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Saturday, 12 June 2010


"Match me, Sidney." as Burt Lancaster said in 'The Sweet Smell Of Success'

Thank you for the reference to the Chautauqua movement. I only knew it through Robert Persig's 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' so it was a good to be impelled to learn about it here.

"...I'd suggest photographers start small critique groups. Realistically speaking, though, it's too heavy a commitment to be practical in modern life; this isn't the nineteenth century any more."

But what if we use 21st century conveniences? I'm not a social flickr user, but I know that something like critique goes on generally (and infamously). But my point is that a small dedicated group, perhaps including a moderator or a guru, should be able to get a good private critique going online. No particular meeting time or place necessary. One critique might go on for a week or a month, as people find the time to participate at their own convenience. I'd be surprised if this isn't happening, actually.

Flickr just an example. A small enough group might even use email for the purpose.

Vis a vis physical prints, I know that print exchanges go on, too, where an online group decides to distribute prints amongst themselves. Couldn't this serve as a platform for critique as well? A lot slower and more costly than a flickr group, but only a small step beyond a straight print exchange. Once everyone has the prints, the whole group could "meet" live via chatroom or conference call, or one could let it go on longer term, as above.

Perhaps these solutions aren't exactly substitutes for live in-person critiques, but they might might work for at least some people.

Just an idea.

The past few postings have been about the print as the optimal form of a photograph. There has also been reference to projected images and images on electronic screens. Though it does not bear directly on Mike's suggestion for print critiques, I thought it might be worthwhile expanding the overall context a bit by reminding folks that many photographs are optimally realized in publication (books, magazines) and are never available for viewing in any other form. Issues such as sequencing and layout on the page can become significant artistic considerations. Photography of serious intent might be realized only through offset printing...Okay, Mike, back to the topic at hand.

What you'll hear from most other photographers is more about their biases. You have to show your work to real people to see how they react, whether you've managed to get the emotion across, invoked the response(s) you're after. Most photographers/printmakers seem unaware of the expressive means available to control movement of the eye, create depth, mood etc so it is worthwhile learning these techniques from your betters ... then doing your own thing. The photographs/prints that stand out are those that don't follow the mould.

"What you'll hear from most other photographers is more about their biases. You have to show your work to real people to see how they react, ...

Bingo. Absolutely correct, Stephen.

"You have to show your work to real people to see how they react, whether you've managed to get the emotion across, invoked the response(s) you're after."

I second that. Meeting at home or elsewhere with a group of photographers whom you know and whose opinion you respect is a good idea too, but is not easy to arrange.

I have found the online critique sites more frustrating than useful. Often you'll get a drive-by critique where some guy looks at a photo taken on the side of a mountain and advises you that the horizon is not level or that you should have used a wider angle lens so he could have seen more. At best you'll get a photo designed by committee.

in my memory, "à chacun son goût" is spoken in a thick (fake) irish accent thanks to a guinness advert that ran on the radio of my misspent youth ...

I have to agree with Ken - Stephen has it nailed. And David's comment is right on too.

I stopped participating in the forums of one particularly well-known camera review site when I finally got sick of the "ohh, isn't your cat/duck/daughter/polar bear/sabre-tooth tiger cub so cute" comments and actually started 'critiquing' the supplied images, which led to much flaming and an eventual ban (which to this day has never been answered as to the why. Ahh well.)

I've tried camera clubs too, but after realising that I was actually better than they were (and I'm not that great...), I decided that there really was nothing they could offer me, except an endless parade of cats/ducks/daughters and kangaroos (no polar bears here, sadly). Also, they seemed to be unwilling to learn. Meh. So now, I just show anyone who expresses an interest and listen to what they say, winnowing out the oohs and ahhs to find something useful in their opinion. Which (quite neatly) goes back to Stephen's comment...

Online critique works well in a small group. I'm a member of such a circle. Helps if the group has a wide range of views.
Tried the print exchange thing, doesn't work so well due to logistics.

Just having others take a look at your work and offer comments helps.

@latent_image: I agreed with you. To expand your idea a bit further, many photos are aim at and optimise for different media - billboard, iPad, ... etc.

The preference which is better is hard for at least some photos but whether the emphasis on one form i.e. paper based photo is a historical accident or really has its unique value one has to wait and see.


As regards to the opinion that paper based photo is more final form, I am not sure. It is more like judging the digitial camera in the last decade to the future might be unfair to a new kind of device. It takes time to stablise. Once stablise, the nature of computer is not only that it can reproduciable by its very nature (binary) but also it self-checking (error correction but a feedback loop as a system). If one, say, restrict to one color space, one can imagine in the next decade you have self-calibrate screen that would adjust to correct issues and maintain the objective part.

After all, whilst black and white photos may last for decades or even 1-2 century, a binary code last forever! Only the actualisation is not so far but the potential is there.

Once you have that, the photographer can "fix" photos by seeing what it would be like for a Prophoto iPAD mark 100 look like under a color temp and a certain light level. Given the costs of a paper photograph (US$1,000+ for good one), one can expect by then one can give the iPAD to your customer to hang in. The photographer would have control under the circumstance what the photo would look like. It would NOT be like all those comments about Ansel Adam picture hang in Gallery or Exhibition that it is too dark to see. The technology is not there yet but I think the final of the final form is probably NOT paper based.

