Posted by: kerryl29 | April 23, 2018

An Approach for Growth

Roughly 7 1/2 years ago I posted an entry on this blog entitled “Critiquing Critiques.”  The piece was essentially a missive about the critique process and its role–or lack thereof–in my development as a photographer.  I’ve long wanted to expand a bit on this subject; hence this post, which is an adaptation of an essay I wrote as a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles back in 2014.

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Many moons ago, after I’d mastered the technical aspects of photography, I set about trying to further the aesthetic side of the endeavor.  The logical approach, it seemed to me at the time, was to ask for critiques from other photographers.  It seemed intuitive that such an approach would provide substantial assistance in my quest to develop creatively.

Battleship Rock, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

I was wrong.  Critiques from others did me little, if any, good.  I found many of the critiques—most of which were highly positive (perhaps unfortunately)–to be fairly prosaic, for one thing, but even with thoughtful, well-meaning constructive criticism, I found myself at least as likely to disagree with the thrust of the criticism as I was to gain anything from it.  The vast majority of the time I would receive someone’s suggestion, think carefully about it…and end up rejecting it, for any one of a number of reasons.  When this happens repeatedly, over a period of months or years, it doesn’t seem unreasonable–to me, anyway–to consider whether the entire process is a helpful one.

Aspen Hillside, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

In more recent years I’ve had a fairly large number of requests from other—presumably developing—photographers asking me to critique their work.  I’m almost always willing, but with a couple of caveats, the first being that I never got much out of this process myself (as noted above).  The second limitation is that I see these kinds of critiques as little more than “one man’s opinion,” and I’m far from certain that anyone ought to take anyone’s opinion about something I believe to be as inherently subjective as the aesthetics of art all that seriously.  Surely that doubt applies every bit as much to my opinion of someone’s art as anyone else’s.  In the end, my greatest concern when someone asks me to critique their imagery is that what someone else–especially someone new to the medium–will do in the end–if they take my critiques too seriously–is end up photographing more like me and that obviously shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.

Monument Cove Evening, Acadia National Park, Maine

Before anyone gets bent out of shape about any of this, let me clarify that I’m not saying that it’s impossible for anyone to benefit from the critique of their work by others.  I have a number of photographer friends who swear that such a process was more helpful to them in their development than anything else.  All I’m saying is that I don’t feel that it was helpful to me.

But, somewhat ironically, I do feel that the critique process was more helpful to my artistic development than anything else.

Au Sable Channel, Pinery Provincial Park, Ontario

Huh? Did I not just contradict everything I wrote in the four preceding paragraphs?  No. I really did benefit tremendously from the critique process.  But it was the process of critiquing the images of others—often silently—that assisted me, not having others critique my work.  Allow me to explain; this ongoing exercise helped me and it’s possible that it will help some of you with your own photographic development.  It’s really quite simple.

Schoodic Peninsula Black & White, Acadia National Park, Maine

Step 1: Look at images—lots of them. Include any and all photographic genres in which you’re interested and include the work of a multitude of photographers—and don’t necessarily limit yourself to those whose work you like—cast a broad brush.

Step 2: When you look at an image, give yourself a few seconds to simply react to it—and note that reaction, be it like, dislike, ambivalence, whatever.

Baughman Rock Overlook at Sunrise, Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania

Step 3: Analyze the reaction recorded in Step 2. Why did you have the reaction you had?  What is it about the image in question that elicited your visceral response?  Be as specific and complete as possible.  (By all means, feel free to look at the image again to facilitate the process.)  This is the most difficult step of all, in my view, but it’s assuredly the most important—the critique itself.  You may well take some time before you’re able to routinely—and honestly—fulfill this step, but don’t be frustrated and definitely don’t get caught up in the notion of discovering the “correct” answer.  There isn’t one, at least not in any objective sense.   And keep in mind that since the point of this exercise is to benefit you, there’s no need to share your feelings with anyone else so be brutally honest in your silent assessment.  The more honest you are in this process the more quickly you’re likely to see any advantages it will give you in terms of your own development.

Bisti Arch Moonrise, Bisti Badlands, New Mexico

Step 4: After running through steps 1-3 on at least a few dozen images, step back and attempt to summarize to yourself:  are you detecting any patterns outlining what you like/dislike and why? You may have to run though many, many images before you’re able to answer this question in the affirmative but, eventually, you’re likely to do so.  This is where the process should concretely help you in your own photographic endeavors, because once you’re able to obtain a better feel for what appeals to you and why you can apply that knowledge directly in the field.

