Most recently, conversations with friends and fellow photographers have spun around photo critique quite a bit. When I met John and Scott at Windansea Beach, we talked about how difficult it is to give and get good critique, and it prompted Scott to write a blog post about it. A tongue-in-cheek Google+ post of mine about how +1s (or likes, favorites, whatever) don’t make better photos, and that you can’t eat them either, somehow turned into a discussion about (online) critique of photos as well.
Scott has it right when he says “You Are the Beginning and the End of Your Art”. No one can be an authority over another one’s artistic vision and creation. At every point in my photographic “career” (or endeavors) I was fully convinced that my photos were good. Not in a technical sense, but in that they conveyed my vision and ideas. Only few others may have been able to see it as clearly as I did (well, ahem, cough-cough), but that’s not the point. I saw it in my photos. And this is one of the biggest problems of photo critique.
You can critique technique, of course. The horizon is tilted, sensor dust spots haven’t been removed, there’s visible chromatic aberration, highlight or shadow clipping, disturbing elements at the edges and corners of the frame, a wrong distribution of light and dark, or sharp and unsharp areas – that sort of thing. It’s totally valid. It’s critique about the craft. After all, photography is a technical art form, and if you don’t have your technique straight, it gets in the way of expressing your vision. (or, as I used to say: “You can’t play the piano if you can’t play the piano”)
To a certain degree, you can also critique the artistic side of photography. But when we discuss the composition, like whether it is balanced or imbalanced, we are already entering the realm of taste* and opinion. There is no set of rules that has been carved in stone. No matter how many times someone repeats the rule of thirds (here’s an excellent discussion about it by Mike Spinak: The Golden Section Hypothesis – A Critical Look). And it is clear that some photographs don’t work for most of us, even if we can not precisely say why. And you can only state an opinion about vision, style, and idea. Even if it is an educated opinion – it’s just an opinion. It lies in the nature of both the art and the critique to be highly subjective.
When I took part in one of the many weekly photography themes on Google+, its curator featured the photo that I submitted in his summary post and provided feedback. At first I was happy that my image was selected. His feedback however consisted solely of dissecting my personal and deliberate choice to design the photograph the way I had chosen to design it – because it didn’t work for him. But the way I set up my composition should have made it pretty clear that I made a very deliberate choice in doing that. The only positive thing he had to say about my picture however was that it was “nicely processed”.
I felt misunderstood, and needless to say, I was deeply offended. I had expected that an expert would recognize my choice and idea, and at least respect it. I wondered: Why feature a photo in a curator’s post, if you don’t have anything positive to say about it? Even though the words were carefully chosen and the intent was a discussion, to me it boiled down to a sugar-coated version of “this sucks, I don’t agree with it, want to talk about it?” – yes, we artists don’t exactly have a thick skin when it comes to our own creations. When I stated my intentions and motivation, I was already re-acting, and being in the defense. That never works out too well!
That’s why I think it’s much better to say what you like about a photo – and not what you don’t like. It’s easier to discuss taste and opinion, and it’s easier to disagree that way, too: because if you don’t agree with a negative critique, it’s just too damn easy to tell you that “you just can’t handle it.” In reality, things are a bit more complicated: it may very well be for example that disagreeing with critique will be perceived as undermining authority – the authority of the person giving you feedback.
It’s hard to disagree with a person who has achieved a certain credibility in photographic circles. Because it means questioning authority. Something that an established photographer probably can not allow. After all, that person might be teaching workshops and photography classes – entering a discussion about a critique can wreak havoc on their reputation. Don’t do it. If you receive negative critique, no matter how invalid and subjective it may be – ignore it if you can. And you know how I learned that now. :)
One possible solution to learn from photo critique without exposing yourself directly to invalid and/or inconsiderate negative critique, and at the same time an enjoyable way to learn more about photography and what people see in photographs is reading discussions about images made by others. One book that I would like to wholeheartedly recommend is George Barr‘s “Why Photographs Work“, published by Rocky Nook. I bought it about two years ago and occasionally browse it, find a photograph that interests me, and read what both George and the photographer who made the photo have to say about it.
*) given the amount of positive reactions that highly saturated landscape photos and overcooked HDR images still get, there is clearly plenty of bad taste out there. :)
**) it doesn’t matter which photo it was, and I do not mention the name of the theme or its curator here.Thanks for reading! You can stay up to date with my blogposts and subscribe via email (the subscription form opens in a new browser window/tab). It's easy as pie! :-)
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