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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Positions and Practice – Critical Theory

Everyday we look at the world around us. We observe and recognise things. Our brains make sense of what we see and give it both a context and meaning.

Our society is increasingly filled with visual images. Each image has a purpose and has been published for a purpose. The images can produce a multitude of response and emotions dependent on the content and on the viewer and their life experiences. A single image can be interpreted in many ways by different audiences.

My understanding of critical theory is how a photograph is interpreted and understood.  The first step to seeing a photograph clearly is to think clearly about it.  We can do this by critically analysing a photograph for context and meaning in terms of a range of perspectives:- philosophical,  cultural, economic, social, technological, historical etc.

Each person interprets a photograph differently based on their own experiences and how these experiences have shaped their lives.  They also interpret images in terms of the perspectives that matter most to them.  This interpretation may not be what the photographer intended and may adversely affect how the viewer perceives the photographer and their work.

Critical theory matters because reading constructive criticism about images can increase our knowledge and appreciation of the work.  By considering a range of perspectives and answering descriptive, interpretive and evaluative questions about photographs, we can expand our awareness of and alter our perception of the work.  This in turn helps us to improve our own practice. We consider our photographs in terms of different perspectives and can work to ensure interpretation of our images is clearer and not ambiguous where possible.

In The End of Art Theory, Victor Burgin stated that ‘although photography is a ‘visual medium’, it is not a ‘purely visual’ medium. I am not alluding simply to the fact that we rarely see a photograph in use which is not accompanied by writing (albeit this is a highly significant fact), even the uncaptioned ‘art’ photograph, framed and isolated on the gallery wall, is invaded by language in the very moment it is looked at: in memory, in association, snatched of words and images continually intermingle and exchange one for the other. It will be objected that this is indistinct and insignificant background noise to our primary act of seeing.’ [1]

I think that this is a good example of effective theory in practice because critical theory is about considering how a photograph is interpreted and understood. We experience images in many ways and we often do not have a choice on how the image affects us. I had the chance to test out this aspect of critical theory recently when I asked a diverse group of people what a selection of my images were about.  The answers were very surprising and in many cases, not what I had anticipated at all.  The age and life experience of the viewer played a part in how they reacted to the images. I will consider this in another blog post this week.

To reinforce his point further, Burgin goes on to say ‘we cannot choose what we know, and neither can we chose what part of our dormant knowledge will be awakened by the stimulus of an image, reciprocally reactivated and reinforced by it.  Regardless of how much we may strain to maintain a ‘disinterested’ aesthetic mode of apprehension, an appreciation of the ‘purely visual’, when we look at an image it is instantly and irreversibly integrated and collated with the intricate psychic network of our knowledge.  It is the component meanings of this network that an image must represent, there is no choice in this.’ [1]


[1] Burgin, Victor (1980)  The End of Art Theory – Criticism and Postmodernity. [online] Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Distribution Ltd.  Available from (Links to an external site.)[Accessed 19 November 2016]

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