Critical Analysis and Writing about Art and Photography


 I had a brief look, again, at Semiotics and also read two very helpful books. I’ll start with the more intellectually difficult.


In order to understand how something has been created you have to take it apart before you can put it back together. Remembering though that that will be based on my own understandings and assumptions that I will need to unpick at the same time.

Jacques Derrida

The inventor of “deconstruction” – an ill-defined habit of dismantling texts by revealing their assumptions and contradictions – was indeed and unfortunately, one of the most cited modern scholars in the humanities.
                                        (Obituary in The Economist 21st October 2004)

Surely this was a tongue-in-cheek! There was resistance to Derrida’s way of thinking but perhaps it was the way that he explained it that was too entangled in words to find a way through it all.

….one of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn’t natural, to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural

That was the message I got from that short video and I almost felt that I didn’t want to research deconstruction any more for the time being because I didn’t want to get lost in a sea of words.

Another (long) obituary from The Guardian included

He argued that understanding something requires a grasp of the ways in which it relates to other things and a capacity to recognise it on other occasions and in different contexts – which can never be exhaustively predicted. He coined the term “difference” to characterise these aspects of understanding …

Intertextuality .

We all come to read a text or photograph from a very different place. I thought more about the photographers intention, the fact that the photographer is both ‘viewer’ of what s/he sees and also constructs the image. Example recently of another experiment. Six photographers were asked to photograph the same person but were told different stories about their backgrounds. How far were they influenced by this but, then, how much is a photograph a result of the photographer’s style anyway. See here 

The way something is presented visually can re-inforce or subvert cultural and personal assumptions and also manipulate our way of thinking . A recent Photoworks article by Helen Cammock gives the example of Clarissa Sligh and the books Reading Dick and Jane with Me (1989) where she juxtaposed cyanotype processes with crude ink sketching and text ‘to interrupt the depiction of a white middle class suburban family as normal for most Americans’ in the old school textbooks the Dick and Jane Readers”. I was interested as well in the work of the twin sisters Amrit and Rabindra Singh  they are contemporary artists, born in London, who have developed a genre that combines traditional Indian miniature painting with European aesthetics.

Semiotics and Roland Barthes

Regarding Barthes and the ‘death of the author’ , ‘author’ does not denote the creator of a book or photograph etc but the ‘Author’ the critical institution which maintains its control of the meaning of literary texts by making the author’s life and times the key to the only possible reading. This then closed down the possibility of new interpretations ‘based on attention to the signifiers themselves – textual characteristics, including the story, the images, the genre, allusions to other texts, or surprising breaks with expectation’ (C. Belsey 2002:20).

I have found Daniel Chandler’s online book Semiotics for Beginners invaluable in beginning to get to grips with semiotic theory and Barthes. Barthes applied Ferdinand de Saussure’s ‘dyadic’ model of the ‘sign’ (composed of a ‘signifier’ – the form the sign takes – and the ‘signified’ – the concept it represents) to images. Before going there – the relationship between the signifier and its signified is described by two terms – denotation and connotation. These terms cover literal obvious, everyday meaning of a sign (denotation) and cultural, personal associations (connotation). Barthes paid more attention to connotation and his model covered:

Sign : the overall effect of a photograph
Signifier : the actual picture, its formal and conceptual elements
Signified : what we think of when we see the picture – straightforward, metaphorical or conceptual. This can often be ‘guided’ by the photographer but, in the final analysis, is a product of the viewer’s perception.
Studum : the photographer’s cultural, political or social meaning
Punctum : an element within the picture that disrupts the narrative – punctures the meaning and takes off at a different tangent. It may even provide a contradiction or at least an alternative reading. May also be the point in the photograph that gives the viewer a personal connection with it above other elements.

Barthes illustrated this through analysis of advertisements and I think it does most suit them, rather than photographs. Perhaps this is because advertisements are more obvious in their persuasions. One aspect I have become increasingly aware of is how, now, advertisements also tell a story about a person (usually some kind of celebrity). A story that makes them more ‘like me’ and someone I could possibly emulate if I wished. I subscribe to Source magazine  and so regularly read articles by Judith Williamson, and also follow the blog Sociological Images that examines the way in which we are influenced by imagery.

The C&N Handbook asks us to look at an advertising image from a newspaper supplement and I used one from the Style Magazine of The Sunday Times of 27th September 2015.


