Attacking Adam's fundamental tenet that suburban development was eclipsing the Western landscape, Alice S. Williams writes
"People wouldn't live in these areas in these houses if they didn't like the area or didn't have to live there for one reason or another..."
Then Williams takes on Adams:
"What right does he have to protest? That the photographs are meaningless and dull just points out that he isn't a good photographer, not that the new West is becoming meaningless and dull...Rows and rows of endless roads take up space in the book. These pictures are not pretty, rarely enlightening, and not even striking. They are merely dull."
Ouch! Now that is what you call a negative review. Nevermind the fact that I totally disagree with it. When I read that it jarred me, I think because it is so rare nowadays to encounter negative reviews.
This is the age of reference and, it seems, reverence. The internet is awash with links and recommendations about all sorts of photographs, most of them glowing reviews. Surely they can't all be great. Where are the links which say, "This work sucks. Avoid it."? I know such work is out there but if such reviews are I haven't seen them.
Perhaps some of it is due to the fear of winding up on the wrong side of history as Williams did, or Hilton Kramer with his infamous pan of William Eggleston's MOMA show:
"Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly...He likes trucks, cars, tricycles, unremarkable suburban houses and dreary landscapes too, and he especially likes his family and friends, who may for all I know be wonderful people, who appear in these pictures as dismal figures inhabiting a commonplace world of little visual interest."
There are probably many people still who find Adams and Eggleston boring but few would dispute their contributions to photography. So that may be part of it, the fear that a negative review will be remembered later as an example of sciolism.
But I think the larger reason is that the photography world is an informal pat-on-the-back society. If you plug my photos I'll plug yours. Or I'll show my photos in your gallery if you write something positive. It's one big happy family so long as no one rocks the boat with a harsh critique.
Great, but that doesn't change the fact that not all of the photography out there is exciting. Surely some of it must rub some of us wrong. Let's write about it.
Which brings me to Jeff Ladd's recent lambasting of Nan Goldin at Arles, probably the most negative photography critique I've yet seen online. I think it took some guts for Ladd to post this. Goldin's star may not be as bright as it once was but she's still Nan Goldin, one of photography's few undisputed superstars. Mr. Whiskets comes out swinging:
"Unfortunately there was NOTHING in this installation that did not reek of trivial art school melodrama - from the use of religious imagery and paintings that opened the show, to the bad videos that littered the screens. The most infuriating of all is that Nan's incompetence at creating anything beyond cliche was actually an offense to the memory of her sister..."
Whether or not you agree with Ladd you have to credit him with an honest appraisal which pulls no punches. The blogosphere could use more of these. Otherwise it's just a sea of warm feelings. The doldrums.
So let's hear it. Tell me what you don't like. If a certain body of work bores you, let it out. If you think this post is full of shit, tell me. If you know of a particularly eviscerating review somewhere on the web please pass it along. Stir the pot. Create some waves. Celebrate the negative.