(In case it is, a self-calibrate printer like an advance version of the current HP might actually better to produce a viewable copy than the silver based. You do not need to turn the light off too much as you can have another copy, with the right showed like music.

Remember the score/play part, you cannot always have the whole Boston O. to play you Mahler but most of us can appreciate a copy of Ansel Adams perfect copy at home, with full payment ... iPad would be better to control the copyright issue but paper can do for some ...)

hi mike,

would it be possible that you describe the 'exact' protocol or procedure that you followed in your small group critiques? any specialties that have proven to be helpful?


"...show your work to real people..."

Everyone can talk, but few know how see.

The opinions of others are not essential, unless your goals are other than the making of fine images.

Live life, learn all that you can, and be honest with yourself.


"I have to agree with Ken - Stephen has it nailed."

I'm not sure I agree. Take a look at Dilbert this morning and substitute "artist" for "leader" and see what you think. Especially frames 3 and 4.

Doesn't it sort of depend on whom you're trying to appeal to? I personally used to have exceptionally good hearing, and found it easy to eavesdrop on people in public. One of my amusements was overhearing people comment on art they were looking at at museums. Sometimes it was really hilarious, in an Art Linkletter / "kids say the craziest things" kind of way. These people were reacting directly and honestly to art, but I doubt many of the things I heard would be any help to the artist. I think I might agree with Scott Adams...choosing the critics you're going to listen to is itself part of the creative act.


I'm not sure I agree with Stephen either; I've had "real people" flip through a stack of prints at 2-3 seconds per image and say little or nothing about them. Not a very satisfying experience for me, and probaby not for them either.

We're forced to discuss prints while looking at JPEGs

That's not as bad a thing as it might be, mind. Show the JPEGs a little love; they target image-data considerably better for the compression-ratio they give than other formats.

(Compare a graph of file-size against aperture for the same scene, a crude sharpness test: JPEG shows a peak in file-size where it's putting the most data per pixel in front of your eyes; bizarrely, PNG or TIFF+LZW have a valley whereby the sharpest image is the smallest...)

Robert E pretty much summed up my frustrations with most online critique on social networks. The experience I've had at my local photo club also suggest that it isn't a viable forum for improvement or discussions about photography.

Small critique groups sounds good but perhaps such could also be successful online? Maybe the hardest part would be to assemble a group which would make it worthwhile.

Dear Mike,

I'm with you on this whole who-does-the-critiquing thing.

There's that old catchphrase, "Do you wanna be popular or do you wanna be good?" Well, it's not really an either/or situation; sometimes you can be both ... or neither. The important message is that they're not the same thing.

The visio populi will serve you well if popularity is your aim. If quality is, then not so reliably.

pax / Ctein

One of my amusements was overhearing people comment on art they were looking at at museums. Sometimes it was really hilarious, in an Art Linkletter / "kids say the craziest things" kind of way.

I'm not sure that those drawn to photography as a practise (for whatever reason) necessarily have better visual acuity than the general public. One has only to look at popular photography sites (not this one of course!) to question the correlation. It could be argued that a preoccupation with process actually works against an appreciation of the medium.

I do this differently. When some critiques a print I have made I am always more then willing to learn from my mistakes and the critics insights. Therefore I am always more then willing to hand him or her my file(raw if requested) and let them have a field day with it. Usually this is very rewarding for the both of us. Especially so if you document your steps (as I usually do) and the other person does to. And guess what, most disputes end this way soon (as in the critic is not up to the challenge) or fruitfull for the both of us as we all learn that there are:

1) Limitations which arise from the camera raw-file (and yes giving once raw file to other people can make you think about the camera setup and whether that's up to your job)

2) Limitations which arise from the printer/media combination used (media are easy to change, printers is a different ball park all together since money talks in this case).

3) Limitations which arise from the artistic freedom of the photographer (in German there is a proverb which states "Erlaubt ist was gefält") who is in fact the master of his or hers personal output. So a bleached cloud on my picture can be to my liking (dramatic skies are my piece of cake) while a colleague would dread this and correct the EV right away. This is a point of view discussion and these tend to be heated and pointless at the same time (but great fun if you do respect the others right to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide).

Surprisingly enough, our local photo Meetup group (as in meetup.com) has been doing some pretty good critique sessions. I call them "show and tell" because it tends to be a kitten-friendly zone; most people are afraid to really be critical. And yes, there are people who show up with photos on their iphone or 4x6's printed at home on standard 20lb printer paper. But even the people who you might think are beneath you can be helpful; if you can't get them to ask questions, you're probably not working hard enough.

Several people have said that the critiques have given them excuses to print photos when they otherwise wouldn't. I love that. and it's given me some good practice in reasonable, intelligent, thoughtful viewing and critquing, something that's hard to do in most online circles. Having the photographer staring you in the face while you're talking changes things.

Anyone who doubts the ability to form a small critique circle will probably find a photo meetup group near them. It's a start.

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