Popular photography education is awash in the idea that critique is helpful. God knows there are more than enough voices out there willing to give it, solicited or otherwise. And while I think it can be helpful, it often falls wildly short on the ability to provide that critique in a positive way. Nor, I think, does it give any guidance on how to choose those voices, or even what to do with that critique, once given.
I believe that getting honest critique, as hard as it is to both find it, and listen to it, is important in our growth as both craftsmen and artists. Taken from the right source, it helps us see our blind spots, which are by their very nature, almost impossible to see ourselves, like the bald spot at the back of my head, which took me years to see myself, and left me horrified that no one had told me. This was back when I had enough hair at the top to create the illusion. Again, from the right source, that criticism of our work can help us see where we’re heading and where that route might lead us to exciting new possibilities.
Critique culture has failed us, and most of all the beginners. It has held up moving, unattainable targets, encouraged individuals towards homogeny, and – perhaps most damaging of all, it has failed to take into account the vision of the artist. Picasso, Monet, Degas, Warhol – and almost any other artist of renown – would have been eviscerated by modern critique culture.
My earlier comments, that criticism from the right source can be helpful, needs qualification. Specifically: what is the right source? I don’t think anyone but you can answer that, but here’s what I would look for: has the person from whom you get this critique (just a french word for criticism, really, but doesn’t it sound much nicer?) earned your respect, by creating work that you respect and in a way that you respect? You don’t have to like their work. Hell, you don’t even have to like them. But you should respect them. The world is full of voices and everyone is an expert: there are photographers who have been using a camera for 2 years now giving workshops. And you know what, if they are creating work that you respect, they may very well have something you can learn from. But just because they have an opinion doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to.
So what makes it worth listening to? You have vision, whether it’s fully developed and discovered or not. That vision nudges you in certain directions. Your work, I hope, reflects that more and more. And the voices you listen to must be first willing to listen to your work and to your vision, because the two might not yet align, and only the voices willing to help you align those two are worth listening to. And that is exactly what’s wrong with online critique – too many people telling you what they’d have done differently, and none of them willing or able to first say, “What were you trying to accomplish with this?” or “This is what your work makes me think and feel, is that what you were hoping for?”
Consensus is not the point. It is never the point. Possibilities are the point. And an awareness of our blind spots, because we all have them. The voices that help us not only recognize the blind spots, but also help us see what we’re trying to see – in the way that we are trying to see – those are the ones I’d listen to. Otherwise we’ll bounce from opinion to opinion, down a never-ending rabbit-hole of viewpoints, and never get any closer to using this craft to make art that reflects our own unique desires. I’m not trying to be iconoclastic, but most of us would do very well to abandon the forums and the online critiques, and find a few well-chosen voices that are willing to listen before they speak, and when they speak, to speak from a desire to help us achieve our vision, not merely echo their own.