Commentary: Context, Approach and Bias

A.D. Coleman’s observations on photography are always acutely astute. His blog, Photocritic International, is a must read.

In a recent post, Across the Great Divide (1), he recounts a misreading by Penny Coisneau-Levine of a review he wrote in 1974 about a Canadian photographer’s book. She uses the misreading to set him up as a straw man in order to criticize a “monolithic approach” in which “universal” terms serve to hide work that does not conform to this mode of criticism.

“The problem is, of course, that this monolithic approach almost guarantees that enormous chunks of the work under consideration will slip through the critical cracks, that whatever exists in the work that cannot be mediated through the ‘universal’ terms of discourse the critic employs risks being missed altogether. And if not much in the work does lend itself to being discussed in these critical terms, the work may be barely seen at all, with the conclusion that nothing exists in the work to be seen.”

Leaving aside the poor choice of straw man, Coisneau-Levine’s point is a valid one, and one that I am aware of here on Korean Photography Books. The locus of this blog is books from a culture that is not my own. I am not Korean, do not have any formal schooling on Korean history or culture and do not speak the language. The risk is ripe for falling back onto generalized universal terms that demean, distort or diminish the work under review.

My goal in writing these reviews is the opposite: to make the work in these books accessible to a Western audience while doing what little I can to promote the photographers behind the work. Two key role models for my approach to writing this blog have been Coleman and John Berger. In the introduction to Berger’s Understanding a Photograph, Geoff Dyer quotes D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Thought” to describes Berger’s approach: “Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.”

Their similar approaches of closely attending to the work under review seems to me a valid means of minimizing the risk of losing chunks or not truly seeing the work. Furthermore, there are rich veins of potential meaning where cultures come together. What is ordinary and obvious within a given context becomes strange and obscured when it runs up against a foreign work of art. A particular meaning might be lost, but new meanings are created. When any work of art is finished by the artist and comes in front of a viewer the viewer brings a new set of experiences and assumptions to the work and finds his own meaning within it.

While there is the risk in cross cultural criticism of applying a universal standard to all works regardless of cultural context, one must have a standard of some sort. I can only apply a personal standard through closely attending to the work itself, my reaction to it and the cross cultural connections these suggest.