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Monday, 05 January 2015


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If you miss having your worked critiqued, you can always form your own critique group or as a less convenient and more costly option, attend a few portfolio review events. I've done both over the years and they both have their place.

A tip from someone who has spent hundreds of hours giving, receiving, and moderating critiques; if you really want to learn about your work, assuming it is at least competent, put up something you think is really good and something that just doesn't work for you. What you will hear is way more interesting that what just showing the work you think works and seeing if the rest of the room "gets it"

I miss critiques too. Outside of artschool it's really hard to get someone who is intelligent to talk about WHY something is good or bad.

Then again, there's this:


"...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."

When working up my photos I also use "feeling" in conjunction with another aspect of the print I call "qualities". An example how this works for me: The final version of "snow fields" feels flatter to me than the first. In the tree line and the snow in front of it there is a quality of lightness that's lost in the second version. I know when this happens to me and I start using all the tools to correct all the concrete things-tone, contrast, brightness-that I end up chasing my tail in a circle, and I go back to that version with the "feel" and "qualities" that I like. And then, hopefully, these things aren't lost in the print.

This might be my favorite TOP post ever.

When I was in art school (not for photography), I dreaded and liked our critiques. I don't think we ever had two instructors at one time though, or if we did it was pretty unusual. The one thing we seldom received as part of our instruction was how to make a living after we graduated. That's where art schools, back in the day, failed their students. It would be interesting to know if some more recent grads have a better experience.

Having two teachers sounds like one of the reasons that Siskel and Ebert worked so well.

PS, if you are still looking for Christmas songs, I like Bruce Cockburn's "Cry of a Tiny Babe" as a good modernization of the Christmas story.

Also, his "Midnight Clear" is interesting, putting a familiar carol into a minor key. (Sam Phillips probably has a better cover, though)

Speaking of two teachers, where's Ailsa?

"You need to give yourself permission to go your own way and do your own thing."
Absolutely. An artist must present what he or she sees and feels, regardless of the popularity at the time. The photograph is a vision for the photographer, one that may or may not ever be appreciated by anyone else. Self satisfaction must be enough. Anything more is extra.

To react to to the "selling out"* bit...

I've long called those which seem to predominate my favoured photos of my own my "boring photos", based on response. And even when I feel I've brought two similar photos to a more discerning group (i.e. other photographers) for criticism, even if they like either (and politeness often reigns) it seems inevitable they will prefer the opposite one to my own choice; the opposite one to a choice where I thought to myself ~fist punch the air~ "Nailed it!".

I admit, I don't know what to do about it. Its consistency has me think to myself, even through its subjectivity, "marc ur doin it rong". I can aim for what pleases others, their feedback pleasing me with the accomplishment, the approval, but providing no joy of core recognition (though I still do like the photos, but to a simpler, superficial degree). Or I can aim for what pleases me with the fading hope someone will see what I see, this fading impacting and interfering at the photo-taking stage, negating the pleasure, joy, of being in "the zone" ("Nailed it!") while taking photos. My innate response is paralysis, deepened by photography being such an intrinsic part of my definition of myself. Doing both feels painfully rending and a nagging, unfocused procrastination.

As Ned Flanders would say, it's (for me) a dilly of a pickle.

(*I am simply an amateur with no desire to be a professional - no criticism is being implied of professional photographers meeting customers' demands, whether that demand is for or contrary to the photographers' own pleasure)

I have been through a good many critiques in my under and post grad days, in just about every medium, and I agree with you that you can learn an awful lot about your work by hearing how it is perceived by others. What do they see, what do they value, and did you get your point across at all?
As a person who was originally essentially "fine art" trained as opposed to "photographically" trained though I have to say that the photographic acceptance of the notion that cropping is bad is something that I can't imagine being limited by.
In your snow pictures of the stubbled field I would crop the image to a proportion of 2(w)X1(h) and keep the horizon at either the upper or lower third.
I truly can not understand why so many photographers allow the proportion of their images to be dictated by the proportions of their sensors or film.

