An interesting question popped up today on my timeline about the definition of a “crappy photo”, and it really got me thinking about how much things have changed in terms of sharing and the value of an image.
Back in my day (ugh) when you were shooting to improve, group critique was part of the process, part of getting the most out of your time with a camera. If we’re shooting without set goals and are not interested in improving in our own eyes (as well as in the opinions of people we trust), whats the point? Social media has become an echo chamber. The emperor can clothe himself with likes and favourites and retweets and assume he’s doing pretty well.
Improvement is the hardest thing to quantify in photography especially if we’re practising the craft in a vacuum.
I’ve got this problem now. I’m interested in continuing a body of work that describes my life as a photographer but lack the honest feedback of other skilled people. I can share what I think are successes, and they images go out into the world as they are. Rarely do we get feedback beyond a thumbs up or a heart. How many of use want more feedback, how many of us are accustomed to handling honest constructive criticism without getting hurt? Without taking it personally?
It’s too easy to fall in love with your own images when you work alone. Shooting a roll of 12 images, processing and printing your favourite four and pinning them up for group crit was one of the most exhilarating things I have done. Once you get over the thin-skinned defensive reaction we all have, there are few things better than hearing ways to make your work better, and putting those tips to use for the next roll. Maybe it’s a week later, but having perspective and support will simply bring better images to the next meeting. Learning from a group (and as a group) can help speed up the creative process, as well as tighten up composition, printing and processing. As a bonus, this taught everyone in the group how to talk intelligently about photography as well as art in general. Using descriptors and adjectives that are valuable happens so rarely on social media, anything beyond “beautiful” or “nice capture” is awkward. (as an aside, nothing makes me want to murder strangers like seeing NICE CAPTURE. Such an empty phrase, why even bother?) We’re not used to speaking on behalf of our own work. We’re not used to hearing that our work isn’t perfect, that it could be better or that there’s a smarter way to work. We’re certainly not used to speaking our minds about the work presented by our peers, and therein lies the real tragedy.
Speaking about photography with the intent to get better is a collaborative process, one that should have the best interests of all involved at heart. Critique isn’t about popularity, competition (though friendly competition breeds great work in most situations) or shame. Honest, professional critique is about improvement. And improvement is what we could all be striving for.
As important as speaking properly about photography is, listening to those comments from trusted peers and implementing suggestions is harder still. This involves letting go of the fact that you’re happy with the work. It’s OK to be happy with what you produce. Thats one of the main drivers to shoot! It’s also very important to see that were all on different parts of the curve, regardless of the metric. Some people are better at composition than you, but you may have knowledge to bring when it comes to printing. The group, the community has lost its traction from Precious Snowflake Syndrome. In this day and age, we all get a trophy for showing up not biting the person next to us. Participation shouldn’t equal success.
I’m a victim of it, and I’m sure most people are. Social media isn’t a great place for constructive criticism. The net is too wide, the layer of images too deep. Photos come and go dozens an hour and even good work that we should be studying and talking about slips down the timeline and into oblivion. Opportunities lost.
People get attached to their work and post up for thin, fleeting recognition. But the internet is fickle. As soon as the next lighting-rod comes along, our work is gone. I’m considering starting a private cooperative where we can post work that we feel can be improved, can benefit from others’ experience and seasoned eyes. It’s a tough sell, since there are likes and retweets waiting in the next room. Perhaps a lot of the work in a group crit community wouldn’t ever make it to the deep end of the ‘net, and thats ok. Stepping stones can help us all get better, to be more complete craftspeople.
So, this is a call for like-minded people to come together. I’d like to start some sort of private critique group than we can use to improve our process, conversation and perception. The film/photography community on Twitter is robust, varied and has a wealth of intelligent people that I desperately want to learn from and help in return.