CRITICISM – 4. DESCRIBING FORM

Vedat Konyali - Downtown Houston 2008

Vedat Konyali – Downtown Houston 2008

Form refers to how the subject matter is presented. In 1930s, photographer and painter Ben Shahn defined the form as t he shape of content. Descriptive statements about a photograph’s form concern how it is:

  • composed,
  • arranged, and
  • constructed visually.

We can attend to a photograph’s form by considering how it uses “formal elements.”

Photography has inherited these formal elements from other art forms such as dot, line, shape, light and value, color, texture, mass, space, and volume. Other formal elements identified for photographs include black and white tonal range;subject contrast; film contrast; negative contrast; paper contrast; film format; point of view, which includes the distance from which the photograph was made and the lens that was used; angle and lens; frame and edge; depth of field; sharpness of grain; and degree of focus.

To name the objects is to be descriptive, but to say how the objects become exotic and mysterious is to interpret the photographs.

 ______________________________________________________________________

Jan Groover

Jan Groover

Jan Groover

Jan Groover

Jan Groover

Jan Groover

 ______________________________________________________________________

In an essay for an exhibition catalogue of Jan Groover’s work, Susan Kismaric provides a
paragraph that is a wonderful example of how a critic can describe form and its
effects on subject matter:

Jan Groover

Jan Groover

“The formal element put to most startling use in these pictures is the scale of the objects in them.
Houseplants, knives, forks, and spoons appear larger than life. Our common understanding
of the meaning of these pedestrian objects is transformed to a perception
of them as exotic and mysterious. Arrangements of plates, knives,
and houseplants engage and delight our sight through their glamorous new
incarnation while they simultaneously undermine our sense of their purpose in
the natural world. Meticulously controlled artificial light contributes to
this effect. Reflections of color and shapes on glass, metal,  and water,
perceived only for an instant or not at all in real life, are stilled here, creating a new
subject for our contemplation. The natural colors of the things photographed are
intensified and heightened. Organic objects are juxtaposed with manmade ones.
Soft textures balance against, and touch, hard ones. The sensuous is pitted
against the elemental.”

Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz

The formal elements to which Kismaric refers are light, color, and texture; the principles
of design are scale, arrangements of objects, and juxtapositions. She cites
scale as the most dominant design principle and then describes the effects of
Groover’s use of scale on the photographs and our perception of them. She identifies
the light as artificial and tells us that it is meticulously controlled. The
colors are natural; some of the shapes are manufactured and others are organic,
and they are juxtaposed. She identifies the textures as soft and hard, sensuous
and elemental. Kismaric’s description of these elements, and her explanation of
their effects, contributes to our knowledge and enhances our appreciation of
Groover’s work. Kismaric’s paragraph shows how a critic simultaneously
describes subject matter and form and also how in a single paragraph a critic
describes, interprets, and evaluates.

  • To name the objects is to be descriptive,
  • but to say how the objects become exotic and mysterious is to interpret the photographs.

The tone of the whole paragraph is very positive. After reading the paragraph we know that
Kismaric thinks Groover’s photographs are very good and we are provided reasons
for this judgment based on her descriptions of the photographs.

  1. Related Articles:

References / Resources:

Barrett, Terry (2006). Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. Mayfield Publishing Company, California, U.S.A.

http://www.masters-of-photography.com/S/sherman/sherman_96_full.html

http://www.artnet.com/artists/joel-peter-witkin/artworks-for-sale

http://www.moma.org/

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