The following are quotes from a long, but excellent article that appeared in the Boston Review in the fall of 2006. It’s called “The Treacherous Medium: Why photography critics hate photographs” and it was written by Susie Linfield.
“… 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 a critic’s emotional connection to an artist, or to a work of art, is the sine qua non of criticism, and it usually, therefore, determines the critic’s choice of subject. 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—hell, most alive —when she sat in a dark movie theater, or that Kenneth Tynan felt the same way at a play? 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. Randall Jarrell, certainly no anti-intellectual, 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.”
The great exception to all this is photography criticism. There, you will hear precious little talk of love or passion or terrible nakedness. There, critics view emotional responses—if they, or their readers, have any—not as something to be experienced and understood but, rather, to be vigilantly guarded against: to these writers, criticism is a prophylactic against the virus of sentiment. When we enter the world of photography criticism we travel far from Baudelaire’s exploration of his pleasure; for there is little pleasure to be had, and even that is condemned as voyeuristic, pornographic, or exploitative. Put most bluntly, for the past century most photography critics haven’t really liked photographs, or the experience of looking at them, at all. They approach photography—not specific photographs, or specific practitioners, or specific genres, but photography itself—with suspicion, mistrust, anger, and fear. Rather than enter into what Kazin called a “community of interest” with their subject, these critics come armed to the teeth against it. For them, photography is a powerful, duplicitous force. …
… Photography is a modern invention—one that, from its inception, inspired a host of conflicts and anxieties. Indeed, when we talk about photography we are talking about modernity; the doubts that photography inspires are the doubts that modernity inspires. Photography is a proxy for modern life and its discontents.
What are some of these troubles? From the first, the essential nature of photography was puzzling. It tended to blur categories—which can be both exciting and unsettling. Was photography a kind of art? of commerce? of journalism? of science? of surveillance? Was it a form of creativity, a way of bringing newness into the world, or was its relation to reality essentially mimetic or, even, that of a parasite?…
… But the problem with photographs is not only that they fail to explain the world. A greater problem, for Brecht and his followers, is what photographs succeed in doing, which is to offer an immediate, emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of monopoly capitalism or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or suffering, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs, also, to find out what our intuitive reactions to such otherness might be. (This curiosity is not, as the postmoderns have charged, an expression of “imperialism,” racism,” or “orientalism”: the peasant in Kenya and the worker in Cairo are as fascinated—if not more so—by a picture of New Yorkers as we are by an image of them.) None of us is a creature solely of feeling, and yet there is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, on an emotional level.
With changed circumstances should come changed approaches. The world we live in is not Brecht’s, and photography critics today don’t need to fear all emotion, as did Brecht; they don’t need to purge all emotion, as did Brecht; they don’t need to spend such ferocious energy distancing us from images. In doing so, they have made it easy for us to deconstruct photographs but difficult to see them; they have made it difficult, that is, to grasp what Berger called “the thereness of the world.” And though most photography critics—or at least those I have been discussing—identify themselves with the left, this detestation of the photograph is not a subversive or progressive or revolutionary stance, but in fact aligns them with the forces of the most deplorable backwardness: aligns them, for instance, with the frenzied crowds in Kabul and Karachi, Damascus and Tehran, who called for the execution of the Danish cartoonists and promised what they called a “real” holocaust. Here is where pre-modernism and postmodernism merge, for those demonstrators, too, view images as an exploitation, an insult, a blasphemy: as an “act of subjugation” indeed.
It is time, and it is possible, for photography critics to come out of the cold. They can join the great critical tradition of Kael and Jarrell and Kazin, of James Agee and Arlene Croce and so many others: not to drown in bathos or sentimentality, but to integrate emotion into the experience of looking. They can use emotion as a starting point, an inspiration, to analysis rather than maintain an eternal war between the two. They can, in short, allow themselves and their readers to come to the photograph as full human beings: as men and women of heart and mind, of immediacy and history. Along with Baudelaire, they can turn pleasure—and its opposite—into knowledge, and they can even teach us, perhaps, how to love more wisely.”
Again, the full article is here. It is long, but very interesting and well worth the time necessary to read it in its entirety.