Basic Critical Theory for Photographers

Basic Critical Theory for Photographers

by Ashley la Grange

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Basic Critical Theory for Photographers generates discussion, thought and practical assignments around key debates in photography. Ashley la Grange avoids the trap of an elitist and purely academic approach to critical theory, taking a dual theoretical and practical approach when considering the issues. Key critical theory texts (such as Sontag's 'On Photography' and…  See more details below


Basic Critical Theory for Photographers generates discussion, thought and practical assignments around key debates in photography. Ashley la Grange avoids the trap of an elitist and purely academic approach to critical theory, taking a dual theoretical and practical approach when considering the issues. Key critical theory texts (such as Sontag's 'On Photography' and Barthes' 'Camera Lucida') are clarified and shortened. La Grange avoids editorilising, letting the arguments develop as the writers had intended; it is the assignments which call into question each writer's approach and promote debate.

This is the ideal book if you want to understand key debates in photography and have a ready-made structure within which to discuss and explore these fascinating issues. It is accessible to students, from high school to university level, but will also be of interest to the general reader and to those photographers whose training and work is concerned with the practical aspects of photography.

Also includes invaluable glossary of terms and a substantial index that incorporates the classic texts, helping you to navigate your way through these un-indexed works. The book also contains useful information on photo-mechanical processes, explaining how a photograph can appear very differently, and as a result be interpreted in a range of ways, in a variety of books.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Summaries of key texts are followed by thought-provoking questions and practical assignments...the texts are well chosen." -

"It's perfect for those who want to understand key debates in photography." - Amateur Photographer

"Ashley la Grange has written an excellent book which navigates through the context and meaning of photography. It covers photography from a range of cultural and historical perspectives as well as guiding the reader though a visual language which many outside the world of academic photography can only guess at...Basic Critical Theory for Photographers is one of those books which should become part of the syllabus of many of the excellent photography courses that are out there." -

"...a good introduction to theory for photographers looking to expand their understanding of their art form." - Photo Techniques

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Basic Critical Theory for Photographers

By Ashley la Grange

Focal Press

Copyright © 2005 Ashley la Grange
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-08-046838-9

Chapter One

John Berger, Ways of Seeing


Published in 1972 and based on a BBC television programme of the same name, this is a very influential text on art criticism. Although the book and programme make the same case, they do so in slightly different ways, and the programme is well worth watching. For the photographer, the book has the advantage of putting photography in the context of western art. For the student new to critical theory, it has the advantage of being produced for a mass audience, and has as a central aim the de-mystification of art. These two points make it relatively easy to understand. A further advantage this book has is that many students have not had the opportunity to study photography, but have studied art, and so the book presents a logical progression for them when they start to study photography.

The television programme is divided into four sections and although the book is divided into seven chapters (three being made up solely of images), the book also covers four areas. The summary is of three of the four written chapters.

Chapter 1. In this chapter, Berger points out what is involved in seeing, and how the way we see things is determined by what we know. He goes on to argue that the real meaning of many images has been obscured by academics, changed by photographic reproduction and distorted by monetary value.

Chapter 3. In this chapter, Berger shows how the nude in western art systematically objectified women, and how this tradition has been continued by photography.

Chapter 5. Here, Berger argues that oil painting has, because of its realism, a powerful link to ownership and the buying power of money, and so often celebrates the power of money. This chapter is not summarised.

Chapter 7. In this chapter, Berger further develops the link between ownership and art by critically looking at modern consumerist society and 'publicity' or advertising photography.



Berger starts by trying to explain the relationship between words and what we see. He points out that seeing and recognition come before words. It is seeing that establishes our place in the world, but we use words to explain this world. Despite this he argues there is always a distinction between what we see and what we know. The example he gives is that of us seeing the sun revolving around the earth but knowing the opposite.

Having established that we see first and then use words to explain the world, i.e. what we know, he then goes on to say what we know or believe affects the way we see things. This makes it a dynamic relationship; it may start with seeing and recognition, but develops into a system in which our past experience or knowledge changes the way we see things. For example, today we would see fire differently from people in the Middle Ages who believed in the physical reality of hell.

The act of seeing is active; it is an act of choice. We see what we look at and so relate to it. We also become aware that we can be seen, and so are aware we are part of the visible world. This results in the understanding that others may see things differently. This two-way (reciprocal) nature of vision comes before dialogue.

The Image

For Berger, 'An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced ... which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance ...' (p. 9). This detachment can be great or small, but all images, including photographs, involve a way of seeing by the person who has created the image. Further, when we look at someone else's image, our understanding of it depends on our way of seeing.

Berger argues that images were first made to represent something that was not there, and later acquired an extra level of meaning by lasting longer than the original subject. The image now showed how the subject had once looked to other people. Later still, with the increasing consciousness of the individual, the image was recognised as the particular vision of a particular artist. Nothing else documents the past so well, and the more imaginative the work, the more we can understand the artist's experience of the world. Unfortunately, when images from the past are presented as works of art, their meanings are obscured (mystified) by learnt assumptions such as beauty, truth, form etc. Our understanding of history will always change as we change. However, this cultural mystification results both in making the images seem more remote, and allows us to draw fewer conclusions from history.

When we see art from the past, we have the opportunity to place ourselves in history. The mystification is an attempt to prevent us from really seeing the image and so deprives us of our history. For Berger, this has been done deliberately '... because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes ...' (p. 11).

