The Cruel Radiance

I haven’t yet read Susie Linfield’s The Cruel Radiance, Photography and Political Violence but I must, and the short excerpt available on American Suburb X makes me think I must find the time to do so.

I’ve long  said that the problem with most of the criticism of photography is that the people who write it don’t really look at the pictures and don’t have a real understanding of the medium – perhaps because relatively few of them have ever really become or tried to be photographers. In the excerpt, Linfield starts by reminding us that the great critics of other artistic media were truly in love with it and then writes “The great exception to this approach is photography criticism.” The paragraph ends ” It’s hard to resist the thought that a very large number of photography critics—including the most influential ones—don’t really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all.”

She then goes on to suggest why this is and how it exhibits itself in the work of Susan SontagRoland Barthes, John Berger (who she describes as “the most morally cogent and emotionally perceptive critic that photography has produced“), and several others who feature highly on photography course reading lists.

The excerpt ends with her comparing the work of movie critic Pauline Kael, truly smitten with her medium and producing great insights with “the postmoderns’ obsession with victimization, their refusal of freedom, their congenital crabbiness” and asks  why photography critics have rejected the “quest for the synthesis of thought and feeling—and the essentially comradely, or at least open, approach to art that it suggests” which “was the central project for generations of critics, especially American critics in the twentieth century.”

It is a good question and exceptionally well put, and I look forward to reading her answer to it and her thoughts about photojournalism and particularly the photography of violent events that this work addresses. The publisher’s text on their web site end:

A bracing and unsettling book, The Cruel Radiance convincingly demonstrates that if we hope to alleviate political violence, we must first truly understand it—and to do that, we must begin to look.

Looking, and looking critically,  at the images should surely be the start of all photographic criticism and should be at the basis of all photographic courses. And perhaps we should all ritually burn those scrawled-over copies of ‘On Photography.’

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.