In the end it's easier just to go shopping.
Everyone seems to want a critique. Whenever I meet for lunch with an aspiring photographer they have their black portfolio case in hand and the ask me to look it over and give them my opinion. I'm sure they don't understand that my opinion hardly matters in the context of current commerce or in the world of art. I've learned to flip thru the book. But not too quickly. And then I smile and say, "Thank you for showing me your work." Very few people want a bonafide critique because they are too emotionally attached to the connection with their own work.
When I taught at UT part of my job was critiquing students' photographs. We'd pin up prints to the cork board wall, have the person explain what their assignment was and then go around the room and discuss the prints. Student work is interesting. A lot of kids re-invented wheels and shot in popular styles. That's to be expected. They were young and hadn't seen a lot of stuff yet and they were still in the process of discovering art history and the incredible work that's been done. While we tried to focus on content we'd point out when bad technique got in the way of good seeing. We'd also point out when the seeing was absent and there was nothing more than technique. But mostly we tried to get each other to see, on an emotional and universal level, what worked and what didn't. (ex: "You say this photo is about sorrow but all I see are lace curtains and bright sunshine....").
In college I think the most important lesson that aspiring artists can learn is that technique is secondary to having an interesting point of view. We could readily teach technique. Over the few years I was there we taught dozens and dozens of people every year how to use an 8x10 inch view camera, how to master film development and how to do studio lighting in concert with these Brontosaur-like cameras. But I believe that you can't teach an artist what to be creative about. Or, how to have a point of view.
It's like style. You can buy style at any department store. But can you make your own style visible in your own work? It's hard because style is both a "way of seeing" and a "what of seeing." And it's an intertwined combination of Pick-up Sticks. Removing one supporting stick causes the others to tumble. Style and point of view don't stand well on their own.
One of the reasons I think smart people go to workshops is that they have the idea that they will "fast track" the boring and rote learning and get onto the sweet meat of creation. It's the way I delude myself when I want to buy a new lens. Or a new camera. I construct a rational that insists that some technical issue is all that stands between me and artistic success. I know that's not true. But it is also untrue that there is any fast track toward developing a POV or a style based on technical instruction.
By the same token, if I critique someone and tell them that a photograph should be cropped this way or that way for success I am giving them a roadmap to make their vision more like my vision and less like their vision. Like politics, we all have opinions about what constitutes good art. But in the end it's just as immeasurable as political right or wrong. Many of Garry Winogrand's photos had tilted horizons. Should mine have tilted horizons? Do I want to be another Garry Winogrand? Here's a hard truth: There is no roadmap to art. None. There are no mentors or dojo masters. There is only your vision and your clarity about your vision. And the idea that, until you die, it's always a work in progress.
In the critiques we often talked about production values. That means mastering your technique. Many times it just means taking the time to make a believable prop or find a better location or shoot a better negative or file. We can talk about those things objectively. But the idea is always subjective.
Show Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic work to an audience at the Crystal Palace and you'll have a riot on your hands. Show the blue ribbon, award-winning work of a PPofA wedding photographer to the SOHO art crowd and you'll have a "sneer" riot on your hands. But no matter how hard you work to credential yourself in the art world your opinion counts as just one more educated vote.
It's fine to do photography as an exercise. My dad plays the piano for enjoyment. Has for all of his life. But he never makes the mistake that by playing Chopin he is, himself, becoming a composer. That only happens when you write your own music....
(photos from The Spanish Steps.)
the holidays are upon us. I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list. Here are a few suggestions: