The Vital Role of Critics and The Ongoing Sabotage of Art.

It's okay to say that a photograph sucks. If you put work in a gallery you are inviting the world to experience it and react to it.  You get your shot.  The critic gets his shot. And if you've spent money on framing and printing and boxes of mediocre red wine and baskets of chips and bowl of hot sauce and printed invitations,  it can sting when a critic calls your work into question.  But that's the nature of the beast and part of the function of having exhibitions.  You get to hear or read an evaluation of your work that your mother would never give you.  Either because she loves you too much or is indifferent enough to want to avoid having yet another difficult conversation.  Your role, as an artist is expression.  Not necessarily self-expression but expression that moves the dialog of social reflection forward by taking apart the cultural DNA in a new way.  But there's a limited bandwidth of gallery space, attention and oxygen in the world of fine art and the critic is like the big bouncer at the velvet rope who helps keep out people who are just taking up space.  And I am, of course, ignoring "decorative art" which functions more like furniture.  Which is a wing of the decorative arts....

The web is the same as gallery space.  Every entry either unconsciously dilutes the whole forward momentum of enlightened culture or adds another highly concentrated drop of "go juice" to the mix.  The middle ground is just a waste of ones and zeros. Art should have something to say.  It shouldn't just lounge around. But somehow, when we make the very public gesture of posting work in publicly accessible forums we have the expectation that everyone will play nicey-nice and say uplifting and positive things.  Like the art teacher in primary school who is deathly afraid that any criticism will damage someone's self-esteem.  Given the all but anonymous nature of the web (for so many years my readers have come to believe that I am a middle aged, professional photographer who struggles with issues of access and finance when, in fact, I am really a precocious 25 year old billionaire ex-pat living in my own building in Dubai surrounded by dozen and dozens of super-model wives while playing with hand made digital cameras from NASA while finger-painting over the tops of my collection of Picasso's and Renoir's. Go figure...) the minute anyone receives even a good natured critique that calls any facet of the work into question the original poster flies into a rage and goes into a defense mode akin to a dictator facing insurrection.  He is protected by the wall of his own anonymity.

But critics serve a few valuable purposes.  They point us toward really worthwhile work.  They coalesce and put into words our subliminal understanding that some work is just unmitigated crap, and they help us to understand what works and what doesn't work in a piece of art. Our biggest problems as an "art" culture are twofold:  1.  While there has been an exponential explosion in the number of people making and showing their "art", and a parallel explosion in the sheer quantity of "art" they are now creating, the number of critics has remained static or has declined.  The number of critics with a grounding in both the history of Photography and general Art History has remained the same or declined.  And as the sheer dilution by numbers and hollow mimicry of worthwhile work continues to move photograph en masse from art-to-craft-to-mindless automatic recording the talented critics remained leery of sticking a foot into this tar baby manifestation of declining culture and have chosen to work the more fertile and invested fields of painting, sculpture, performance art and the "photographic classics."

Our second problem as a culture, where critics are concerned, is that we don't want to believe that they have value.  Just as a garden must be perpetually weeded to prevent its total overrun by predatory and unwanted tangles of hardy and invasive weeds, critics really do serve a valuable purpose.  They metaphorically weed the gardens.  When we dismiss their intrinsic value we are basically saying that photographic art is just about feeling good and that everyone should get a trophy.  Especially now, in the age of the privileged amateur who wants all the benefits conveyed by the hard work of his predecessors with none of the heavy lifting.  We, as a culture, have chosen to ignore our own art history so that the re-awakening (like zombies) of so many past styles and subject matters is embraced as stunningly new and innovative.  We give more value to the retread than to the original because we have no understanding and no cognizance of what went before.  And how current art stands on the shoulders of its predecessors.

Of course we'll believe that every thing we come up with is gold if we've never actually taken time to see and understand real gold.  We don't value the good critics because we don't understand what they're talking about and we don't understand what they're talking about because we think our hobbies are shortcuts to relevant statements of art.  Without knowing or understanding that what we're mechanically re-imaging has already been invented, shown, harvested and appropriated.  And been done better.

We went to school to become engineers or doctors or lawyers and we disparaged learning about our own culture at our own peril ("why would anyone want to pursue the liberal arts? What will they do with that degree?").  By doing so, in the pursuit of commerce, we throw away the important messages attached to the past.

Maybe what modern photography needs is more, and more educated, critics.  I've often stated my opinion that if work had to be shown in a physical gallery to be taken seriously people would put a lot more thought and care into what they showed.  We'd raise the level of art and the level of discourse by several orders of magnitude because people would have real "skin in the game."  And they'd have to confront a public and intimate encounter with their audiences.  As it is now we hide behind the screens and can be as prickly and abusive to critique as our fragile egos demand us to be.  If we were giving a gallery talk, in person, the discourse in both directions might be more disciplined and collegial.

I post photos here that, in retrospect, have no real value.  I never get called on it because this is the web. I could pull a better construct out of an old camera bag.  I think we all have a duty as artists to do several things.  First, we need to understand the history of the field in which we want to do work.  We need to read books like Beaumont Newhall's, The History of Photography.  And we need to read the print versions so we can see the plates well reproduced.  We all need to go to many, many gallery shows of both old masters and new, rising stars, so we can see what prints (the gold standard) really look like.  They are the standard that we really work towards.  We need to understand that the web is just a transitional tool that shows us a representation of what the final, physical art might look like.   Once we understand where we've been, just how good work can look "in person" and what the manifestos around art creation and photography are all about we can then speak to new work in a language that has real meaning.  It goes beyond, "great capture. All the kitty whiskers are sharp!" to a more adult dialog of understanding a work's resonance and messaging in the context of a complex culture, separate from reality TV and Facebook.

I see the world of photography on the web as so much adolescence.  Not that the practitioners are teenagers but that the level of discourse is so course and simple and fractured.  It's not an "us versus them" scenario with me being on one side of a technological divide and everyone else being a futuristic expert.  I've been pounding away in the world of computers for decades, and bought digital cameras before the great majority of the Bell Curve had even heard of their existence.  What I'm arguing for is the idea that, before inflicting on our shared culture, another meaningless rectangle of bouncy color and vacuous content that we all have a responsibility to understand what it is we want to say, why we want to say it and how well we can talk.  Then art moves forward.

I would welcome more and more critics.  We need people who can say, "You Suck." in a way that makes sense, moves the discussion to a level of higher quality and helps to weed our gardens so that visitors can more clearly see the beautiful flowers that bloom there.

Before you rush to respond and accuse me of being an elitist and an ego-maniac let me say that I felt compelled to write this because someone who likes my work, on a forum, posted a link to my website galleries and suggested that people go and look.  One person responded that he didn't see anything special in my work and questioned the purpose of the link.  The critic was attacked again and again for not seeing the value.  But he made a valid point.  The work I have on the web is series of tiny representations of images that are meant to be seen really large and in print.  Reduced and denatured by the contraints of the web they lose the majority of whatever power they might have had.  As does all work on the web.  The naysayer was, in fact, assuming a responsible role as critic and showing that in spite of my rhetorical skills, which help to create fictive value to the work I've posted, the work itself didn't resonate as it would have in it's primary and physical iteration.  He was right to force the question.  And my defenders wrong for not pursuing the conversation based on the primary aesthetics of presentation and the value of an image reduced from 30 by 30 inches of selenium toned, fiber based print to an sRGB version at 1000 by 1000  pixels.

If I could wield supreme power over the internet there are a lot of things I would change.  Like eliminating all advertising... But one of the first things I'd do is erase all the images from every website and gallery, stock file and sharing facility and let people and culture start all over again.  But the TOS on every site would include, in all caps, "Please imagine that the work you are about to post could change lives, change minds, enliven culture and move our society forward in its understanding and compassion.  Don't post random crap just to post it."

The hell with photographic workshops and seminars and tutorials and all the other mindless dreck.  We have more than enough technically accomplished technicians.  Now we need to concentrate on history and taste and aesthetics.  We need workshops that take people out of their quantum jobs and immerse them in the "what and why" of our art instead of the "how to."  And we need to cultivate workshops all over the map that teach people how and why to have critical exchanges about art that don't end in gunplay.

edit: an interesting, related article by Alain Briot: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/artistic_license.shtml

edit:  This is a brilliant take on photo criticism: http://www.photowings.org/pages/index.php?pgA196

William Gatesman wrote this wonderful piece: http://wmgphotoblog.com/2012/02/21/a-cubist-critique-of-photographic-art/

Unsure about critiques?  Here's a good place to start: http://www.pixiq.com/article/doing-a-photo-critique

And here's my favorite intro book to criticism for photography: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0240516524/ref=oh_o02_s00_i00_details

read first, disagree second. If at all.


Unknown said...

Nicely provocative piece. Reminds me of some recent posts on the Photocritic International blog where Mr Coleman reported on the abuse and criticism he got for daring to do his job and be a critic.

Yes there are people out there who only want to have the 'neat!!!', 'cool!!!' type of comments on their posted images, but I also think there are plenty of enthusiasts (like me) who would rather love to get some constructive criticism.

But, as you say, there are more and more pictures and the same number of - or perhaps even fewer - critics around, at least those with the talent, skill and cultural knowledge to offer something meaningful. And given that their skills are a rare commodity, why would they waste them on run of the mill amateurs like me?

It's also very true that printing a picture to display where others will see it - even if those others are just friends and family - does encourage a more thoughtful process of selecting and editing of images. Yet even before this happens I think it is a good exercise for many of us to decide if we are prepared to put an image online where others will see it. My view is that if not, that image should be deleted. Of course there are those who will still publish vast quantities of images nonetheless, but for those of us who perhaps aspire to a modicum of photographic artistry, it might help us focus and refine our work.

