material with which to make photographs that have an appeal through design. The later appeal can be more important than the fact that the object is a cloud. Alfred Stieglitz used the common material of clouds to state his feelings about his friends, about a city, about himself, about life and death. This is the equivalent treatment. Not too well understood in photography, but thoroughly so in music, poetry and the other graphic arts.


If the "judge” were to use the objective approach and analytical method suggested here, or something similar, he would have three advantages at his disposal. First, he has a means of suspending judgment in the face of his private reactions. Second, he can locate the photograph against a wide background of visual possibilities. Third, he can find visual effects in the print by which he can explain to the spectator what he is feeling. He can point to a shape, for instance, and explain that is the main source of his feelings. If the third point seems to contradict the first, the critic should realize that, in pictures, the truth and feeling always lies between the horns of a paradox.

If a critic or judge wishes not to, he does not have to evaluate—but what a shipload of willpower that takes! Frequently a description of what is visible to the critic—and invisible to the casual spectator—is all that a spectator needs to lift his own vision of the print. In other cases a more emotionally loaded description is needed to get the spectator to see "what else” is going on in a photograph. Yet, if the critic can not refrain from evaluating—and few can, with an objective tool of analysis to guard him, he will at least evaluate against other photographs and not just unmitigated personal preference. When he does evaluate, all that he has experienced in a print by an objective analysis is terminated by the intuitive decision. As was said earlier, the function of the objective analysis is to give the unconscious, intuitive mechanism a chance to work in its own way.

If the intuitive and subjective is the ultimate decision, why not appeal to it in the first place? For much the same reason that the first impression of a person is never quite the same as the impression after long acquaintance. The first is bleak compared to the richness of the latter. More important, however, is the fact that the intuitive reaction does not come when hidden.

As the critic enlarges his knowledge he seems to make fewer and less dogmatic decisions and conclusions; he comes to realize that the truth (and the beauty) is as much the whole forest of possibilities as it is the rare fern hidden in the underbrush. Objectively he will search the entire forest, intuitively find the fern.

Maddening as it is, and true of the creative faculty as well as the critical one, the intuitive is rarely found without sometime searching the entire, huge and dreary woods of objectivity.

Photography was once characterized as the Royal Road to Drawing, but, sure as shooting, I have not found any Royal Road to Photographing. Bid Roberts