I was so interested in how the ad paints the three rugby playing brothers as ordinary Yorkshire lads, whilst allying them with the more famous Russell Crowe with the back story that many readers probably know about how they love their mum (studum). I think women might be influenced to buy those products for their sons or grandsons. I also noted how obviously the products fitted the young men and also they reminded me of older images of Greek gods and Olympic athletes (signified). I was interested as well in how young people might be influenced by the ad and so asked my grandson and his girlfriend to look.

My grandson said the ad made him look because it was of rugby players (sign). If it was footballers he wouldn’t look twice, plus the timing was good for the World Rugby. He thought they had good physiques for a man and are doing a manly sport. The phrase ‘sexual tribe’ caught his attention – he could be a part of that (signified) and also the mention of the wet-gel look. His girlfriend said she was attracted by the good-looking men (sign) who look rugby fit and hunky (signified) (she prefers them to footballers). She likes to buy things for her boyfriend and liked the idea of the facial moisturizer and the fatigue eye gel so he would look less tired. (signified) She also pointed out how the visual simplicity of the ad might attract a young man – three sections of picture, text and product (signifier). I can see how Barthes’ theory fits here.

Chandler outlines criticisms of Semiotic Analysis and I was surprised to learn that it is ‘…now widely regarded primarily as one mode of analysis amongst others rather than as a ‘science’ of cultural forms’. On the other hand, Semiotic Analysis has its strengths as well

Semiotics can help us to make us aware of what we take for granted in representing the world, reminding us that we are always dealing with signs, not with an unmediated objective reality, and that sign systems are involved in the construction of meaning.


Barnet, S (2011) A Short Guide to Writing About Art Tenth Edition Pearson

This covers a variety of structures that can be used for writing about Art, e.g. comparisons, eflective Essays and Exhibition reviews. It looks at interpretation and asks the question, “Are All Interpretations Equally Valid?”. Barnet looks at style in writing, research and some critical approaches, e.g. Gender Studies and Psychoanalytic Studies, Iconography and Iconology.

Regarding the meaning of ‘Critical”

Critical comes from a Greek word, krinein, meaning “to separate” “to choose”; it implies conscious, deliberate inquiry, and especially it implies a sceptical state of mind but a sceptical state of mind is not a negative, self-satisfied, fault-finding state of mind. Quite the reverse: because critical thinkers wish to draw sound conclusions, they apply their scepticism to their own assumptions, to their own evidence, and indeed toward all aspects of their own thinking as well as toward that of others. (2011;14)

Barnet has much to say regarding art and culture, for instance, ‘white cube’ museum displays where objects are taken out of their original cultural context (and functional meaning) and presented as having a new value of artistic merit. “Some critics argue that to do this and regard it as an independent work of art by discussing it in aesthetic terms is itself a Eurocentric (Western) colonial assault on the other culture, a denial of that culture’s unique identity” (ibid p. 31). On the other hand, since the 1970s

… it is common for art historians to borrow ideas from a new breed of anthropologists, who tell us that we can never grasp the meaning of an object from another culture and that we can understand only what it means in our culture. That is we study it to learn what economic forces caused us to wrest the work from its place of origin and what psychological forces cause us to display it on our walls. (ibid p, 31)

 That’s two ways to look at art. The importance is to argue an interpretation rather than repressing a personal response. To support your interpretation with evidence, be coherent and use appropriate language.

Regarding photography, Barnet provides a list of questions to ask such as technical, physical and formal properties, and use of space and light. “What do you think the photographer was trying to say in this image? To ask myself what I think the photographer was trying to convey and what aspects are being accentuated. What seems to be the photographer’s attitude towards the subject and what is being conveyed to me now regarding a place, time, person, event or culture?

Critical Approaches – Headings to remind me

  • Social History : from a Marxist standpoint
  • Deconstructions : denies that the individual artist establishes the meaning of a work

The above – sometimes called the New Art History, cultural materialism or cultural criticism – often call a work ‘a text’ and studies it in terms of the conditions of its production and reception. “The interest is less in aesthetic judgment than in moral or political judgment, especially in matters of race, gender and class (2011:244).