Berger gives as an example two paintings by Frans Hals; one of the Regents and the other of the Regentesses of the Old Men's Alms House. At the time of painting, Hals was a destitute old man dependent on the charity of people whose portraits he now painted. Berger quotes from an authoritative art history that evaluates the paintings purely in terms of their formal elements, using phrases such as '... harmonious fusion ... unforgettable contrast ... powerful whites ...' (p. 13). The history goes further and argues against the viewer thinking they can understand the personalities of the people portrayed. For Berger, this is mystification and he argues we can have an understanding of the personalities '... because it corresponds to our own observations of people ... [and] ... we still live in a society of comparable social relations and moral value' (p. 14). For Berger, the relationship of the personalities, the destitute old painter and the people on whose charity he depends on is the essence of the painting.

The impact of photography

From the Renaissance onwards, perspective in art converged on the single spectator, who could only be in one place at a time. The implication was that images were timeless. Photography, in particular the movie camera, changed this. What you saw depended on your place in time and space. The camera changed the way artists saw. Impressionists saw the visible in continuous change [as the light changed so did the appearance of the object] and Cubists no longer recognised a single vantage point [so, for example, they would paint a face with an eye seen from one vantage point and the nose from another].

A second major impact was to destroy the uniqueness of images. Prior to photography, images were an integral part of a building, and as a result this was a part of the images' meaning. Even if the image could be moved, there was always only one image. By reproducing the image, the camera multiplies and breaks up its meaning. It can be shown on your own lounge wall, on the television, or on a T-shirt.

To argue that the reproductions will always lack something still leaves problems, because the uniqueness no longer resides in the meaning of the image, but in its unique physical existence. Its value lies now not so much in what it says but in its rarity and the price it would fetch. There is a conflict here because art is thought to be above commerce. Those who mystify art respond by claiming that the commercial value reflects the spiritual value; yet in modern society, religion is not the living force it once was. What determines an image's value is not its meaning or quality of painting, but its uniqueness, and Berger cites the example of two almost identical paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. One is at the National Gallery and other at the Louvre. In both institutions, their art historians' prime concern is not the meaning of the image but to prove that their image is the original and the other, the copy. Likewise, certain images take on new importance when their value increases. To hide this link between artistic value and market value, a false sense of religiosity is given to these works, so alienating most people from art.

Reproduction detaches the meaning from a painting, and its meaning is to a greater or lesser degree changed. By selecting a part of an allegorical painting for example, it can be transformed into a portrait. A filmmaker can construct an argument by selecting parts of a painting and presenting them in a particular order. Presented with the painting itself, the viewer takes in the whole image in an instant, and, even when looking at a specific area, can always refer to the whole.

The juxtaposition of words and images also changes the meaning. The meaning of an image will change depending on its context. The image could be used in advertising, often reconfirming the mystification of art, or someone could pin a reproduction on his or her pin-board, seeing something very personal in the image.

Berger still sees a value in the original image. The original is silent and has traces of the painter's actions, creating a closeness between the painter and the viewer, so making the painting, in a sense, contemporary.

Berger feels a total approach to art is needed, one that relates art to everyone's experience, including the innocently spontaneous and that of the art specialists. Art no longer exists as it did. It was once isolated, part of a hierarchy, but now images of art are available and insubstantial. Yet it is still presented to people in a mystified way and so alienates them, cutting them off from their history and making art a political issue.


The social presence of men and women

Berger points out that traditionally, men and women have different types of social presence. Men are measured by the degree of power they offer. The power may be in any number of forms, for example moral, physical, economic etc. A man's presence suggests what he may or may not be able to do to or for you. In contrast to this, a woman's presence indicates what can or cannot be done to her. Every thing she does contributes to her presence. She is born into the keeping of men, and from childhood is taught to survey herself, with the result that her being is split into two, the surveyed and the surveyor. Her own sense of being is replaced by a sense of being appreciated by others – ultimately men. He acts, she appears, and she watches herself being looked at. 'The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.' (p. 47).

The nude in oil painting

Berger points out that women are the main subject in one category of European oil painting – the nude. The nude reveals how women have been seen and judged as sights. The first nudes in this tradition illustrate the story of Adam and Eve, usually as a series of images similar to a cartoon. For Berger, there are two important elements to this story. Firstly, having eaten the apple they see each other in a different way, so nakedness was in the eye of the beholder. Secondly, the woman is blamed and made subservient to the man by way of punishment.

During the Renaissance the story disappeared, and instead a single moment was shown, usually the moment of shame. However, the shame is directed more at the viewer than towards each other. Gradually, the shame became a kind of display. Even when secular subjects began to be used, the implication that the woman was aware of being seen by the spectator remained. As a result she was not naked in her own right but naked as the (male) viewer saw her.

Berger gives a range of examples. Nudes looking at the viewer looking at them; of women looking in mirrors joining in the spectacle of themselves; or of looking into mirrors and being accused of vanity, when in reality they are only satisfying men's desire to see them naked; and of women's beauty being judged. Common to all of these images is the sense of the woman being watched; by men in the painting; by herself; by the spectator towards whom her body is often turned.


Excerpted from Basic Critical Theory for Photographers by Ashley la Grange Copyright © 2005 by Ashley la Grange. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Head of Photography at Rickmansworth School, UK. He is a consultant for exam boards in charge of deciding photography syllabi. He has a particular interest in demystifying critical theory.

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