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  1. #1
    Cheryl Jacobs's Avatar
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    Critiquing Critiques

    Critique is something near and dear to my heart. There’s nothing like an outside perspective on our work to understand where we are as artists, and how to get where we want to be.

    I think, though, that there are misconceptions about what critique is and isn’t, or maybe what it should and shouldn’t be. For that reason, the word “critique” tends to strike fear in the hearts of vulnerable artists. I’d like to address a few points for your consideration.

    Critique does not have to be brutal and abrasive to be effective. I really do not understand the mentality that a mean critique is somehow more effective. I feel just the opposite; an unnecessarily abrasive critique tends to instantly put the “critiquee” on the defensive, and the hurt feelings can prevent the critique from really being absorbed. It is possible to be just as honest and frank without ripping holes in the self-esteem.

    Let’s say you went to your hairstylist asking for advice on how you could improve your look. Would you want the feedback to start with, “Well, your current hairstyle is ugly and makes you look like a troll?” Of course not. It’s not necessary.

    Critiques that include the word “can’t” are rarely valuable.
    I hear this a lot. You can’t center your subjects. You can’t use high contrast. You can compose your shots like that. You can’t have that much DOF. Can’t, can’t, can’t. This is art, folks. There are very few things that can’t be done successfully. An effective critique will not tell you what you can’t do; it will help you identify your tendencies so that YOU can decide how you would like to address those issues. A good critique-giver will help you understand why certain things generally work, and leave it to you to decide what is right for you.

    The best critiques take into account your personal taste and what you are trying to accomplish. Critiques based solely on the preferences of the critic will only tell you how to make that person happy. It’s much more valuable for you to get feedback on how to achieve the results YOU want. I may personally prefer muted color, but if you love saturated color, my job is to help you do saturated color well.

    A truly effective critique should help you identify opportunities for improvement and direction in your entire body of work — not just nit-picking little things in individual images. At the end of the critique, you should have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. And a really good critique will also help you understand what you do well, so you walk away feeling positive and motivated. it is at least as important to understand your strengths as it is to understand your weaknesses.

    Critique should never be accepted blindly. You’ve heard me say it before. Just because someone said it doesn’t make it so. It’s up to you to listen to what is said, consider the point of view of the critic, and decide if and how you will act on it. Only you can truly understand your sense of beauty and what you want your work to say. Apply what it makes sense to apply. You should never have to worry about offending the critic; the critic who demands gratitude and obedience is (generally) just plain old insecure.

    - CJ
    (from today's blog post at http://photodino.wordpress.com)

  2. #11
    df cardwell's Avatar
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    In the old days, a good way to get criticism was to find a handful of folks whose work, and character, one respected and showed them the work.

    I sought out a couple folks whose work was different from mine, and a couple whose work was more in line with my sympathies. I often show work to an old friend who is pretty abrasive, as well to a more warm and fuzzy critic. The point is to work with folks whose work, or vision, is sharp yet fairly open minded. I show work to a couple complete non-photographers. Over time I've learned to understand how they see, and how they express themselves. They are reliable for the truth, and not to just give what I might want to hear.

    There is a danger to groups like PPA, for the merit print stuff might not have anything to do with your work. You need to develop your own standards, and test your work against other folks vision. Of course, if you admire the PPA vision, great.

    Package prints and mail them to friends. Have small viewings with friends. If you don't know the critic, you have no way of understanding the criticism.

    .
    "One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid,
    and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision"

    -Bertrand Russell

  3. #12
    Vincent Brady's Avatar
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    Sometimes people set themselves up by making elaborate claims about the quality of their work and IMO need to be taken down a peg or two especially if there work fails to match their claims. A badly exposed print is exactly that , the same can be said for a print lacking in contrast. Poor darkroom work should be pointed out. Honesty should be at the heart of your criticism but I agree that it need not always be delivered with a mallet.

  4. #13
    Ed Sukach's Avatar
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    Well said, Cheryl.

    At the risk of highjacking this thread, I'll try to direct attention to a crtic "of the first order", someone whose critique I would welcome and be grateful for; Clement Greenberg.
    I had not read him for some time now ... and refreshing my memory reminds me of how he did stand head and shoulders above the "usual ..." sorry, but the only fitting description I can think of is "incoherent" crowds of critics. Googling for Clement Greenberg works well.

    Now ... with pre-aplogies ...

    An Epiphany:

    In this last hiatus from the scene (broken hip + rehab) I read Alyssa East's book, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in New England.

    In it, she discusses the work of the "Black Mountain Poets" and more specifically, Charles Olsen, who established a new branch (genre?) called "Projective Verse" - rejecting writing according to the classical or "academic" principles - meter, line, form and meaning. He favored writing "open" verse according to the poet's breath, the sound of language, the openness of the page, or "field", and letting content dictate form.

    For me there was only a very slight "bridge" between poetry and photography - or for that matter - ANY art.

    I have studied the "rules" for many decades ... and suddenly I am confronted with Olsen's main idea:

    "Poetry (photography) is not meant to be contained structures; they are meant to project and transfer their subject's energy to the "reader"."

    It has taken a while to absorb such a massive change to my "vision" - but my vision HAS changed!
    Carpe erratum!!

    Ed Sukach, FFP.

  5. #14
    Ed Sukach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TEX View Post
    Sometimes people set themselves up by making elaborate claims about the quality of their work and IMO need to be taken down a peg or two especially if there work fails to match their claims.
    Interesting. I've been to a few exhibitions, juried competitions ... and I've yet to see a "claim" of any type made by the photographer, such as "this is a `perfectly' - or `properly' exposed print. I have never seen a requirement for acceptance as "Tecnically perfect", probably because no one can define `perfect' or `proper'.

    A badly exposed print is exactly that , the same can be said for a print lacking in contrast.
    All we have to do is consult our crytal balls and determine if high or low "key" was intended...
    Carpe erratum!!

    Ed Sukach, FFP.

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