Everybody wants a critique. No one wants to hear your opinion.

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:






Orchard Light said...

So are you saying that people shouldn't seek criticism of their work, or that they should seek it in the right places and be prepared to ignore some opinions if they disagree with it?

Will said...

Wow I love this post Kirk! Especially the reference to music at the end. I have found so many similarities being a musician and a photographer and that last quote you said is an excellent example of it. There really isn't a "correct" way of doing things and I value that in art, both musical and visual. That is why I am drawn to it, as a way to step out of the normal. Even if I am just observing a piece of art. Thanks for the post Kirk!

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Everyone needs criticism. I get loads of it almost every time I write something here. And I listen carefully to criticism I respect. Because it doesn't start with, "I don't like XXXX". I like criticism that shows me where I might be wrong and also gives me pointers about how to correct it.

I think that people who are prepared to ignore criticism are only looking for adulation. You have to hear it. And either intelligently rebut it or assimilate it. But I also think most people are lazy with one half of their work of the other and they don't like to be called on it. It could be lazy technique: No tripod when one is needed. Monitor calibration effecting color balance. Bad distribution of focus or DOF.

But it could also be the laziness of wanting to copy of style or copy a technical style and get credit for having done......someone else's style.

Finally, there's a difference between critiquing and exercise and critiquing what you put out there as "Art". If you ask me, "did I handle the distribution of tones in a good way?" I can say yes or no. If you ask me, "Does this work as art?" it becomes more complicated.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Art is not a linear decision tree. Not every mind wants to deal with ambiguity and indecision.....

Kurt W said...

But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. -Oscar Wilde

Kurt Shoens said...

The critiques that matter to me are from my intended audience. Did the picture work for you or not? I find critiques from other photographers helpful if I have something specific to ask them. Usually they aren't the audience and I don't know what to do with their general comments.

Most positive reactions are throw-away. And the most stinging negative comment ("the picture doesn't do anything for me") is hard to use.

Here's a reaction I really liked. I took a picture of my father on his unusual recumbent bicycle purchased to circumvent his poor balance. He showed a print to his doctor to explain the contraption and told me she looked at the print for a good long time before saying "Interesting picture."

Pictures are so common that holding a stranger's interest for more than a moment is a win!

I took Don Giannatti's workshop for a different reason: to pay him back for all the wonderfully helpful information he's given away for free online and to see him in person. (See? Social media does work. I wouldn't know about your books without social media either.) It would have been worth it for me even if I'd learned nothing. I learned a lot though, so bonus.

Gotta disagree on the Chopin though. The sheet music's just a starting point. Think of the sheet music as resembling the brief for a portrait assignment. You and another photographer might come away from the same brief and subject with pretty different results. Likewise, two musicians playing the same piece won't produce the same thing. Your dad is creating art whether he composes or not.

"Art is not a linear decision tree." Well, really nothing is. Photography is mechanically easy (compared to playing the oboe, say). The hard part of most things isn't the doing, but figuring out what you want. And who's going to teach you that?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...


Wolfgang Lonien said...

In the end, we're all seekers I guess. Maybe I'm looking for that picture I took when I was much younger, of a beautiful young girl sitting at a table, on Ilford black & white, self-developed and enlarged... it wasn't really sharp, and it was far from technically perfect, but it was very much like the portraits you do Kirk. Would love to still have it, and to hear your comments about that one.

Have to agree with Kurt about 'social' media: without Mohamad and his "Through the Zuiko" blog I would probably never have found your site.

Kirk Decker said...

Wow, that’s a tough one. I like to think the reason I left the PPA was not because of the outrages dues, but the print competition standards - never photo the back of a woman’s hand, never let a person’s nose break the plane of the face, never let the plane of the face bisect the far eye, fingers below the waist must point down, fingers above the waist must point up - reminded me of the narrow minded art saloons the rejected the work of the impressionists. And yet... I’m so grateful for the time I spent working for the most demanding PPA Master Photographer ever. Roy Meyer. Every photo we made had to be perfect in the camera. It had to be perfect in the camera. I’m not kidding. There was no cropping, no custom printing after the fact. Everything was a full frame machine print. Two rolls of film, ten exposures per roll. If 18 saleable proofs didn’t come back from the lab, you were going to be on the receiving end of withering critique.
And yet, when my young photographer friends ask me to critique their stuff, I’m so hesitant, I don’t want to make anyone conform to a mold, and yet... don’t be bringing me photos of people with raccoon eyes. Learn to light. Don’t be calling that a Rembrandt light if the triangle under the eyes isn’t clean, and the shadow off the nose doesn’t just barely kiss the corner of the upper lip. sigh.

Dave said...

I used to think that having people review my shots was the only way I would learn to be "really good". It took a couple of years to realize that photography really was a lot like my time as an all-state level musician. The solo or even classroom time was simply a reflection of all the other time I spent (upwards of two hours per day) practicing on my own. The classroom time merely gave me an opportunity to learn how to improve certain aspects or be corrected for errors that maybe I didn't notice in my private practice time.

So the secret is that there is NO secret, just hard work, practice and then when asking for critique perhaps being specific (how would you suggest I light this better). Same thing applies to painting, drawing, cooking or raising kids. You get better at it by doing it, making mistakes and continually trying to become better.

Books and workshops can help but as the old saying goes, there is no replacement for elbow grease.

I think part of Flickr's appeal is the feedback element. The downside is that I don't think there is much there in the way of constructive feedback.

Great topic!

Matthew Saville said...

I know, whenever I give a harsh critique for free, it is never well-received. The trick (of course) is then to charge money for it, then only the serious people, who are ready for the bad (or good) news, will sign up.

A negative opinion always hurts, but honestly I wouldn't have it any other way. How else would I improve!


Jen said...

See, this is how I talk myself out of taking Don Giannati's workshop. By telling myself that it doesn't matter what I get out of a weekend of watching better photographers work because I'm unlikely to put the time in to make the knowledge my own.

"The hard part of most things isn't the doing, but figuring out what you want. And who's going to teach you that?"

This is actually what I was going to say would be the value of a mentor: that there would be someone to help me sort out why I'm not satisfied with my photos. I can/have/will continue to take thousands of photos that miss the mark, but I feel like I'm working in the dark, not knowing what I'm doing wrong.

Relying on someone else to do the critical work is perhaps lazy and ineffective, but proper direction toward The Right Questions surely has some value?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Jen, as long as it's one of Don's workshops you'll be in good hands. He teaches the how. You'll still have to sort out what you want to shoot. And you'll have to learn your own style. Don can demystify the basics like very few other people without the "hocus pocus" showmanship. You'll still have to practice what you learn until it becomes second nature.

I am good at painting with a broad brush. And I'm told I'm even more invested in hyperbole.....but not all workshops are bad all the time. If you want to master a basic skill, like learning how to use a light or how to print in a black and white darkroom a quick workshop can go a long way toward teaching a basic skill.

And I'll admit that a lot of people don't seem to learn from reading, only from seeing things performed. If that's your position than I guess a workshop is the answer. As long as it's one of Don Giannatti's.

Unknown said...

Great stuff, sir.