Terry Barrett: Criticizing Photographs


In preparation for Context & Narrative assignment four, I bought an edition of Barrett’s book on the recommendation of a number of other students. Since the 2011 paperback version sells for about £150 on Amazon.co.uk, I went for an older version …

The book starts encouragingly with the statement that it is about “reading and doing photography criticism so that you can better appreciate photographs by using critical processes.” This, on the face of it, seems to be exactly what I need to properly structure assignment four. In what follows, I have preserved the original American English spelling in quoted text and reverted to my comfort zone for the rest.

Criticising Photographs

Barrett states in the first chapter that when critics criticise, they do one or more of four things: “they describe the work of art, they interpret it, they evaluate it, and they theorize about it” [emphasis in original]. He spends some time in this chapter to make it clear that criticism is about much more than the commonly-held view of giving mainly negative judgements. His definition of the term criticism is “informed discourse about art to increase understanding and appreciation of art.”


The first stage, describing “is a data-gathering process, a list of facts”. Barrett states that we should include “statements about the subject matter, medium and form” plus information about the photographer and the times during which it was made plus the social milieu from which the work emerged. Descriptive statements are verifiable by observation and by checking the factual evidence. Barrett notes that “accurate description is an essential part of holding defensible critical positions. Interpretations and judgements that omit facts or are contrary to facts are seriously flawed.”

In this section, Barrett discusses describing form and especially what he calls “principles of design” i.e. scale, proportion, unity within variety, repetition and rhythm, balance, directional forces, emphasis and subordination. He goes onto to discuss describing medium, by which he means how the photograph was made, and the nature of the print – for example, is it a platinum-palladium print, gelatin-silver or some other process? In this same section, he also discusses describing style, although he warns that “attending to style can be much more interpretive than descriptive.”


Barrett starts this chapter by pointing out that as a culture, we’re more used to interpreting poems and paintings than photographs. He suggests that all photographs – even simple ones – “demand interpretation in order to be fully understood and appreciated.” He goes on to state that all photographs are partial and inflected, by which he means that people’s knowledge, beliefs, values and attitudes are heavily influenced by their culture and this is reflected in the photographs they take.  From this perspective, photos are not simply mirrors of the world, but “are made, taken and constructed by skilful artists and deserve to be read, explained, analysed and deconstructed.”

Barrett defines interpreting a photograph to mean telling what one thinks a photo is about – it’s about the “point, the meaning, the sense, the tone or the mood of the photograph.” After discussing Barthe’s deconstruction of the Panzani advertisment in The Rhetoric of the Image, he goes on to show the wide range of interpretations possible of a single image.

We are warned, when thinking about interpretation, to avoid “intentionalism” or “the intentional fallacy”. Intentionalism is described as a faulty critical method whereby a work is interpreted and judged according to what the maker intended. Barrett points out that there are a couple of problems with intentionalism as a critical method. Firstly, we may not be able to find out from the photographer what their intent was. Secondly, in some cases even the photographer is unaware of their intent when they make the photograph. Finally, Barrett suggests that the interpretative task is for the viewer and that “by relying on or waiting for the photographer to explain his or her intents, we are abnegating our responsibility of interpreting what we see.” Specifically, he states that we should not consider an interpretation more privileged because it comes from the artist – we should take it as a possible interpretation and evaluate along with all others.

Interlude: Categories & Contexts

As part of the interpretive process, Barrett discusses ways of categorising images and the different contexts which might affect our interpretation. Regarding categories, he discusses a number such as pictorialist vs. purist before introducing  a “new” category system taken from his 1986 paper A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs (reviewed here). His six categories are based on the function of a photograph, not on its subject.

Barrett notes that it is difficult to accurately place a photograph in one of his six categories without some prior knowledge: who made it, when, where, how and for what purpose. This kind of information he calls the “context”, which can be either internal, original or external, a subject he dealt with in his article titled Photographs and Contexts (Barrett 1997).


In this chapter, Barrett frequently uses the word judgement as a synonym for evaluation. He states that “complete and critical judgments have three aspects: appraisals that are based on reasons that are founded in criteria.” In this context, he defines criteria as the “rules or standards for greatness upon which appraisals are ultimately based.” He points out, however, that critics don’t always provide arguments for their judgements. He goes onto to state that in casual art criticism, appraisals are common, but reasons are rare and criteria rarer still. In published art criticism, reasons are usually given, but criteria may only be hinted at.

Barrett states that critics judge photos by many different criteria, most of which can be grouped into clusters derived from common theories of art such as: realism, expressionism, formalism and instrumentalism. But there are other criteria such as originality, craftsmanship and good composition and some of these may even be in conflict with the more general criteria from art theory. For example, good craftsmanship for a realist might be different from a well-crafted image for an expressionist.

Barrett notes that “critical judgements are arguments with reasons, and these arguments can be looked at objectively and then be evaluated.” We may disagree with certain arguments and agree with others and ultimately the most convincing judgements are those which are better grounded and better argued. He also makes the distinction between a critical judgement and a preference and suggests that it is the sign of a good critic who can separate the two. Something could be good from a critical perspective and that judgement be supported by strong argumentation, however the critic may  not like the work at the same time.


In this section, Barrett discusses the last of the four things that critics do: they theorise.  He suggests that “they are exploring photography in general, attempting to answer how it is like and how it is unlike other forms of picturing.” Theorising includes the big questions such as: what is photography? Is it art? What are the consequences of calling photography “art”?

This is probably the most dense chapter in the book as Barrett discusses different “isms” and their impact on photography: realism, conventionalism, modernism, postmodernism and then moves on to two aspects of social theory and their impacts: Marxism and feminism. He makes the point that there is no single and universally accepted definition of any of these. Instead, their are many variations and much “cross-pollination”. In the end, theorising about photography, like interpreting and evaluating, results in conclusions which may be more more or less enlightening and more or less helpful in making photographs understandable.


The book provides an overall structure for writing about an image which can be boiled down into four main questions: What is here? What is it about? Is it good? Is it art?

The first step: description, requires carefully observing the photography and noting the key elements of form and specifically what Barrett calls the “principles of design”: scale, proportion, unity within variety, repetition and rhythm, balance, directional forces, emphasis and subordination.

When moving onto interpretation, it is useful to consider the internal, original and external contexts. These provide information which allow the positioning of the photo within one or more of Barrett’s six categories. Just doing this gives us a strong starting point for interpreting the images.

Evaluation is more difficult. I have to think about what are reasonable criteria to apply and what reasoning might lead me to a certain judgment. This requires me to think about what “rules or standards for greatness” I use internally. I suspect that these are not in line with contemporary art thinking, but such self-reflection can only be useful and if nothing else, means that my evaluation is at least honest and open.

Theorising is extremely challenging. It requires a depth of understanding of art theory and specifically, how it applies to photography. I don’t kid myself: I simply don’t have such understanding and familiarity, so would be tempted to simply skip this part of the criticism.


Barrett, T. (1986) ‘A Theoretical Construct for Interpreting Photographs’. Studies in Art Education 27, no.2 (Winter 1986), pp.52-60.

Barrett, T. (1997) ‘Photographs and Contexts’. Aesthetics: A Reader In Philosophy of the Arts, David Goldblatt & Lee Brown, editors. Prentice-Hall

Barrett, T.M. (1999) Criticizing Photographs: an Introduction to Understanding Images. 3rd ed. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company


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