Book Review of Barrett’s ‘Criticizing Photographs’

My tutor emailed me a copy of this book in digital scan format to help me with Assignment 4. I found it useful so I am writing a short book review on it here.

The book is titled ‘Criticising Photographs’ which is a very literal statement about the book’s content and the author is Terry Barrett. Barrett is a reputable source because he is well educated (he has MA’s and PhD degrees in his field¹), has taught art education for forty years (he departed Ohio State University in 2009 as Professor Emeritus¹) and is a well-known art critic who’s theories have been and continue to be used to help transform thinking within the field of photography and art.

As I haven’t come across a great deal of books in this category I can’t make much of a comparison between this text and another on image interpretation. However, in comparison to the many summarising articles I read on the subject² I can say that Barrett’s work is much more in depth and therefore more useful as a long term reference.

Something that I immediately liked about the book from the first line only was the way that Barrett addresses that criticism doesn’t have to be negative, and should in fact be equally appreciative. I had always thought that critics had to be very judgemental and negative in their work as I have read many negatives reviews before by critics and obviously ‘critic’ comes from the word ‘critical’ which immediately makes me think of a negative approach. So that immediately changed my view on how to write a critical review of an image, I suddenly found that I have the freedom to write appreciatively and negatively in whatever proportions I feel appropriate according to my own opinions and my own research on the genre etc that the work falls in to.

The book is split in to 8 Chapters and I must confess that I did not read the book in order but that I jumped between the Chapters according to what I thought would be relevant to my own work. Each Chapter is then split in to sub categories and these are referenced in the Contents page with handy page numbers next to them for easy access to any given section so that a busy reader can skip to the section most relevant to him/her. I enjoyed the way that Barrett generally begins each section with descriptions followed by questions that help the reader engage with what they are reading. This really helped me to apply what I was reading to the image that I was attempting to interpret. For example at the beginning of Chapter 2 which is entitled ‘Describing Photographs’ there is the following text which includes an example of the engaging questions I have just mentioned:

‘Descriptions are answers to the questions: “What is here? What am I looking at? What do I know with certainty about this image?” The answers are identifications of what is obvious and the not so obvious.’ – Terry Barrett, pg 50 of ‘Criticising Photographs’

The book has images in it too which help to illustrate the examples given and also help to break the book down so that it isn’t just an overwhelming wedge of text. For example in Chapter 2, page 19, there is a full page image by Cindy Sherman that illustrates the passage about Cindy Sherman’s work, in particular her Untitled Film Stills project and the examples of what several different critics have said about the work. The image is there to help illustrate the points being made, as the viewer should be able to see the points being made within the actual image itself. Personally I found the inclusion of images really helpful as the text can get a bit overwhelming at times and the images helps me, as a visual learner, to connect what I am reading to the image it is in response to.

Chapter 4 entitled Types of Photographs has a section called ‘Interpretations and Feelings’ was also particularly useful to me as it highlights the use of the critics feelings in a review and how a critical review of a piece of work should include feelings and not rely solely on the intellectual aspect. I wasn’t sure how much I should add to my interpretation that wasn’t strictly research based but I now know that coming from the gut is the best base to draw a critical review on.

In conclusion I found the book very useful and I haven’t finished exploring it fully yet. It is a reference material I will continue to use throughout the duration of this course and in future work. It is invaluable to me and I would urge others to read it, at the very least by picking and choosing which parts are relevant to you at the time.


[¹] Terry Barrett, About Page on his website (accessed on 20/09/2017)

‘After about four years of high school work, I accepted an entry-level faculty position at Ohio State University, pursued art, art criticism, and aesthetics through MA and a PhD degrees, and enjoyed a forty-year career in Art Education with a joint appointment in the Department of Art, departing as Professor Emeritus in 2009. I taught, wrote books, and made art, which I continue to do today, with Susan Michael Barrett, and our nine grandchildren.’ – Terry Barrett in his About page on

[²] Other less in depth articles on the subject of image interpretation that I have read: (accessed on 15/09/2017)–cms-25495 (accessed on 15/09/2017) (accessed on 15/09/2017)