August Sander

Above: August Sander, Publishing Executive, 1929. Credit: Getty.

Empathy Test

One basic-but-effective way of discoursing critically on a photographic image under review is to score out-of-ten its empathetic quotient: the level of empathy and connection that the photographer seems to have with the subject or sitter. A score of 10 represents extreme empathy with the subjects depicted. I would score Robert Capa's photos of US troops landing on Omaha Beach, Normandy France, 6 June 1944 as 9 or 10. Some of the images in Larry Clark Tulsa are 10s. Some of Nancy Goldin's photos from The Ballad are 9 or 10 for me.

At the other end of the scale be sure to pay attention to the lower limit: 0 not 1. Zero degrees of empathy is a key reference in terms of critical discussions around a photo because this score implies no emotional affective engagement whatsoever. So in this zero category comes medical photographs of bodily organs, CAT scan imaging, a Gatso roadside speed-camera image, and so on. A crime-scene photo (of a murder) is made by a human who acts with reverence around the cadaver so this elevates such forensic images to at least 1 or 2.

Such scoring gets interesting when you have to interrogate a photo which does not telegraph its score. (Nancy Goldin's photos, for example, are very obviously loaded up with affect.) So, Atget? Sander? Tillmans?

(15 March 2018)