  • Gender Studies: Feminist Criticism and Gay and Lesbian Studies
  • Biographical writing : the life and times of
  • Psychoanalytic Studies
  • Iconology : why images mean what they mean


Barrett, T (2006) Criticizing Photographs : An Introduction to Understanding Images, Fourth Edition, NY, McGraw-Hill

Reinforces the fact that Criticism is ‘informed’ and looks at kinds of criticism. I hadn’t thought about this before but really got the difference now between ‘subject’ and ‘subject matter’ (p.21) e.g. Tunick’s photo of 4,500 nude people in a park. The nude people are the subject matter, ‘ its subject is interpreted as a call for personal freedom’.

What do I see:

  • Formal elements : how the photograph is composed, arranged and visually constructed.
  • Medium : king of film and technical information
  • Style : can be more interpretive than descriptive.
  • Comparing and contrasting : other works, works by other artists. What’s in common and what differs. Compare to other professions, writers, artists etc.

Regarding Interpreting Photographs. Barrett provides some excellent examples of critical writing by different critics and a long list of Principles for describing photographs (p. 36). He also points out that feelings provide important clues to learning about the content of an image – how we need to relate those feelings back to the image, ‘…..if interpretation is snot references to visual properties [in the image] discourse leaves the realm of criticism and becomes conjecture, therapy, reminiscence or some other manner of purely subjective functioning’ (p. 58) .

Having provided an overview of Interpretive Perspectives and Strategies (pp 47-51) which are pretty similar to those Barnet uses, Barrett moves on to Categories of Photographs that have been proposed by different critics/curators, e.g. Szarkowski’s ‘window’ and ‘mirrors’ but then goes on to proposing new Categories (p. 63)

  • Descriptive
  • Explanatory : such as ones dealing with subject matter specific to a particular time and place and that can be dated by visual evidence in the photographs
  • Interpretive : personal and subjective, more like poetry. E.g. Duane Michals
  • Ethically Evaluative : how things ought or ought not to be, as Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, FSA etc.
  • Aesthetically Evaluative : worth of aesthetic observation and contemplation
  • Theoretical : Photographs about photography

Of course, a photograph can fall into more than one of these categories.

Contextual information

Internal (descriptively evident); original (psychologically present to the photographer at the time; external (situation in which the photograph is presented, or re-presented. The external context affects how the photograph is understood, especially if text is added. Barrett (p. 116) provides a comprehensive interpretation of a Barbara Kruger photograph  based on contextual information to show how context can be used to understand photographs and goes on to consider the photograph against his six categories.

Judging Photographs

Judgments (statements about worth or value) are ‘appraisals that are based on reasons that are founded in criteria’ (p.128). There are different criteria (examples given p.133) that lead to different judgments of the same work. This took me back to the various authors I had read who commented on Francesca Woodman’s work. E.g. feminism; does her work show a disordered mind; her work is exploration of and an attempt to explore the two-dimensionality of a photograph and convert it into three dimensions.

Photography Theory

Edward Weston and Paul Strand implemented their theories in their photographs. In the 1920s Weston Weston accused pictorialist photographers of not making “photographs” but of ‘making pseudo-paintings’. Thinking of this – there is now criticism of ‘beautiful’ landscape photography that, in itself, has been subverted by some photographers e.g. Simon Norfolk. Historians of photography are influences by their theories. Curators build new theory and influence accepted theory by their choices. This particularly interested me Example given of how MOMA didn’t give Exhibitions to some Photographers who had widespread support in other museums such as the Whitney.

Writers who theorize about photography are not inquiring about a particular photograph, although they use particular photographs for examples. They are exploring photography in general, attempting to answer how it is like and how it is different from other forms of picturing.  (p. 178)


 What do I take from all this? Basically to describe how I view the photograph; look at i’s formal qualities and how the photographer is shaping my view. Look at the overall context – internal, original and external. Then to interpret the photograph what it connotes for me, the meaning I take from it and to provide evidence for this from within the image. Barnet and Barrett have provided a rich source of different ways in which I can approach the interpretation and the most important aspect of this is to be clear about the approaches I use and coherent in outlining my arguments.



Barnet, S (2011) A Short Guide to Writing About Art Tenth Edition, Pearson.
Barrett, T (2006) Criticizing Photographs : An Introduction to Understanding Images 4th Edition, NY McGraw-Hill,

(Accessed 24.11.2015)