In the end, the absence of criticism drives those of us who would welcome it to become better critics of our own work, by - as you say - visiting galleries, reading books, and also, I believe, visiting the websites of those whose work can often remain inaccessible to us.

On a separate note, as someone trying to decide on a replacement for my now slightly elderly DSLR, I appreciate your posting on your experience with the A77, since that's one of the three cameras I have identified as my next purchase.

John F. Opie said...

I live in Germany, where there is fairly active government support for the arts (for instance, 1% of government building costs go for art for that building) and where there is fairly serious art education: you can get a diploma in art at many major German universities. So there are a lot of qualified critics out there...

...or so you would think. The process becomes corrupted and the critics cluster around whomever they're sleeping with or would like to do so, as well as where the money is coming from. And the gunplay continues with even more severity, as the critics are really part of the establishment and hence corrupted: challenge the established art institutions and you are labeled a heretic and you'll never exhibit in that town again.

What is more needed, perhaps, is less establishment and more art. I know that people expect to get paid for their work, but what passes for art sometimes these days remains incomprehensible for this native New Yorker, and heavily politicized to boot. Sad state of affairs when good artists can't survive as such because they fail to conform or when a woman can't get work because she won't sleep with the right people to get gallery space (both cases from friends who got that art degree).

Not that you're wrong: but I think we need more subversive artists that challenge the established galleries and art institutions, rather than more of the same...

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

But John, my piece had nothing to do with bolstering institutions and political cloisters. My wish is that we had more home grown critics with taste and brains. And let the pieces fall where they may. We have more than enough subversive artists. We need an army of subversive critics.

Being a good artist has never been a guarantee for survival. I can't speak to sexual harassment but find it strange since so many galleries are woman owned.

We also need more "public access" art spaces for rotating shows.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Thanks. I appreciated your thoughtful response. We all do need to become better critics of our own work. Myself included.

sey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sey said...

how do you hit the nail on the head 99% of the time?

I have forever been fighting a battle against the "now/instant/digital does it for me" generation.
I have been called the original luddite who is against "progress" and also a lot worse.

All this simply because I keep insisting that natural creative talent and a thorough knowledge of the
basics and history are essential to being a successful artist/photographer/musician/mathematician/scientist/whatever.
But in this "new" world of ours, I'm told that I don't need to be able to figure 1 + 1 = 2, the microchip
does it for me, or the Japanese engineer brainwashed my camera with a zillion examples and the camera
will now choose the appropriate settings, etc. etc. I don't need to think any more. I just need to point and shoot.

Serious critics are an endangered species for 2 main reasons. Firstly, the new generation don't "need' to
know the basics, the microchip knows it all. Secondly, the anonymity of the web has allowed everyone
to be a critic, qualified or not. The attitude of "if I like it, it's good/anything goes", has overtaken us.
Thus all has been diminished. We see and feel it in photography, because that's our thing, but the
same has happened in all fields of endeavour requiring natural creative talent and a thorough knowledge of the basics and background.

To me the problem is the changing standards of values, the plastic, smooth, artificiality of things today. The accepted defreckling of a lovely freckled, red-headed beauty or the Barbie & Ken cloning of portraits etc. The people, men & women, who make the plastic surgeons wealthy and the silicon and botox shares shoot into outer-space alongside cyber-space. The uncreative who replace talent with digital technical skills and bluff themselves that they are "artists. There seems to be a new aesthetic that rules. An aesthetic of falseness and plasticity.

I could go on and on about this sad subject, but I think you get my point.

Kenneth Tanaka said...

Kirk: Anyone to whom you present your work is automatically granted a license to become its critic. It requires no educational or professional pedigree.

That fact aside, if you really are a professional photographer earning a living with your camera the only critics that matter are the ones who autograph your invoices. And, as we both know, the objectives and constraints of that work are far afield from just taking a walk with a camera.

Don't sweat the Web.

GreggMack54 said...

Kirk, I find this statement fascinating: We need workshops that take people out of their quantum jobs and immerse them in the "what and why" of our art instead of the "how to."

If you were to offer such a workshop, I know that I would definitely enroll!

Jim said...

I have a mixed feeling about the Internetization of art. For me, living in a rural area hours from major cities, access to non-digitized quality art is a bit of a rarity. OTOH the Internet gives me access to a broad realm of art and contact with other artists. On the other other hand (we have 3 hands out here in the boonies, the 'Net being the virtual 3rd hand), as you observe there is a glut of work on the web that was put up with little or no thought to its value.

I sense a growing awareness of this as evidenced by the increasing use of the word "curated" in things I read on the Web. As recently as a year or two ago I never saw reference to "a curated collection" of photographs but recently I see the word popping up more frequently as a verb, apparently suggesting that the images were critically chosen for inclusion and thus implying that they are better, more meaningful images than other collections of photos.

