Robert Adams: Civilising Criticism

In the book of essays by Robert Adams titled Beauty in Photography (1996), there is a very interesting chapter titled Civilising Criticism in which Adams examines the role of the critic.

He starts by quoting from John Rewald’s book History of Impressionism: “the only thing to be learned from the critics was how to suffer the sting of their attacks and carry on just the same, accomplishing a task which more than any other required serenity.”


Adams uses this quote as background to paint a bleak picture of acidic criticism being targeted at often bewildered artists (and not just photographers).

Wells (2015) nicely summarises the situation:

“At its worst, criticism masks personal opinion, dressed up as objective or authoritative with the aim of impressing, for example, the readers of review articles in order to generate respect and support for the reviewer. At its best, criticism helps to locate particular work in relation to specific debates about practice through elucidating appreciation of the effect, meaning, context and import of the imagery under question.”

Wells’s point about personal opinion and the bitterness associated with it is the core of Adam’s essay, along with some positive suggestions for improving the situation. Firstly, he looks at some common bases for judgement which he believes to be “wrongheaded”.


By sincerity, Adams means the depth of engagement of the photographer with his/her subject. The issue is that it’s very hard to assess sincerity, even if the photographer professes to be extremely caring about their subject. The flip-side of being sincere is that one can be too immersed in the subject and not have sufficient detachment to say something new. In this way, Adams dismisses sincerity as a legitimate basis for judgment even though he maintains that it is the most popular.


The next improper standard of judgment is biography – the artist’s life. Adams points out that this too has problems because it can be more about the personal biases of the critic than anything else. He says that:

“It is not legitimate to dislike Marianne Moore’s poetry because she wore crazy clothes or William Faulkner’s novels because he drank too much, and it is not particularly germane to attack a photograph because the person who made it worked for Life magazine or a university, was or was not a socialist, did or did not like Minor White, and so on.”

When looked at this way, biography can become just an excuse for liking or not liking someone because of their “school tie”. or some other arbitrary prejudice. Adams then goes onto state something very interesting when thinking about Context & Narrative: “if pictures cannot be understood without knowing details of the artist’s private life, then that is a reason for faulting them; major art, by definition, can stand independent of its maker.”

This is a very strong statement. Obviously, biography forms at least some of the context that we’re talking about in this subject, but not the totality. The quote also at first glance seems to contradict to some extent another famous Adams quote from the same book (p14):

“Landscape photography can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life.”

The situation can be rescued by understanding that in the “three verities” quote, Adams is visualising the ideal where all three components are strong. In this view, there is no conflict because the first quote about major art standing independent of its maker can be understood as saying that if you need to understand the artist’s biography as the only saving grace for an artwork, then it’s in big trouble. i.e. maybe it would be a good idea for the artist not to forget geography and metaphor! Biography should therefore add to the artwork, not be the artwork.


This final example of a common, but improper measure relates to the “heavy academic machinery” frequently used by critics and the “elaborate ideational schemes for interpretation, such as psychoanalysis, [which] tend generally to lead away from the photographs and in the process to oversimplify what is mysterious and of greatest value in the work.”

From Adam’s perspective this kind of interpretation adds nothing and as an example quotes George Orwell as writing that “one can only ‘interpret’ a poem by reducing it to an allegory – which is like eating an apple for the seeds.”

Civilised Criticism

In the final part of the essay, Adams brings up the question about whether critics should actively criticise bad work (however bad is defined) or should silence be the response? We could argue that the job of the critic is to point out bad work as well as to praise good work. But what if the critic’s judgment is wrong, on either count? Should the critic’s job be to support good work and just ignore the rest?

Adams suggests taking the lead from Henry James who proposed asking of art three questions (which appear to be paraphrased from James’s The Art of Fiction): What is the artist trying to do? Does he/she do it? Was it worth doing?

The first question can be problematic because we may not be able to ask the artist. In this case, we should take things at face value and ask what it seems was the objective of the artist. The second question about how well the artist succeeds can be answered by determining “whether the work is internally coherent, whether the end sought is reached within the rules of operation established by the artist himself.” Finally, once the two first questions have been dealt with, the last question “Was it worth doing?” is, according to Adams, the most important. In this question, the critic must “make plain his own values” by asking (for example): Is the work fresh? Did it show something that was always there but not noticed? Did it say something new and interesting?

Finally, Adams quotes a statement by Matisse about painting, but feels that it applies equally well to photography: “a painter has no real enemy but his own bad paintings.” From that point of view, he suggests that the critic’s most important job “is to help photographers of promise defeat their only enemies, their own bad pictures.”


In reading Adams’s essay, I couldn’t help but reflect on how hard must be the job of an OCA tutor. They often act as the ultimate critic of a student’s work. The goal must be to help students progress by learning, experimenting, failing and trying again. For sure the objective must also be to help them to defeat the enemy of their own bad pictures to paraphrase Matisse. I can see that the structure proposed by James make sense and helps to evaluate a student’s work on their own terms and it’s one that I intend to try if ever I need to provide a critique. Still,  a tough job, I feel.


Adams, Robert (1996) Beauty in Photography. New York: Aperture

Rewald, John (1973) The History of Impressionism. Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s