An important and useful value of the critique, not often discussed, is the toughing of the skin of the artist being critiqued. After the school years, an artist has to make his or her own way in a world full of opinions, positions, politics, tastes, trends and sundry axes being ground. These opinions may or may not have anything to do with the work. The value of being "toughened up" and believing in the work cannot be overstated.

Good advice.

(Don't forget to change your content copyright to 2015...)

... sounds like an opportunity doesn't it? I must say that the one thing that most photo forums lack is a constructive criticism. I don't really feel myself grow too much with a star or a +1 like.

I think this is one area the Internet doesn't do well: expertise doesn't easily get communicated well virtually.


Quite coincidentally I recently posted two versions of an image and asked for thoughts (that is a way to get critiques). The same file, in one case minimal processing and a shoreline that is at an awkward angle. The second version has a straightened shoreline and some vibrance added. Opinions were divided, with a slight preference for the manipulated image. Critiques can reveal things you didn't see, but, I'm with Elizabeth on this, ultimately it's your image and your decision (I like the straight shoreline).




This may just be the very best article I've seen on TOP. Good stuff!

Plus one for Richard Newman, but there's a whole lot of other functions fraught with peril in the feel-good/workshop/amateur/mentor/etc. "business" and or educational system. A bunch of pros I knew years ago discussed the possibility of getting into the educational workshop environment as an income stabilizer. What was 'telling' after doing all the research is the way a certain segment of society 'pines for' or has an outright neediness for being involved in groups and interacting with the workshop and critique system. "Workshop junkies", we used to say. But it's more, almost the "cult of personality" for regionally famous pros, and the need for photo junkies to interact with them (it reminds me of a Simpsons I saw where Lisa is begging people to judge and grade her!). The laugh in all this is that if you had to do a behavioral breakdown of all the excellent professional photographers I knew at the time, they probably would have been identified as "iconoclastic loners", and wouldn't have ever been caught dead at any workshop when they were fledglings!

One wonders if Vivian Maier would have ever gone to a workshop for a critique? Or if like a lot of pure artists, she created for herself regardless of what others thought, the very act of creation being the end and means.

Critique of course is "worth what you pay". The art world and photo world is rife with stories of famous artists and photographers that were told in their younger years, that they would never amount to anything by professionals who were supposed to be in the know.

"Famous" photographers, a lot of them running workshops, and a lot of them I've never heard of before, can be famous for a lot of things. They may be regionally of interest due to the documentary work they do there, or the landscapes they accomplish in a historically interesting area, hence they have some value for that. They might be regionally famous for annual reports, advertising, or whatever. If they are financially successful at what they do, that could just be because they are friends with a lot of people that have the need for their services, not that they have superior imagery. Heck, they may have family money, a trust fund, or a well employed spouse that allows them to become a ubiquitous personality in the area you live, hence allegedly noteworthy for someone you'd want to look at your work. But those things don't mean they have decent work themselves.

Be suspicious of anyone's "critique", because what gives them the right? There's a woman in the on-line community who's become a known force in discrediting workshops, her name escapes me, but she might have been instrumental in coining the term MWAC (mother with a camera), as a putdown. Anyway, her mantra is just shoot, shoot, and shoot more. She views workshops as the fallback position of untalented photographers who can't make a living. One cannot fault her mantra, tho, as that's what I used to hear from pros forty years ago: keep shooting. Now in the cheap age of digital, there's no excuse.

How one values a critique will depend on a) whether one intends to sell or share one's photos with others hoping for reward either money or appreciation, or b) to discover if one is doing it according to the perceived wisdom of the multitude.
In the case of a) this the correct approach as there is no future in producing work that doe's not please the buying public if one hopes to make some money.
In the case of b) it could be a fruitless exercise as it will only serve to teach you to conform to the ideas of others I.e. Uniformity.

[I have to disagree with you on both counts. Seldom do academic critiques take the pulse of any kind of broader popularity, and what you learn from a critique doesn't require that you agree with other peoples' insights, much less conform to anything. It really all depends on specific groups and teachers, but I don't think your characterization of critiques matches anything in my (extensive) experience of them. --Mike]

The thing that was both the most valuable lesson from my art school critiques and the most frustrating was when I would spend hours getting a section of a print JUUSSSSST RIGHT and then have absolutely no one notice it, or worse, point out that the picture I'd worked so hard on wasn't all that strong or even good.