Aside from the fact that such use is a distortion of the dictionary meaning (edited would be more to the point), it does demonstrate a growing awareness that there's a lot of dross in the current flood of photographs on the Web. Unfortunately it may also point to a future where that dearth of critical analysis is papered over with a new round of 'art speak', the use of high sounding terms to add significance.

It seems to be a given that as any field of creative endeavor becomes more accessible, both as a creator and as a consumer, the general level of quality declines. I suspect that there is as much good work as ever, and perhaps more, but it is no where near keeping up with the overall volume of work and in the absence of the sort of critics your post refers to the general public is increasingly inclined toward acceptance of mediocrity. The good work is there, but it is harder sift from the haystack. What saddens me is that the "art world", the galleries and dealers, are in many cases buying into the Internet aesthetic.

Phil Erickson said...

Hi Kirk,

Nice piece. When you comment about the field not knowing its art history, you revolve back to the age-old conversation about those who do not know history being doomed to repeat it. In my field (space physics), this occurs all the time:

Work pre-internet - i.e. requiring a memory or a trip to the library - is habitually rediscovered by each generation anew, some of whom discard the "old" as being less relevant since its discoveries were made using admittedly inferior equipment. But the physics is the physics, no matter what age.

Replace instrumentation with painting / full plate cameras, and art for the physics, and you have it.

Craig said...

Jim, the galleries and dealers were buying into what you call "the Internet aesthetic" before popular culture even knew the Internet existed. The issue really has to do with money and cultural knowledge on the part of buyers. Back in what it might amuse us to call "the good old days", art collectors were mostly people who had significant knowledge about art and its history and some ability to tell good from bad. But starting somewhere around the 1970s, a lot of newly-rich people (many of whom had made their money in high tech or entertainment) started collecting art. For the most part they had no understanding of the subject, and not much taste, but they had money and a desire to be known as "major art collectors". Since art dealers (whatever they may tell you) are really in business to make money, the art market quickly turned into a get-rich-quick scheme in which galleries fostered ephemeral fads one after another, promoting often rather undistinguished artists just like a record label pushing the newest no-talent pretty-face pop singer, and dropping them once they had served their purpose. The Internet certainly has not made things any better in this regard, but the rot was there much earlier.

Craig said...

Kirk, one issue about having people to say "You suck" is that the Internet was originally created by socially-inept nerds who were neither very good at taking criticism nor particularly qualified to deliver it. By the time the Web made the Internet something the masses could relate to, the Internet had developed a culture in which honest and informed criticism was considered impolite. Even pointing out simple writing errors led to one being accused of being a "grammar nazi", as if to suggest that caring about proper use of language was tantamount to genocide. This is how the Internet evolved as a sort of criticism-free zone, and it's likely to stay that way because most people don't really want to be criticized -- they'd rather go on believing that their desire to create art somehow imbues their work with inherent value, objective standards be damned. And most of the photography criticism that I have seen online (on sites such as photo.net and 1x.com) is pretty weak. Mostly, people just apply "rules" they've heard about but not really understood, such as the "rule of thirds" or the ridiculous notion that good pictures never, ever have blocked shadows or blown highlights.

If we (or anyone else) want to change this, I don't think it can be done "from within", i.e. in the context of the popular web sites that exist today. Their culture and their audiences are already established. You'd have to start from scratch with a new site and attract an audience that actually knew something about art and wasn't satisfied with the sites that already existed online. You'd also have to carefully exclude the clueless, so of course you'd quickly get a reputation as a "fascist" and you'd be heaped upon with all sorts of other stock Internet insults.

I think ultimately the roots of all this go much farther back than most people realize. Technology has a way of cheapening things by making them too common, turning everything into a commodity. Whenever you hear someone talking about how a new invention has "democratized" something, just replace "democratized" with "devalued" or "degraded" and you'll have a better understanding of what's really going on.

Danhaines said...

I loved your idea of deleting all the pictures on the web and starting again, made me quite excited even though mine will all go too! It's quite true what you say about critics we do need them. Often i just put out a photo to see if i will get a bite, a little like fishing. I don't know if its really good or it sucks, and if all i get is good composition etc it dosent really inform me as to whether it was "art" or just ahem "fart"

The Forum that im a part of has a mix of the Yes man and also some who are much more constructively critical and these are the reason that i post pictures there, i value their input.

Bill White said...

I found your blog through the online photographer recently. I enjoyed it so much that I went back and read most of your previous posts. Your photographs on this blog are well done. While they may not all be fine art, they clearly show talent, skill, experience, style and vision. Just compare the photographs taken by other bloggers and artists which are frequently mundane. I cannot imagine how you can blog about fine art including samples of fine art and post as frequently as you do. Your photographs demonstrate your points extremely well. The fact that they are very good is a bonus from my point of view.

c.d.embrey said...