Jones Mill Run Dam Black & White, Laurel Hill State Park, Pennsylvania

And understand—this isn’t about copying someone else’s technique or duplicating their images.  It’s about using the power of observation to better understand yourself and, as a result, your ever-developing art.

Lake Falls black & white, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois


Responses

  1. These photos are all gorgeous.

  2. I’m not a photographer but enjoy your images so found myself reading this post. As a developing blogger I’ve been using a similar method to what you described here to privately critique the blogs I read. It’s helping me shape my writing. Thank you for articulating it so clearly!

    • Thanks very much! Interesting to hear that you’re using an analogous technique for the development of your approach to writing. I don’t think it would have consciously occurred to me to do that.

      • Agree with Karen’s assessment, K. The entire time I was reading your piece I was comparing with my own experience with my old writing critique group, and I share the same observations as to usefulness of the ‘doing’ as compared to the ‘receiving.’

        • Thanks, Bob. I’m going to give this some additional thought and, potentially, post a follow-up on the subject at some point down the road as I’m beginning to draw some (comparatively) subtle distinctions about the implementation of the process of critiquing the work of others to the benefit of one’s self.

  3. Beautiful images, Kerry…and thank you for the narrative.

    • Thanks very much, Scott!

      • You are most welcome!

  4. I definitely agree that critiquing the work of others is extremely valuable in terms of my own development. Being on the receiving end is only beneficial if the critique comes from someone whose work I admire and respect. Your 4 step process is a good suggestion.As you say in Step 4, once you have a better understanding of what you think makes an appealing image (and to the contrary, what you think doesn’t work well), you can incorporate that into your own image-making.

    • Thanks, Ellen. I do believe that this process can be applied, in real time, in the field.

  5. I have read this over a couple of times and appreciate the steps. I found myself at an art gallery the other day, looking at a number of different paintings, asking myself similar questions, listening to my emotional response, what I liked, what I didn’t like, and why,etc. I try to listen to this reaction when I am out walking in nature to see what captures my interest, and why. Sometimes I just shoot away, especially when my subject is birds.
    I remember one critique that I received from 3 people that trashed one of my images until one of the photographers shared with me that he has had some photos criticized but decided that he liked a photo he took regardless of what others said about it. That did give me a boost, because it was a brutal critique.I don’t know if I could have coped with that earlier in my photography days (My self esteem would have taken a nose dive,I would have rejected it and everything about it and thrown it away) but I decided to like it regardless and still think of it, knowing what I was aiming for, why I took it, and how I can improve on it. Some people do tell me they like my work and I am pleased , especially if it is someone whose work I admire, but I always want to know why, so I can grow.
    This article was very valuable to me and I thank you for putting your thoughts together so well because I can learn from this. I continue to enjoy looking at your beautiful images.
    The good news is I have today off and am going to hit the local trails soon to see what grabs my attention and test how well I apply these steps. Happy shooting!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful note, Jane.

      In a nutshell, the ultimate point of the exercise is to learn what you like and why…and, indirectly, to reach a point where you’re comfortable with what you like. It’s always nice to know that others like your work, but it’s far more consequential in the end that you like it–regardless of what others think.

      I hope today’s session went well.

  6. This is a very interesting point Kerry. It’s probably something I should start doing as well. I also agree with @karengoesoutside that as new to blogging, one can use a similar method to writing. Thanks again for sharing this 🙂

    • Thanks very much! It’s gratifying to know that you think this process may be useful.

  7. That all makes perfect sense to me. Thank you for saying it so clearly, I may give a version of that to my tour members when it comes to looking at art in museums. In the end beauty is a language we partially share but mostly speak independently to ourselves, your approach will help people hear it!

    • Thanks–I hope you’re able to leverage this approach with your tour members. It’s really just a subtle–or perhaps not so subtle–reminder of how subjective this all is.

  8. Great post and topic! I think when we get to a certain point in our photography, and as artists, we no longer desire or seek out critiques from others. We know what we like and when we have something that expresses our vision.

    • Thanks. I think you’re largely correct–more experience usually does have the effect of turning a blind eye to the very process of having one’s work critiqued by others…though I know of a number of people who are exceptions to this general rule.

  9. really enjoyed this thoughtful article

  10. […] set, in fact, is essentially misplaced. I’ve touched on this, if somewhat elliptically, before on this blog: the inherent subjectivity of art. Conflating one’s opinion (i.e. like/dislike) with innate […]


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