I have been thinking about this blog entry for a long time. I know we need critics in all aspects of life. Often they are journalists who keep our politicians, governments, corporations and yes, even artists in check. There is no denying that critique is an important part of any reasonable conversation about a work of art. There is a world of checks and balances out there and one probably does not exist in the proper form without the other. But, what is the role of the art critic, and how does one make sure that whatever the critic writes – because they usually write and rarely comment directly to the artist in person, or in a public forum – is reasonable and adds to the dialogue?
I think here of Anton Ego, the caricature of a food critic in the cartoon Ratatouille. He knows that he can end careers of chefs and close restaurants with the stroke of a pen, and likewise on rare occasions, if his distinct palette is satisfied, he may write a praising review that will give a restaurant, or a chef, reservations into next year, or the year after that. He is ultimately turned to the light by a dish from his childhood that has him recall mother’s cooking. Simplicity, much like a successful, great street photograph.
In the art world, careers are made, or indeed tanked, depending on the mood, opinion, and sometimes the personal history of a particular critic. Off the top of my head, I cannot recall a critic in open dialogue with an artist, other than maybe including the odd quote from an artist’s statement at an exhibition. I don’t know why this is the way it is? Wouldn’t it be fair if the artist had a certain number of days to respond before a critic publishes a perspective on a body of work, or exhibition?
I clipped the following from an Irish critic, Sean Sheehan from the website https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/, a great source for an assortment of exhibitions, portfolios and stories all related to photography. Mr. Sheehan’s bio, which I could only find on LensCulture.com describes him as: “… a writer, based in West Cork and London. He has written a number of books…, including Jack’s World,… about Irish farming life in the last century. He writes about photography for The Irish Times and other publications.” There is no evidence that I can find that he would consider himself a photographer, which may suggest a limited understanding of what a street photographer considers when making a photograph. Regardless, he has the following to say about one of the more iconic images of kids playing in New York, as seen through the lens of one of the greats of the 20th century (the image is shown at the end, but I encourage you to read the commentary first):
“A good example is her photo of two boys handling glass fragments from a broken mirror. What transcends the whimsical happenstance of a boy on a bike looking down from within the frame of the broken mirror is the bigger semiotic picture of manual (the word comes from the Latin for ‘hand’) activity taking place around him. As well as the boy’s own hands holding his bicycle – and a hand on a second bicycle intrudes at one edge of the picture – there are hands holding the mirror’s frame, a child’s hand in his pocket, and, central to all of this, the handling of the broken glass by the two boys, their vulnerability arising from their task imitated in empathy by the two hands of the boy on the left looking down at them. The background provides other layers to the composition: lettering on the laundry’s window and other shop signs: a woman’s grasp of a pram; the gesturing of three girls and the man in the straw hat. The hand of the adult seen contingently glancing at the children is not actively deployed, she just happens to be walking past, but is at one with the others in owning the space of the street; it is their polis, contracted down to the space of a sidewalk.”
Now, if you haven’t already figured it out – don’t be embarrassed, because I couldn’t figure it out without the illustration – here it is:
Those of you into street photography will know that there are milliseconds between the perfect shot, such as this, and the one that got away. In my humble opinion, the kids are not looking at the camera, which suggests the shot was taken quickly. Likewise, the boy on the tricycle in the frame of the broken mirror would only have been fully framed for a second, or two before being cut off by the frame. The photographer would have had a split second to make the image. No consideration of the placement of hands, or any other of the observations made above.
When you photograph on the street there is a tendency to center the subject of your shot in the frame. If there is time to compose, often the main subject will be placed off-centre, for a more classic composition and following the general rules of composition, but when on the street, there is often no time for this consideration. The natural tendency is to make sure you get the shot by placing the main subject in the center of your frame. All this suggests that Helen Levitt was in a hurry.
As a photographer, one of the fun challenges that most everyone attempts at some point in their life is the frame-in-frame. Finding a square through which one scene is visible, while the frame itself forms part of a greater whole. It is hard to do well, but when successful can be a thing of beauty. I would venture that Helen Levitt was focused entirely on the mirror frame and the boy on the tricycle. The rest was good luck and a bonus.
The question I am trying to raise is whether the world has gained anything by Sean Sheehan’s writings about Levitt’s work. He writes an extended description, invoking Latin not once, but twice, to show his knowledge of art theory, leaving the purity and beauty of Levitt’s work not to the brilliant image, but something one might apply to a carefully constructed painting, completely ignoring why we love street photographs in the first place, namely the immediacy and skill it takes to execute a wonderful photograph in a fraction of a second.
I liken Sean Sheehan’s observations of Levitt’s masterpiece to the ruining of a great song when someone truly messed up licenses a song for a television commercial, forever ruining the song with a miserable association that your mind cannot dismiss, or forget. Sometimes a critic is best off saying nothing and letting the photograph speak for itself. Levitt famously was very short on comments, or any real discussion of her work. She let her photographs do the talking. Amen.
All I see now are hands and more hands. Such a shame.