_Whenever you hear someone talking about how a new invention has "democratized" something, just replace "democratized" with "devalued" or "degraded" and you'll have a better understanding of what's really going on._

Well said. We see this stated all to often about HD capable DSLRs. My background is the movie biz, there is a category of movies called "Direct to Video," i.e. no theatrical release intended. My co-worker Steve always referred to them as "Dreck to Video." For me, here is way too much poorly conceived, out-of-focus Video Dreck on the 'net, YMMV.


Unknown said...


This was a great article, one of your best... I'm sure you, and others who enjoyed it, will find the three part article, "Understanding Criticism" by Alain Briot very interesting as well. It is in the columns section on the LULA site..



Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Joey, Thanks for posting that about Alain Briot's essay. I had forgotten it.

Bill White said...

I went out and rode my bike for an hour or so and gave it more thought. It appears you want to teach the denizens of the Internet the difference between art and snapshots. A worthy but perhaps fruitless endeavor. A cursory review of Facebook will tell you that most people are satisfied with poor technique regardless of composition. You could write posts like the Briot essay which are extremely helpful but that might become boring after a while. I thought the Mark Dubovoy post "Everything Matters" was also quite good on the LULA site as well earlier this year. You could post one photo of your own per blog post and discuss how it works or doesn't while discussing the use or lack of classic composition guidelines. Or you could post masterpieces and discuss those as in an Art History or Art Appreciation class. I am sure whatever you envision will be good as art is a largely untapped area. Personally I prefer variety in your blog even if the main focus is creating art. As a small business, I enjoy your posts about doing what it takes to make money. I also enjoy the posts on equipment. Finally, I find posts about your walks through Austin interesting as well. So I cast my vote for maintaining some variety in your blog. I am sure it will be good no matter direction you choose.

Don said...

A comment on a forum carries no weight... good or bad.
A comment from someone who is not equipped with the necessary tools or aesthetic carries no weight.
Every comment is not a critique. It is a comment plain and simple.
A critique requires participation of the critiqued.
Questions must be asked, and context must be established. A competent critic would never proffer a statement about the image without understanding context, the aesthetic of the photographer or how the image fits within the body of work - both of the photographer and the genre.

Flickr is not a place to seek critique. Is it? Avatars of people with names like pillow_eyes and picturedudewithcamera have nothing of interest to tell us about our images.

And putting images on Flickr or 500PX or Yahoo or even a blog in order to garner "love this" and "nice light" makes little sense as the highest commented images usually involve a half nekkid girl in stripper heels and tassles... oh yeah, that'll get you comments.

But if you are looking for criticism, why not ask for it in the places where it would do some good? Why not ask for a consultant - someone who works with photographers for a living - what they think? Seek out art buyers and reps and buy 'em a beer or two for their opinions.

Hire a professional who will take the time to get to know the work, the aesthetic of the photographer and the context within which the work was made. This is the helpful part... and there are people out there who will do it.

Some photographers will as well - but be careful who you ask. Asking a fashion photographer to critique your still life is as helpful as asking the lady who does your dry cleaning to help you pick out your wardrobe. NO CONTEXT.

"When we dismiss their intrinsic value we are basically saying that photographic art is just about feeling good and that everyone should get a trophy. Especially now, in the age of the privileged amateur who wants all the benefits conveyed by the hard work of his predecessors with none of the heavy lifting."

1. Who has done this? I am not aware of the trend. As far as I can see critics abound - from consultants to art buyers to gallery owners to writers and more. Criticism seems to be easier to find than ever. Good criticism.

2. Regarding the lazy amateur... why do we care? Who gives a rats butt what some schmoe on a forum says about your work, Kirk? You know it is good. Your clients know it is good. Some guy with no credentials says something negative and the last thing you should do is take it to heart.

Now if Snookie didn't like it, well... then that would be different.

FoToEdge said...

This "Internets Thing" is kind of making everyone crazy. It really is getting in the way of working. It is an addictive drug. If I were to write a blog, I would have 2 or 3 of the important folks in my life serve as Editors, with a good proof reading and comments, before I went "Live" with the article. I do like the information that you share with us, and you do always have a different point of view. Plus... Your Portraits are insightful into the subject's spirit. Please have a good break from all of this whirlwind of babble!

greg g said...

This piece raises much larger cultural issues than can be sensibly commented on. If, Kirk, you have not read Jacques Barzun's "The House of Intellect", I suggest you might find it interesting.

Three "random" observations: 1) if the "democratization" of Art is a disaster, the effect of a similar process on criticism would be even worse; 2) proper criticism is not a way to say "you sucK" in any fashion at all, but a protocol for comment on the work product, not the worker; and 3) the "publication" of images on sites like Flickr is not about "Art", but is, rather, a social exercise, a form of entertainment and relatively "safe" connectivity with its own social conventions that, frankly, don't include serious criticism.

