An aspect of blog editing that I seldom talk about is what I call "energy." Certain topics take on energy, and certain topics don't; in managing the flow of conversation, the editor has to be sensitive to what people want to talk about. Some conversations get very animated, and excerpting those conversations for the "Featured Comments" gets very interesting, often more interesting than the original postings. For other posts, the Commentariat is just bored or fidgety, or (worse) negative. In those cases, it's best to move right on.
To my surprise, the conversation about my "snow" pictures from yesterday has taken on quite a bit of energy in the comments. People have had very useful things to say about them, especially the second image, both technically and aesthetically. I was going to post the "Product of the Year 2014" today, but the snow picture discussion has taken on energy. So, let it flow; the PotY can wait.
Elisabeth Spector's comment, most notably, puts me in mind of what's best about art schools. The basic method for understanding art-in-progress, working methods, and the aesthetics of created work is the "critique": students put work up in front of the group and the teachers moderate a discussion about it. The student, as the artist/creator, gets to be informed about his or her own work as he or she wishes, of course—but seldom in a good critique does the creator of the work fail to gain further insights about the piece and how it's working for people.
What I'll do when I print that snowfield image is to understand how I want it to work onscreen first, and then get as close as I can in a print; then I'd put the print up on the viewing board and look at it for a few days.
In the process of looking, one of a number of things might happen—the basic evolution being that I'd come to like the image more or less. Some pictures you think have a lot of promise fall away after a few days—you stop caring. It's like music that you can listen to a few times that then becomes boring. Other images have more sustained power, and your appreciation of them actually deepens with time (this is a lesson that Paul Caponigro's pictures taught me back in the '80s when I was starting out).
But on a more practical level, living with and looking at the print for a few days will help clarify the direction you want to take it. Beyond the purely technical considerations, you'll gradually get settled about how you want the finished print to "feel," not so much in its appeal to the eye (although there is that), but in its emotional feeling-tone or intellectual fascination.
With most pictures, there will be a variety of different interpretations—different ways you could go with it. ElArteDePerder suggests a graphic, formalized interpretation; Elisabeth explains why she doesn't like that approach. That's where your own personal response comes in, and it's why you need confidence in your own taste and your own aims in order to work as an artist. You need to give yourself permission to go your own way and do your own thing. This is especially difficult sometimes when you have a picture that you know might appeal more immediately to more people if you went a different direction with it. "Selling out" like that doesn't work in the long run, however—it just results in conformist, pandering pictures with superficial appeal and no deep integrity. One big distinction between art photography and other photography is that you don't give the audience what they want, you lead them to see and understand (over the course of many pictures) what you want. You can't do that unless you're being true to yourself.
In the critique, the teacher might provide the response, or simply sit back and let the class talk; more often, it's some skillful blending of the two—the teacher is a moderator, guiding the discussion and helping it along when it starts to lag but not dominating the discussion or insisting on one "correct" viewpoint.
Where I went to school, critiques were led by not one but two teachers, and often they were teachers who didn't always see eye to eye. The student (or photographer) him- or herself has to be the final arbiter, and there's no better way to "get" that than to be in the presence of two authority figures who disagree. At the very basic level—and this indeed happened when I was in school—you have one teacher saying he loves a photograph, and the other saying she hates it, and the two of them argue. If it's your picture they're arguing over, that will really focus your own feelings about whether you want to defend it or let it go.
Of everything I've left behind in photography over the years, I think I miss critiques the most.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
John Gillooly: "Did a workshop with Jay Maisel a couple years back and the 'critique' was by far the greatest and most value part of each day. Sometimes just walking in the room and seeing the image(s) that you selected for the critique was a lesson unto itself. Your own critique of yourself might sharpen at that moment. 'That image shouldn't have made the cut' or 'I think this image will hold up.' I loved that daily process and miss it. There seems to be no online equivalent of a good critique?"
Richard Newman: "I have a problem with critiques. And not specifically re my photos. Its the competence of the critics to critique—or lack of it. Not only with amateur photographers, but some who photograph for a living. Evidently doing it doesn't necessarily mean you can be a good critic. I have seen some egregiously dumb critiques, where the critic didn't understand the technical aspects, but criticized them, or just spouted inanities and aesthetic platitudes, usually clearly wrong. Yes, there are good critics out there, but finding them outside schools—or even in them—seems to be a crapshoot. Good criticism is a skill that requires both technical and aesthetic knowledge, and the ability to understand how to apply them to a given photo. My experience with amateur club critiques has not been good. The one group where I felt the critical level was high consisted mostly of commercial/industrial photographers and art directors, with a bias towards how well the image supported the product. It would be nice if there were more groups like that (bias aside) where knowledgeable commenters could be found."
Mike replies: I do think it depends on the capabilities of the teacher(s). My experience with unmoderated groups hasn't been good, and, ironically perhaps, guest speakers at gatherings don't seem to be particularly good at running critiques—the guests tend to want to be complimentary to their hosts. My sample size on that isn't the best, but it includes situations where I myself was the guest speaker! There's a reluctance to risk hurting peoples' feelings when you're a one-time guest and don't know the personalities of the participants.
Richard Skoonberg: "I attend a monthly crit here in Atlanta at the Atlanta Photography Group. It is such fun. It is led by Chip Simone, who was a student of Harry Callahan and is a wonderful, accomplished artist and teacher in his own right. The conversations are always interesting and opinions go flying. In this group, people are all attempting to create art and explore what that art-making with a camera is all about. Chip does a great job moderating and I am always learning something. Every time you put your prints up in front of thirty or more people, it is a bit intimidating. But I have found it builds confidence.
"I have also learned a lot about printing. I have been shooting for the computer so long that I had really forgotten what a precious object a beautiful print can be. I really feel that I am growing from this experience. I count myself lucky. One more thing—at these crits, people never, ever discuss gear."
Jernej: "Don't know about your days as a student or as a teacher, but in our case it's nearly impossible to get more than 'I like it' or 'everything was fine' out of the students. No why, no how...nothing. In 95% of cases it seems explaining why they (don't) like something is as painful as giving birth.
"I can understand why they don't want to hurt someone by saying it's crap work (even when you can see it in every face in the classroom) but why is it so hard for them to say what they like about the results? Why is it so hard for them to point out a very obvious mistake that could be easily fixed (like a bunch of typos in the title sequence of a documentary or a mistimed cut between two clips)? Must be a cultural thing...."