About Critique

In Creativity and Inspiration, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, The Life Creative by David23 Comments

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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.

Comments

  1. I found this essay to be 100% lucid. It brought a coherence to my thought that I simply had not worked my way up to yet. As someone open to other artist’s insight and constructive criticism and also sincerely hoping to provide such to others, I found it a very solid, whole and helpful philosophy.

    This will likely prove to be one of the most important essays I’ve read in my artistic journey. I will be saving it and studying it until I’m confident that I have made the concepts my own.

    That last paragraph … ! Wow.

    Thank you, David, for the illumination.

  2. – 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?”-

    Those are special words. Thanks mate

  3. Working in education for over 15 years I’ve learned to see that improvement often comes when a student in need of help or a “critique” is encouraged to add something to the equation rather than focusing on errors and what not to do. Focus on possibilities and what to add and eventually the quality surfaces.

    I think this quote has relevancy …

    “Our culture is afflicted with knowingness,” he says. “We exalt in being able to know as much as possible. And that’s great on many levels. But we’re forgetting the pleasures of not knowing. We’ve started replacing actual experience with someone else’s already digested knowledge.”

  4. Thanks for this David!

    No two photographers are the same, as individuals with different experiences & perspectives we all have our own unique vision that determines the body of work we create.

    V.

  5. I once had a rather enlightening conversation with a homeless person while on a visit to New York City. He was clearly an intelligent man. He said, “A critic is nothing more than a conscientious objector who goes down into the battlefield long after the war has been waged and pokes the wounded.”

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  7. “…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.”

    Brilliant words, David. All I’d add is that when you find those voices – those people – then cherish them like there’s no tomorrow.

  8. I am beginning to think that maybe I should ask uncontaminated 5 year olds what they think of my work!!

    I was watching a video recently about Jerry Uelsmann, with him talking about being at the same workshop event with Ansel Adams…fascinating. So many photographers trying to find Ansel’s tripod imprints etc. and Jerry is off throwing boulders in a perfectly serene lake…there is something within this discussion about being genuine…so easy to say, so difficult to do. You do it masterfully!

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  10. Those are some good thoughts. Critique is helpful but only if people understand where you were trying to go. It is not helpful to receive pointers which would have taken it in a completely different and wrong direction.

    Everyone has an opinion but that doesn’t mean that everyone’s opinion is going to be any good. Trolls have opinions but their shared thoughts are destructive in nature.

  11. Hi, as a long time follower I have been inspired by your work and your words, and I recently decided to re-read some of the old stuff, the words are still inspiring. In April 2009 you compare Manna to creativity,
    I am learning to trust my vision, not just copy others, thank-you for being part of the inspiration.
    From me to you, may your manna (creativity) nourish and reward you, excite and exhaust you.
    thanks
    Janice

  12. Well put – I learnt this the hard way but half way through time, I realised that I’m not really benefiting. It was then I started leaning towards people who actually know what they’re saying, and gently pushing me towards achieving my vision by telling me what I need to get there. Rather than what sharpening method to use.

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  14. What a refreshing post for any photographer at any point in their career. Thank you for you sharing, caring and connecting with your reader.
    I agree with all the comments above and please continue doing what you are doing.
    Sharon

  15. This is a timely discussion, on the evening that a well-known photographer is conducting a 24-hour online critique session to promote a new webcast.

    Both your comments and Duncan Fawkes’ comments resonate with me. The hardest part for me in developing discernment has been building the confidence to trust my judgment about my work.

    As someone who has worked in a technical profession for more than 30 years, while suppressing a strong artistic nature, I still struggle with having confidence in my vision and how to express it. This makes me too vulnerable to the cacophony of “expert” opinions that advise me this way and that.

    I’ve attended four workshops with working, respected professionals in the past two years. The most recent was the Eddie Adams Workshop (EAW) a couple of weeks ago, which is led by a team of 100 working editors and producers around the country who conduct portfolio review sessions for students. I realized a couple weeks ago when speaking with a Nat Geo editor about my intent with an image that a small, quiet voice is beginning to emerge.

    I found my portfolio critique sessions at the EAW to be immensely valuable. I think the reason for that is their broad collective range of experience. I was able to understand why some of my images wouldn’t work for news publications, but might work for editorial pieces.

    However, the immersive nature and concentration of professionals at EAW is unusual, and as you’ve said, many critiques focus on a small range of technical choices, rather than the intent of photographer.

    Your critique of my image on your About the Image podcast was extremely helpful. You discussed an option you might have tried in that location that hadn’t occurred to me (darn it). But that planted a seed that I may be able to use in the future. That is truly constructive, and I feel that the right voices can help me accelerate my learning at a better rate, which, as a very late bloomer, I crave.

  16. S/T is my simple equation for deciding whether to listen to a criticism of my work; skin in the game, divided by, how threatened the critic is by my (potential) success.

    The best critiques come from those who have made, or are making great work, or are active in photography/editorial/gallery business & are do not feel threatened by the possibility you will improve or command a bigger audience for your work.

    The worst critiques come from those who have little work to show, little respect in the business & are prone to lashing out at those who find success, attract audiences or get ahead.

  17. Thank you for this, David. So, so true……..

    When I first decided to take photography more seriously, I joined a forum to help me with the process. I read critiques, received critiques and self-critiqued for two years. It was rather invaluable what I had learnt and I will forever be grateful.

    However, after some point, I realised that the critiques started going beyond the basics of technicalities and started noticing that the opinions started formulating around the aesthetics of the images and how THEY felt or think the images should look. Understanding that beauty/art/aesthetics are subjective and wanting to find my own voice, I decided that it was time to stop learning and start growing. So I stopped submitting images for critiques.

    I still give critiques when I find time to give back to the community that helped me. But I am careful not to give personal opinions beyond technical basics and to ensure that the tone is always positive and encouraging.

    I guess the only advice I can give to people who are wanting to learn through the critique process online is this: learn to differentiate between an opinion and a critique. Be clear in what are wanting to get out of the critique, whether to only gain acceptance or praise for your work or if you are truly desiring technical insight with your image.

    Learn through observation, not imitation.

    I love your vision, David. But more so, I love your heart. Thank you for being a gentle voice of reason in this industry.

  18. I definitely think some critique can be helpful. Particularly when starting out and considering the technical qualities of an image, a second opinion, a more experienced opinion will often spot deficiencies that we ourselves miss, blinded as we are by the trees at times.

    However the problem is that most critique rarely goes any further, so once you’re pretty happy with that stuff it’s still the only thing that people will talk about, almost unwilling to engage with the picture itself. This is understandable, it’s easier for people to focus on the specific and obvious rather than discuss meaning and emotion which is, typically, that bit harder for most of us.

    It’s a bit like gear. I’m a big fan of the 80/20 rule, and I often say it’s (at most!) 20% gear and 80% personal expression. I suppose you could say that that 20% also includes technical expertise. We spend too long talking about that 20% and not enough talking about the 80%. As you say, how the image makes you feel is so much more important than how sharp it is or how much noise it has. And the problem with everyone talking about the 20% is that it sucks us into spending 80% of our time worrying about that 20% to get our images technically correct so that they pass muster.

    It’s good to learn to block out those distractions. I often find that those that have something of real value to say reveal themselves pretty readily if we learn to filter the signal from the noise.

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