These days, I find that my best and most appreciated work usually comes with the least effort- if a picture is strong, I usually nailed it on the first shot and it takes very little futzing around to make the print or screen version look good.

But if I hadn't had those critiques that taught me what to look for in a picture to begin with, I'd still be slaving over photos that had a detail that I loved but had no other redeeming qualities.

I wonder how many really good photographers regularly went through critiques? I've read a number of photography biographies, and don't remember any.

I not also that some people (though not Mike!) conflate a critique with criticism. They're not the same thing at all.

A sincere critique can (and will include) comments, questions, advice, challenges and "criticism". If nothing else a critic should maintain a detached critical attitude, if at all possible, to the work and artist. Saying "It sucks" is not a critique. Saying why you think it sucks and comparing the work to other works to argue your point is closer to critique.

Sarah Thornton's "Seven Days in the Art World" second chapter has a very nice narrative of a single "crit" at CalArts run by the late Michael Asher. He was famous for his marathon style crits in his Post-Studio Crit class. The one described in the book runs from 10am to after midnight. All of the students in the class have to be there. Some provide a useful critique and some don't.

A NY Times article on the crits at several institutions including Yale includes a comment from Gregory Crewdson (the photographer, who is a professor and director of graduate studies in photography at Yale School of Art and an ex-Yale School of Art student):


"The crits that I received were always devastating," said Mr. Crewdson, who earned his Yale M.F.A. in 1988. "The idea is that what doesn't break you will make you stronger. But I always tell my students to forget 99 percent of what they hear. Find that 1 percent that really helps you."

Mr. Crewdson compares the experience his students are facing to group therapy. "My father was a psychoanalyst, and I see a lot of similarities," he said. "The act of putting your pictures up on the wall involves a lot of trust, like sharing your personal history. And the whole thing can be very theatrical, very emotional." He likes to end his crits by heading across the street to a bar, so that everyone can unwind over a beer.

The trick (like all things) is listening to the right 1%.

A reflective view on student crits (along with quite a few questions for the critics).


It also shows why you don't really get a good crit on the net: the critics rarely give more than "sucks" or "rocks" comments. A critique is much, much more than that.

Keep these ideas in mind if you're thinking of starting your own crit group.

Mike I came across a very interesting piece of advice lately which was given to someone by his father, " son find out the direction the crowd is heading and run like hell in the opposite direction " this to me is sound advice to anyone indulging in any art pursuit and I consider photograph an art form.

I have one fearsome critic whose opinion I completely trust. She is an old friend and the art editor for a serious periodical. She's never taken a photo in her life, but spends all day looking at them.

She was very reluctant to review my work because she thought we would fall out. As it turned out we didn't.

She was the only person who ever identified anything resembling a style in my work and explained it to me, picked three shots out of my entire catalogue as 'promising' and told me where I should go with it. The rest she dismissed as generic holiday brochure fluff. She was 100% right too, when I think about it.

The irony was that none of the ones she picked ever got more than a handful of Flickr votes, but they were shots I actually liked. I put them in partly as a spoiler but the joke was on me as it turned out. However, it did wonders for my self-confidence.

I realised at that point that photographers are seldom in a position to judge themselves objectively, but neither are most other people qualified to critique. Do you want to be good, or popular? Who is the audience? If we emulate we fail, but how do we judge ourselves without a benchmark?

I don't think we are very good critics either. Creatives are by nature a jealous lot with very particular and subjective view about what we like. We have to be, or we'd never persevere.

So criticism is good, yes. But it does rather depend on the critic and what you expect to gain from it.

Don't know anymore where i read this: "An art critic is nothing m,ore than a conscientious objector who goes down into the battlefield long after the war has been waged and pokes the wounded."
After having attended portfolio reviews in Arles and Houston last year i fully can underwrite this...

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