Week 9 – Critical Perspectives in My Practice

As each week passes I find myself peeling back yet another layer of the onion that is my photography practice, and in doing so am beginning to understand more clearly what motivates me to photograph what I do and why in the way I do.  I have been asked to think about things I have never given thought to and frankly never cared about.  I am not certain all this introspection will result in my being a better photographer, but it may result in a better connection with viewers of my work, which also heretofore has never been much of a concern.

Much of the course for me thus far has been involved the development of a new vocabulary and framework that has is allowing me to better articulate aspects of my practice and its motivations, and to engage in discussions about the work of others.

My photographic practice is principally ontological and based in naturalism.  I am discovering that my photographic practice is motivated and informed much as the rest of my day to day existence.

General Systems Theory developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy and which derived in part from the work of Kant and Hegel has been an underlying foundation to much of my professional life and personal philosophy.  These theories also resonate with me in the critical examination of photographic work as much or more than some of the others to which we have been exposed in this course.  There is no single way to view anything and my background in applying systems theory to my world view informs my examination of  photography.  The widely accepted thoughts of Barthes, Sontag and others have bits of wisdom in their thinking and utility in their approach, but they are not by themselves universal in application.  Admittedly this is all new and my thoughts are far from fully formed, and it is entirely possible that I have missed something in the current accepted practice of critical review that will become illuminated over time.

I think a photograph can be considered an organism in Kantian, Hegelian and Bertalanffian terms.  It is what the author created only at the moment it is viewed by the author for the first time.  Notice I did not say at the time the image was captured, because we all have been surprised at times by how different what we thought we were capturing actually turned out to be when we first see it on the screen or in the print.  It is only then, when the author make the final creative decision on the form the photograph is to take, that is has the pure intention of the photographer.  From that point on, the photograph is alive and it is ever changing.  While the form remains constant, the interpretation of the content, the emotion evoked, the knowledge imparted, the entelechy of that image is different every time another set of eyes is put to it.  Even the  author may find in returning to an old image that it conveys a different meaning or emotion than was originally intended.

In some ways it is not that different than the way Roland Barthes describes the way we look at photographs in particular: “that whatever they grant to vision and whatever their manner, a photograph is always invisible. It is not it that we see.”  He discusses that the original image by the photographer is in Eden, and as soon as it enters the public domain of circulation it is becomes culturally coded and it undergoes a transformation where the viewer will read and / or respond to an image, and this may change its original meaning.
Rudolf Stichweh, in his journal article on Systems Theory discussed the work of several theorists and the relationships between their respective work.  I think their are elements which are relevant to the critical analysis of photographs.  Among the topics discussed were Niklas Luhmann’s (1927-1998) writings.  “Systems for Luhmann are systems consisting from communications, and as such they are based on a way of processing informations which Luhmann calls meaning.  Meaning is formally similar to information as it is based on something being a selection among plural alternatives. But what is characteristic of meaning and thereby constitutive for social and psychic systems, as the two types of systems making use of meaning, is that the alternatives not chosen are still remembered. One can come back to them, one can criticize selections in pointing to the alternatives which were available, one can write history on the basis of this dual structure of meaning.”  The last section above seems to offer a practical way to approach critical analysis and accounts for the likelihood of plurality in interpretation of a photograph as well as a system for using that plurality to further analyze and critique the work.

Hodgson’s discussion about whether something matters and whether photography is at risk of being trivial is an interesting one.  Everything matters to someone and nothing matters to everyone.  Somewhat cynically, I would argue that everything is trivial except to those who it is not.  It is matter of scale.   Art, literature and music are incredibly important to civilization as a form of creative expression and a record of our societal evolution. I would find it difficult to live without music and books others create, or without means to express my creativity purely for the joy of creating.  That said though, I think virtually every individual piece of art, literature or music is trivial.  It is an extremely rare piece of art, literature or music that has the power to exert significant influence over anything.

Photography as a whole exerts a great deal of influence on modern society.   In the last 100 or so years the world has transformed from consumers of the written word to consumers of visual communications.  We are inundated with photographs.  Again I would assert that most of them are indeed trivial as individual pieces of work, and perhaps even universally in certain genres of photography.  With the number of people in the world and the number of cameras, it is increasingly difficult to even create an image that “matters” on a broad scale.  As I stated earlier, every photo will matter to someone.  However, I would also assert photography, because it can be so contemporaneous along with the current ability to disseminate an image around the world in near real time, has the unique potential to “matter” and be non-trivial as an individual image than any other form of visual communication.


Arnold, D. (2011). Hegel and ecologically oriented system theory. Journal of Philosophy, 7(16), 53-0_3. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/docview/1170929513?accountid=15894

LUHMANN, N., 1995. Social Systems. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford U.P. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford U.P.

Stichweh, R.Systems Theory. https://www.fiw.uni-bonn.de/demokratieforschung/personen/stichweh/pdfs/80_stw_systems-theory-international-encyclopedia-of-political-science_2.pdf

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