Posted by: kerryl29 | September 6, 2010

Critiquing Critiques

Shortly after becoming serious about photography, roughly 10 years ago, I began posting some of my images on Internet fora for the purpose of having the photographs critiqued.  I was convinced that the process of having my work viewed and remarked upon by experienced photographers would serve to improve my work.

In essence, I was wrong.  Beyond a few technical pointers early on in the process, I ultimately benefited not at all.

In anticipation of someone jumping down my throat by saying “how can you state that the critique process is worthless?” allow me to point out that I’m saying no such thing.  What I am saying is that I’ve realized little if any personal benefit from having other photographers critique my work.  That doesn’t mean that other photographers don’t or can’t benefit from this undertaking.  And it doesn’t mean that I didn’t benefit through another facet of the process.  I did, in fact, reap some meaningful rewards, as I’ll describe below.

Elliott Creek at Miners Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

While it may seem intuitive that submitting to the critique process would lead to aesthetic growth, with the benefit of a considerable amount of hindsight I’ve been able to discern the shortcomings, at least as they pertain to me, fairly easily.

The vast majority of Web critiques are notably shallow both in terms of volume and insight.  “Great shot” (or some variant thereof) is effectively what the image poster typically receives.  While the ego boost shouldn’t be overlooked, substantively speaking it’s difficult to utilize a “critique” such as this to one’s benefit.  It’s a comparatively rare event to have someone tell you not only whether he/she likes the image but why.

Even when someone does lay out the reasoning behind his/her opinion…well–and this is really the crux of the procedural shortcoming, as I see it–it’s still just an opinion.  It may be well-meaning; it may be earnest; it may be considered.  But it’s still just an opinion.  And more to the point, it’s someone else’s opinion.  For most landscape photographers there’s one opinion–and one opinion only–that matters:  his or her own.  The exception, of course, would be the professional photographer who is shooting for a specific client or trying to appeal directly to a specific audience.  Regardless, rarely if ever is that client or specific audience another landscape photographer, so it seems odd to me to rely on other landscape photographers’ opinions to assess the value of one’s own work, even in the most commercial of instances.  And, of course, the opinions one will almost universally receive when posting for critique on the Web will come from–you guessed it–other landscape photographers.

"The Cavity," Heart of the Dunes, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Reading the above one might readily conclude that I really do regard the entire critique process as worthless.  That would be incorrect.  In fact, I’ve found that one aspect of the undertaking was so valuable that I credit it as the single most important factor in my aesthetic growth over the years.

I have found the manner of critiquing the images of others to be tremendously beneficial to my own work.

Why is this?  Critiquing images has forced me to consider and lay out my feelings regarding specifically what I like about an image.  When I view an image, I allow myself to react to it first.  And then I go through the quasi-intellectual process of deconstructing my reflexive response.  I like an image.  Why?  How does it make me feel?  What is it specifically about that image that leads to that feeling?  Maybe it’s the light; maybe it’s the subject matter; maybe it’s the way the photographer chose to compose the elements in the frame; perhaps it’s a technical liberty.  It could be a combination of several or all of these things (or unnamed others).  Whatever it is, my job as the critic is to be able to explain my reaction in terms of emotion and, more tangibly, the visible antecedents of those emotions.  And all of this enables me to better identify the elements of photographs that appeal to me when I’m in the field making images of my own.

This process of identifying and articulating the symbiotic aspects of an appealing image, done repeatedly over the course of a number of years, has been of incalculable assistance to me.  By taking the time to identify what works (and what doesn’t) for me in the images of others and by determining why an image works (or doesn’t) I’ve become inestimably more attuned to what works–also for me–when I’m out with the camera.

Leaning Trees, Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park, Maine

Is my critique, in turn, of any value to the photographer whose work I’m evaluating?  I honestly don’t know.  If that individual is like me, the answer is almost certainly “no.”  My opinion, after all, is just that–my opinion.  As I see it, my view is of no particular value to someone else, nor should it be.

Now it should go without saying–but I’ll explicitly state it anyway–that simply because this has been my experience with the critique method does not mean that it’s representative of the experience of everyone else–or even necessarily anyone else.   There are undoubtedly plenty of landscape photographers who feel that they’ve benefited from having others comment upon their images and probably don’t feel that critiquing the images of others has been of much assistance at all.  There are arguably as many different ways to learn as there are people to apply different techniques.