Your casual images are just fine, but more of your serious portraiture would always be welcome, And let me say that I found the count his pores and graying nose hair shot of your friend Will to be quite an interesting departure from many of the portraits you have published here: less leading lady and more weathered character actor.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Don, I think you're missing the point of my article. I am NOT personally looking for critiques. I know lots of folks who work in my world like Michael O'Brien, Dan Winters and James Evans, Will van Overbeek, my friends who are art buyers for major agencies, and my fellow former professors at UT who would give me an accurate and blindingly honest appraisal. I was speaking to all the work on the web. The people on the web are the ones who need the critiques. The ones who post everywhere and without regard for coherence and continuity. The ones whose styles are all over the map. The big names and the medium names of the digital age. Those are the people who need to have critiques because they, in turn, influence this generation of hobbyists and enthusiasts.

I think there's a need for critics because we're constantly wading in crap. Do you understand that I am not asking for a personal critique? I am speaking of the industry as a whole. And I'm not talking about the Selena Maitrya, Wonderful Machine version of current BS advertising work but about the art of photography in general. Like the wonderful reviews that A. D. Coleman used to write. Like the wonderful movie reviews that Pauline Kael used to write. Not for me. For the whole of the art.

I don't listen to the forums. I don't care about opinons from people I don't know. I'm talking about the industry of photographic art.

No one hurt my feelings or said anything bad about my work. That's not why I wrote this. Jeez. Just read the lines. No need to try and read between the lines. In this case it means exactly what I wrote. Nothing more, nothing less.

Noons said...

Kirk, as a lurker I should shut up. But this post is IMHO an important statement and I think I should share a bit of my own.
No, I am not after changing your mind: it is your blog, and you do whatever you want with it. But for as long as you decide to share it with others, we can also throw in an opinion here and there?

Straight off the mark: where is it written photography on the Internet has to be ALL about "art"?

The Internet is as much a family or public media as the rest of this planet. Just like there used to be a lot of utter crap in most family photo albums, there is also a lot of the same in most online photo forums and clubs!

Nothing new. We NEED the crap! It's what makes us get a sense for the true value of exceptional images when we finally see them.
Yes: uncle Vern's slides were phenomenal back in the 70s.

Does that mean that my own crappy slides from that era are any less worthwhile? Not to me and not to my close family!

The big difference now is a lot of folks don't realize that "their Internet connection" is not theirs at all! As such, they end up sharing a lot more and with a lot more people than they would while using traditional 70s showing processes.

And we get all that sharing inflicted upon us!...

Hence the "dilution" you seem so worried about.

My point to you however is that I - and many others - am not in the least worried about such dilution. I have the ability to shut my eyes (re-direct my browser away) from crap. Just like I elected back in the 70s to not go to a slide night aonly to nod away for the rest of the night.

The advantage with the Internet is I now have complete control over what I accept and reject to see, and at what time.
Whereas way back then I had to take the bad with the good and undergo never-ending nightshows in order to peek at some really good stuff every now and then.

Hence, the real effects of dilution were a lot worse back then. While now, I don't really care much about it!

As an example: I am an avid watcher of the deviantArt site. Where a lot of dross is published every day, with the odd precious jewel here and there.

Initially, I used to subscribe to their "quality imaging" clubs. I don't anymore: I now grab ALL images as much as I can or through clubs that are not very selective.

Why? Because I like to decide for myself what is nice to look at, what touches me, what "punches" at me. Rather than have someone else's notion of "quality" forced upon me!

Yes, I see a lot of dross. No, it really doesn't take much of my time to skip it.

And yes, I love places like this one where I know in advance most images will have very high quality and will "tell" me something, although here and there there will be a boring article or something that just doesn't touch me deeply.

So what? Unlike the 70s, I am not paying to look at this gallery. Who am I to say it is definitely "all good" or "all bad", or that it should be any of that?

Is it important that it should be all "quality"? Not to me! I like it just as it is: the thoughts and feelings of a person with a similar range of interests to mine.

Nothing wrong with that, and definitely why I continue to be a lurker.
That is: if you don't mind my presence! :-)

Travis said...

Does the proliferation of McDonald's affect the market for or appreciation of a good steakhouse?

You're of course right about the need for educated, literate criticism for those who are seriously trying to create art. That last statement doesn't describe 99% of the photos we see on the Internet, so why do they matter? Ignore them. They aren't dragging down art any more than McDonald's is dragging down a great steak. Different purposes, different spheres.

I don't have art burning inside me - I'm content to meet new people and play with lighting gear. So, maybe my point of view is necessarily defective.

Don said...

I was speaking the the general population as well. The use of 'you' was meant as a generalist term. It is a bad writing habit, I suppose.

But actually, I guess I just don't get it.

The vast amount of images - prolly over 90% are not there to be critiqued. They are not in need of any polish... just moments in time snapped to share something with Auntie Griselda. And the ones that do put their work out there for art and serious portfolios are not really looking for Auntie G to critique them.

