CRITICISM – 5. DESCRIBING MEDIUM

The term medium refers to what an art object is made of.

Descriptive statements about an image’s  medium usually identify it as a photograph, an oil painting, or an etching.

They may also include information about the kind and size of film that was used, the size of the print, whether it is black and white or in color, characteristics of the camera that was used, and other technical information about how the picture was made, including how the photographer photographs.

Thus the description of medium involves more than just using museum labels, as in labeling Jan Groover’s images as “three chromogenic color prints,” or “platinum-palladium print,” or “Gelatin-silver print.”

To fully describe the medium a photographer is using is not only to iterate facts about the process he or she uses, the type of camera, and kind of print, but also to discuss these things in light of the effects their use has on their expression and overall impact.

Richard Avedon at work

Richard Avedon at work

Each of the critics of “In the American West” writes about how Avedon made the pictures. Davis tells us that:

  • Avedon’s prints are uncropped and not retouched,
  • the subjects were illuminated with natural light in front of white paper, and
  • Avedon held 752 photo sessions with the subjects of the portraits andshot 17,000
    sheets of film.

He also relates that:

  • Avedon used an 8- by 10-inchDeardorff view camera, which allowed him to stand close to the subjects and talk to them as he shot.
Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon

Wilson:

  • mentions the camera and tripod, the rolls of white paper for background, and
  • Avedon’s ability to stand by his subjects rather than behind the camera when shooting.

He also tells us that:

  • Avedon held 752 shooting sessions and adds that he did this work over five consecutive
    summers, traveling through seventeen western states, from Kansas to California.

Weiley does not detail much technical information, but she:

  • Describes Avedon’s positioning of the subjects in front of white paper on location and
  • tells us that two assistants loaded his camera.
  • describes his method of photographing and interprets the psychological effects of his
    method: “He is in total control, has complete authority over his subjects.
    He selects, arranges, directs, just as he would a fashion shot.”
Jan Groover

Jan Groover

In her essay on Groover’s work, Kismaric (Cririticism-4: Describing Form):

  • specifies that some of the still Iifes are done in the platinum-palladium process.
  • explains that this method of working was invented in  1873 for its permanence,
  • but she also details its aesthetic qualities-“delicacy, soft grays, and warm tones.”

Kismaric considers further Groover’s choice of photography rather than painting even though Groover was trained as a painter: “By using photography instead of painting, Groover complicates the notion of representation, and emphasizes the capacity of photography to make works of the imagination.”

Peter Joel Witkin - History of the White World

Peter Joel Witkin – History of the White World

Joel Peter Witkin

Joel Peter Witkin – Comtess de Maublanc Paris

Critics of Witkin’s work usually discuss how he uses the medium of photography. Gary Indiana, in a review in Art in America, says that:

  • ” many of the prints have been made to look like daguerreotypes salvaged from partial decomposition” and adds that
  • “the edges are scored with black lines and smudges suggestive of Action Painting.”

In a review in Artweek, Hal Fischer also describes how Witkin treats the medium of photography and posits some of the effects of his treatments: “By etching into his negatives and selectively bleaching and toning the prints, this artist imbues his imagery with a nineteenth century aura without compromising the sense of photographic reality.”

In the same publication a year later, Jim Jordan:

  • agrees that Witkin’s formal treatments of his photographs make them look old, from the eighteenth century and the court of Louis XVI.
  • Jordan further relates that Witkin uses a Rolleiflex camera, prints on Portriga paper, sometimes through a tissue paper overIay that he sprinkles with water and toning chemicals.”
Uta Barth

Uta Barth

Uta Barth makes photographs in the spirit of conceptual art that examine and pointedly utilize distinctive characteristics of the medium of photography, such as camera movement, position, nonstationary subject, scale, or focus. According to critic Andrew Perchuk, Barths photographs are “boiled down to an almost topological study of how the photographic apparatus orients and disorients the
viewer.”

Thus the description of medium involves more than just using museum labels, as in labeling Jan Groover’s images as “three chromogenic color prints,” or “platinum-palladium print,” or “Gelatin-silver print.” To fully describe the medium a photographer is using is not only to iterate facts about the process he or she uses, the type of camera, and kind of print, but also to discuss these things in light of the effects their use has on their expression and overall impact. Critics might more fully explore these effects as part of their interpretation or judgment of the work, but they ought to explicitly mention the properties of the medium in the descriptive phase of criticism.

References / Resources:

  • Barrett, Terry (2006). Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. Mayfield Publishing Company, California, U.S.A.
  • http://www.artnet.com
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