But for those who have found that being the recipient of critiques has been of less value than anticipated, it might be worth seeing whether being the provider, rather than the recipient, of critiques assists in the development of your own image-making.

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Responses

  1. Thoughtful and well-stated. To a point, I can resonate with what you are saying. I will add, however, the suggestion that (one of the things that makes our world interesting) we do not all process information or articulate our vision the same way. So I might benefit more from a critique, and you might benefit more from the process of being critiqued.

    Having said that, I still agree 100% that we should all try to engage in the process of true critiquing. I have found that it is really hard work to do it in a meaningful way — maybe why in the end we so often “punt” and say “nice image” or “well done.” But the process of doing, as you so eloquently state, is probably more beneficial to the person doing it than the person receiving.

    I have personally benefitted from Kerry’s critique of some of my images.

    • Thanks for the comment, Andy. FWIW, I completely agree with what you wrote about everyone responding uniquely to a variety of stimuli–hence the second to last paragraph in the original blog post above.

      To whit:

      Now it should go without saying–but I’ll explicitly state it anyway–that simply because this has been my experience with the critique method does not mean that it’s representative of the experience of everyone else–or even necessarily anyone else. There are undoubtedly plenty of landscape photographers who feel that they’ve benefited from having others comment upon their images and probably don’t feel that critiquing the images of others has been of much assistance at all. There are arguably as many different ways to learn as there are people to apply different techniques.

      I’m a big believer in each of us finding what works for us and applying that–whatever it is–in a meaningful fashion. The real key, it seems to me, is for each individual to discover what it is that resonates with him/her.

  2. I found this to be a very cogent and thoughtful article, Kerry. In many respects you echo many of my own sentiments and observations.

    I am in agreement with you that the majority of image feedback will be so banal as to balance on a fulcrum between farce and mirth, as you have already pointed out (cf. “Great shot”). It is my observation that others may stab at more constructive criticism. A few will be “close but no bananas” as an accurate and helpful image evaluation; and some–a minority to be sure–will be so far off the mark as to be dangerous; very few will be constructively beneficial.

    I feel so strongly about this that I caution my photography students against immersing themselves in the cesspool of online critiques found at many popular photo sites and forums. Generally speaking, unless one spends significant time learning who the players are on specific boards, newbies really don’t know WHO is offering advice and/or suggestion; WHAT their experience, training, or qualifications are to offer such evaluations; or, WHY they are doing so.

    I have often stated that I would never participate in the jury process that judges another photographer’s work; i.e., “Who am I to determine what is a better aesthetic photograph and what isn’t from a pool of really good photos?” Never the less, I do occasionally lend my voice to online image critiques, but not many. When I do offer my comments they are always intended as constructive criticism and they’re usually restricted to structural composition or use of perspective. If use of mood and/or abstraction is clearly evident in the image then I may expand my comments to encompass those aspects of composition as well. As a general rule, I strive to always offer my comments as suggestions and to offer encouragement.

    I think your introductory conclusion, “Even when someone does lay out the reasoning behind his/her opinion…[i]t may be well-meaning; it may be earnest; it may be considered. But it’s still just an opinion…” expresses the conundrum that exists in image critiques.

    Indeed, much of my general reluctance toward contributing to online image evaulation derives from the unique individual differences in perception and response to visual stimuli that exists whether it’s observing the natural world or a photograph depicting an isolated portion of it. As you have concluded, my opinion is just that: my opinion. It may have value to those who think it is merited, or it may not. However, my reluctance vanishes when I do face-to-face print reviews because a print can reveal subtleness and details that an electronic image cannot.

    That you have found the process of offering evaluation of other photographer’s images to be instrumental towards the refinement of your own image making supports the wisdom that every good teacher knows: one never really understands a subject thoroughly until they teach it.

    And now…for the banality: Great article!

    • Jim–thanks very much. This is a subject I’ve thought about a great deal; I finally decided to pull the trigger and express my thoughts publicly.

  3. […] Most Controversial – That would probably the one where I mused on the existence of a supreme being.  Just kidding.   I haven’t posted anything intentionally controversial, but the closest thing would probably be Critiquing Critiques. […]

  4. Critiquing aside Kerry the sand dune photo is compelling to me as the colours, the contours and the shadows pull my soul into the photo, that were I there, there would also be footprints in the sand the compulsion having drawn me into the very frame.

    • Thanks very much. That image is one of my favorites; glad it resonates with you.


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