I do not see the vast, and I mean vast, amount of work on the web as serious. Maybe one out of a hundred, two hundred... maybe. Most of the terrible crap is beyond reach, and the vast amount of it is simply hobbyists having fun. And I cannot fault that.

But as to the serious photography that is being somehow denigrated by the crappola of the masses...

I cannot find what you are alluding to.

No worries. I'll chalk that up to me. I am probably reading more into it than is there.

martinduerrphotography.blogspot.com said...

I really like to read your article day by day, as they offer a lot of information and at some point
discussable and provocative content. Thanks for that.
As I agree with most of your statements I must say (for German photo forums)that a lot of critisim is about the photographic technique and not the “pure” photo itself. So people discuss more why someone took this or that lens, uses Lightroom instead of Aperture and such things. As I’m at home in the world of illustration too I must say that there critics are most about themes and not the media was used for. Again this changes if you do oil paintings. But back to photography. We have to live with critics and it’s necessary to get better and move forward, but I have to admit that I like discussing a picture/image in a face to face discussion more than an anonymus critics on the web from someone I don’t know his backgrounds. It’s much more easier to do it over the web instead of really shaping out a fundamental critic person to person.

AndyK said...

Just a brief out-of-context reaction to your thought:
"We need to understand that the web is just a transitional tool that shows us a representation of what the final, physical art might look like."

That may be what YOU are intending to do with your piece of the intertubes, but the web IS the new physicality (at least until the next thing comes along). The limitations of each medium (sculpture, oils, charcoal, silver prints, etc.) shapes what can be represented and provides different inspirations to its practitioners.

Sandy Rothberg said...

Well said!

I firmly believe a few of things:

If I could talk about it, I would, I can't talk, so I make pictures.

It is very hard to see or say anything clearly.

Most of what I see and most of what I read is not worth the time taken to try to understand. Occasionally, I am just blown away, so the effort is worth it.

Your honesty is much appreciated.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

The answer is very complex but Yes the proliferation of cheaper options at lesser quality has been shown to degrade the appreciation for a good steakhouse. People become habituated to what they consume most frequently and this habituation blunts their ability to discern qualitative differences while the apparent price disparity causes the occasional visitor to fine dining much post cognitive dissonance as relates to the value proposition. It's easy to say that they are different but they represent different points on a continuum and are constantly effecting the elasticity and contextual reality of said continuum. See the post about the sale of a Cindy Sherman print...

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

The newspaper is a conduit for writing. The web is a conduit for the representation of photography. The web is the antithesis of Physicality. We may be talking about two totally separate constructs of photography.

John F. Opie said...

Sorry, Kirk! Was just trying to say that sometimes the solution gets to be worse than the problem. Be happy that you're in a more conducive place...

AndyK said...

Well, maybe Instantiation would be a better word that Physicality. Even though a newspaper may be just a conduit - it still tends to shape the kind of writing it contains. Newspapers vs trade books vs art books vs magazines - each seem to foster something different.

A photographer staging a gallery showing gets to control a lot of things - especially the quality of the prints. An artist publishing something on the web gives up a lot of control to the viewer.

As an artist on the web are you saying "this is just a hint - come to the gallery and see the real thing"? or is the web not yet good enough for the artist to embrace and say "HERE is my art"?

(and maybe I just don't grasp exactly what you meant by "transitional tool")

scotth said...

Some of your pictures I like, and some I do not. Part of that comes down to taste, or the lack thereof on my part. Part of it, I assume, is becasue the pictures are meant to illustrate some point about the camera's performance, and not neccesarily for their artistic merit. Some pictures I like for my own reasons even if they are not what would be considered art anyway.

I agree though, that the internet can be detrimental to improvement. Not only through the mechanism of praise in the effort to build community (or maybe it is just an effort to fit into the community), but in the way that some communities seem to become inbred. I used to be a part of a community where the goal seemed to be making everyone's pictures look the same. It seemed to me that people were not able to look at the work people put up and appreciate the work for what it was, but were more likely to apply some standard they were familiar with and try to lead the photographer to fitting that standard. I may not be explaining it well, but it seems like some communities will challenge you and explore new ideas, and some will encourage you to be like everyone else.

Workshops can be interesting. I think my idea of a workshop is different than yours though. A workshop to me is going somewhere away from home, taking pictures, watching slideshows, and talking about photography for a week or so. Just the time to do that is invaluable for a hobbyist like me. Interestingly though, the first time I went to a workshop like that, I was confronted with a professional photographer showing me slide after slide of work that was to a very high standard. That high standard led me to think about my own work in a new way, and hold myself to a higher standard. It was a real growth experience for me.

Ken said...

Kirk, I really enjoy your articulate, insightful, intelligent and oftentimes humorous way of communicating. If you ever quit the world of photography, the world of writing should welcome you. Yours and Don Giannatti's blogs are two I frequent for their writing and ideas as much as the imagery and technique.

