Photographic book reviews – part II


Reflections from the project Insomnia: Hotel Noirphotography copyright of Douglas Stockdale

I have been reading and assessing a lot of photographic books recently to publish on The Photo Book, and to a lesser extent, photographic reviews at galleries, but still looking a ton of images on the Internet. One aspect of these reviews that I bring with me, probably unstated, but there nevertheless, is my personal background and experiences in photography.

Case in point, my photographic “training” has been heavily derived from experience, that is that I do not have a BFA in art or photography. That could be a strength or it could be a weakness, nevertheless, it is. As a result I have not taken formal classes on art criticism or photography criticism. Now I am reading the related texts on the subject and it is providing me with more insights on the process of reviewing and assessing art and photographs, but it also helps me understand where I am at and why I probably understand certain types of photographs better than others.

But it also helps me understand more about what my book reviews are about and who my audience probably is. As I do not have a post graduate academic degree, e.g. Ph.D. in art history, my writings are not academic in nature, e.g. convoluted with academic theories and jargon as to be unfathomable to most photographers. So my audience is not probably going to be the academics and the related academic world. Nice, eh?

Now I realize that having only John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye to help guide me, as well as the types of photographs I had made in the 70’s & 80’s, pretty well had locked me into a Modernist viewpoint. Thus my understanding of Post-Modernismas it applied to photography was very limited and narrow. Which in retrospect was kinda weird, because as a painter, I leaned towards Abstract Expressionistic work. Yeah, I don’t quite get it either, but again, it is what it is. Perhaps why I am so comfortable with the development of current photographic project, Insomnia, which I now think is Post-Modernistic.

So taking my photographic book reviews seriously has led me to purchase addition books on art and photographic criticism as well as critical theory, such as Terry Barrett’s Criticizing Photographs and a collection of writings edited by Ashley La Grange, Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Thus my Aha! and realization regarding the fact that I photographicly developed as a Modernist, but tempered with some aspects of Post-Modernism.

It allows me to better understand my book review process. I like to live with a book for a while before I publish my assessment. That duration can be a couple of weeks to a couple of months, or more, depending on how comfortable I am with my thoughts and feelings about the book. First I complete a quick read of just the photographs, making some equally quick notes, sort of a first impression. Then I read the introductions and artistic statements, making more notes. Afterwards I will keep coming back to the book to refine my thoughts and impressions and then start drafting my review.

I also try not to read other reviews about this particular book until I have essentially finished mine, and most times, I prefer to wait until I publish my review. And I don’t usually contact the photographer during the book’s assessment period.

So for those who are familiar with the kinds of photographic criticism, I hope will probably agree with my own self-assessment that I lean towards Exploratory Aesthetic Criticism (per Ralph Smith) and Applied Criticism(per Andy Grundberg). In plain speak, that means that 1.)I try to understand the books aesthetic aspects as completely as possible to ensure that the readers will experience what can be seen in a book and 2.) what I write is practical, immediate and directed at the work (book).

So as you might imagine, some of this new knowledge is going to roll over into my reviews, but I will do the best I can to continue to ensure that my reviews are practical, immediate and directed at the book itself.

Best regards, Doug

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