CRITICISM – 7. COMPARING AND CONTRASTING
A common method of critically analyzing a photographer’s work is to compare and contrast it to:
- other work by the same photographer,
- other photographers’ works, or
- works by other artists (painters, etc.).
To compare and contrast is to see what the work in question has in common with and how the work differs from another body of work.
Each of the critics under consideration here descriptively compares Avedon’s work to that of other photographers. Douglas Davis (*) compares the size of Avedon’s American West project to the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century documentary projects of William Henry Jackson and Edward Curtis.
Jackson was an explorer, writer, and photographer who over twenty-five years produced tens of thousands of negatives of Indians and the western landscape. Curtis published twenty volumes of The North American lndian between 1907 and 1934. Although Davis compares the three photographers, he does not equate Avedon with the other two in terms of merit. In a judgment and not a description, Davis states that “Avedon is no Jackson or Curtis.”
Critics need not limit their comparisons of a photographer to another photographer. William Wilson makes comparative references between Avedon and several others of various professions, most of whom are not photographers but rather literary sources he knows and figures in fashion and popular culture:
- Sam Shepard is an American playwright, actor, and television and film director. He is the author of several books of short stories, essays, and memoirs, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play Buried Child. Shepard was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983).
- Edward Curtis was a photographer of the American West and of Native American peoples.
- Mathew Brady was one of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers, best known for his portraits of celebrities and his documentation of the American Civil War. He is credited with being the father of photojournalism.
- August Sander was a German portrait and documentary photographer. has been described as “the most important German portrait photographer of the early twentieth century.
- Joan Didion is an American author best known for her novels and her literary journalism. Her novels explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos commented upon by her essays, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.
- Norman Mailer was an American novelist, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, and film director. Along with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, John McPhee, and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the style and devices of literary fiction onto fact – based journalism. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice and the National Book Award once. In 1955, Mailer, together with John Wilcock, Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, first published The Village Voice, which began as an arts and politics oriented weekly newspaper distributed in Greenwich Village. In 2005, he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation.
- Truman Capote was an American author, many of whose short stories, novels, plays, and nonfiction are recognized literary classics, including the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and the true crime novel In Cold Blood (1966), which he labeled a “nonfiction novel.” At least 20 films and television dramas have been produced from Capote novels, stories and screenplays.
- Evel Knievel was an American daredevil and entertainer. In his career he attempted over 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980, and in 1974, a failed jump across Snake River Canyon in the Skycycle X-2, a steam-powered rocket. The 433 broken bones he suffered during his career earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the survivor of “most bones broken in a lifetime.
- Salvador Dali was a prominent Spanish Catalan surrealist painter born in Figueres. Dalí was a skilled draftsman, best known for the striking and bizarre images in his surrealist work. His painterly skills are often attributed to the influence of Renaissance masters.
- Elsa Schiaparelli was an Italian fashion designer. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli’s designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti.), Charles James (was a fashion designer known as America’s first couturier. He is considered a master of cutting and is known for his highly structured aesthetic.
- Andy Warhol was an American painter, printmaker, and filmmaker who was a leading figure in the visual art movement known as pop art. After a successful career as a commercial illustrator, Warhol became famous worldwide for his work as a painter, avant-garde filmmaker, record producer, author, and member of highly diverse social circles that included Bohemian street people, distinguished intellectuals, Hollywood celebrities and wealthy patrons.
- Tom Wolfe is a best-selling American author and journalist. He is one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
- Calvin Klein (),
- Georgia O’Keeffe O’Keeffe not only carved out a significant place for women painters in an area of the American art community that had been exclusive to and is still dominated by men, but also she had become one of America’s most celebrated cultural icons well before her death at age 98 in 1986. Her abstract imagery of the 1910s and early 1920s is among the most innovative of any work produced in the period by American artists. She revolutionized the tradition of flower painting in the 1920s by making large-format paintings of enlarged blossoms, presenting them close up as if seen through a magnifying lens.
- Ansel Adams was an American photographer and environmentalist, best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West, especially in Yosemite National Park.
- Irving Penn was an American photographer known for his portraiture and fashion photography.
Wilson compares Avedon to other storytellers and to others who bridged the gap between fashion and art, because he interpretively understands Avedon to be telling stories and attempting to transcend fashion with his photographs.
Of all the critics considered here, Susan Weiley makes the most use of in-depth comparisons, paying particular attention to the similarities and mostly the differences between Avedon’s work and that of Robert Frank, AugustSander, and Diane Arbus. She cites Robert Frank’s book, The Americans (1959), because like Avedon’s it is “a harsh vision of America” and because both men are outsiders to the cultures they photographed: Frank is Swiss, and Avedon is not a cowboy. To compare Avedon with Frank, Sander, and Arbus,Weiley has to describe each ones photographs and manner of working and then specify how each photographer’s work is different from and similar to that of the others.
(*) When Richard Avedon’s photographs “In the American West” were first shown, in 1985, Douglas Davis was in the difficult position in which art critics often find themselves- he had to write some of the first words about some new and challenging work. He also had to write for an audience of readers who had not seen the work. Avedon’s American West work is now relatively well known because it has been exhibited and has been available in book form since 1985, and it has been considered by several critics.
- CRITICISM – 1: DEFINITION and VALUE of CRITICISM
- CRITICISM – 2: DEFINING DESCRIPTION
- CRITICISM – 3: DESCRIBING SUBJECT MATTER
- CRITICISM – 4: DESCRIBING FORM
- CRITICISM – 5: DESCRIBING MEDIUM
- CRITICISM – 6: DESCRIBING STYLE
- CRITICISM – 7: COMPARING and CONTRASTING
- CRITICISM – 8: INTERPRETING PHOTOGRAPHS
References / Resources:
- Barrett, Terry (2006). Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. Mayfield Publishing Company, California, U.S.A.