I imagine you will return with photography that pushes toward that which you consider meaningful and furthering your ideas of what art should accomplish. Bravo! I look forward to the new direction.

Unknown said...

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that someone would begin an essay with "It's okay to say that a photograph sucks," should close that very same essay with a high-minded call to "cultivate . . . [and] teach people how and why to have critical exchanges about art that don't end in gunplay.

Perhaps you were just trying to get more eyeballs on your site. If so, then this is a marvelous way to get traffic. If you were trying to raise the level of discourse, explain to me how saying that a work of art "sucks" advances the intelligent conversation.

Rob Grey said...

Without the "suck" there can't be the "good."

Another way: Without knowing that something sucks, you never know when something worthwhile comes along.

This goes for both the art maker and the consumer.

Great articles lately Mr. Tuck, they have really gotten me to thinking about why I photograph and if it really adds anything relevant to this heap we all try to sift through on the internet. It is something everyone should do, and do often. It will really help us separate the good from the suck, and push ourselves to strive toward the best we're capable of.

Also, that Kamps article about the basics of making well thought out criticisms is fantastic. I'll be applying that information to a lot more of the work I look at. Thanks.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

It's hyperbole. And it's tongue in cheek. And yes, you were the only one who found it to be ironic.

William Martins 'Wigandia' said...

Splendid article.

Unknown said...

Last year I did a workshop with Jay Maisel in NYC. Without a doubt the best part of the week was the daily critique portion. Each person had to select just five images per day. Fellow workshoppers critiqued but many of those critiques were with kid gloves. It was like American Idol in the past when Paula and Randy gave the first reviews, but really everyone was waiting for Simon to tell the truth! Jay was not mean, but he was honest - very honest. And sometimes he saw something interesting in an image that many passed over. I crave this kind of REAL critique and wish there was a place I could get it. I had hope for more critique on 500px but not so. There it seems images are LIKED or just ignored.

I would love to find a network of folks to have a genuine back and forth with.......nothing mean, no sunshine up asses, just honest feedback and critique.

Thanks for the post.


Anonymous said...

My portraits are to professional portraits about what the toy kazoo is to the Holton French Horn. I enjoy taking certain kinds of portraits, and maybe some day I will get good at it. But I take photos for the purpose of sharing them, not selling them. While I would appreciate a few pointers, it isn't going to make me enjoy it less.

As you have hinted, the camera is just a tool: When the printing press was invented, there were only a handful of people in each town that controlled production of 99% of printed material. The quantity was low, the quality was high, and books were expensive. These days, any nitwit with a cell phone can write and publish their own websites (or even novels) in 140-character chunks. I rely on critics just to sort out what is worth reading.

Those are just two useful purposes for critics, but I am sure there are others.

The worst possible use of a critic would be to read a review of your own work written by someone who doesn't understand your style, your intent, or your point of view.

Are you are the kind of person who internalizes bad reviews written by internet trolls? If so, try this experiment: Get yourself a copy of Barry Tuckwell playing Mozart's 4th Horn Concerto... And also buy a kazoo...

Unknown said...

Me, too!

On a side note, I've found that the critique pages at nikonians and at 1x.com are pretty good for critiques. Of course it's a mixed bag, since the critiques come from whoever happens to have an opinion.

Hmmm...maybe the way to raise the bar on critiques is to give better critiques...

JJ Semple said...

An alternate take on the subject is that mass self-expression is in its infancy. Up to the emergence of the Internet, expression was all one-way: In not Out. As in 1984, the constant propaganda of the always-on TV. The fact that the Internet bookends TV means we have now outlets and are learning to use them. We are also learning the healing benefits of not keeping everything bottled up inside, not being afraid to express our thoughts and feelings. That the form may yet be primitive does not mean we cannot improve or that self-expression does not bestow a healing release on those who practice it.

R.Mutt said...

"We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true."
- Robert Wilensky
Mass marketing, commodification, relativism. A burger is just ground up dead cow.
What's the difference between it and a well prepared standing rib roast, right?
This is the goupthink in our culture. One thing is relatively the same as the other.
I was told once, "Don't confuse the business of art with the art business."
I don't, but most of our culture does. They believe in the finality of 2+2=4.
A visionary, imaginative thinker knows that you can go beyond the technical accuracy of 2+2 to make it become whatever you have the power and vision to create.
This is beyond understanding for many educated by the American system.
Simple minds desire simple solutions for complex problems.
Kenneth Tynan is quoted, " A critic knows the way but can't drive the car."
Certainly there is some purpose in a critic to exist, but what are the qualifiers? What makes a respected critic?
What experience, education and knowledge is required? Is it to clarify meaning? To pose questions? Hint at answers?
It is a complex dance.
Great post Kirk.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Kirk.

Right or wrong, you always have a way of making me stop and think. Not many do that!

I hope you are well Sir. Looking forward to 10th.