Bring back the Critique

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.

22 Replies to “Bring back the Critique”

  1. Over the last five or six years I have participated in two small groups where the aim is to give and receive constructive criticism. One group involved uploading a single image (any subject) per week and then comment on others’ uploads. When the week was up, ‘comments’ were locked and the new week began. The second group worked on a monthly basis with uploads to a small number of specific categories. Apart from receiving/giving feedback, there was an end-of-month vote for the best image. Over time one got to know the other participants strengths/weaknesses and also built up good on-line relationships. To work successfully there has to be willingness to really study the images and give honest appraisals – none of the one-line puffery that is all too common.

    From observation, if numbers grow too large, then comments dwindle and the one-liner tends become the norm. Like any endeavour in life, it takes commitment to succeed but with the right structure and willing participants, an on-line ‘camera club’ can succeed. I’d certainly be interested in following developments…

  2. I would certainly be interested in joining. I don’t know if you are considering beginners, as I have only been photographing (is that a word?) for about 1.5 year. But I would like to learn from others and participate in discussion.

  3. I have a little bit more presence on another social media and as a result I have seen group feedback go wrong in two ways (of perhaps many possible ones).
    1. Sometimes the criticism turned into just vicious negative feedback. Nothing to say why you dislike it, but from “It sucks” to “Could be better” to…whatever. Anyway, I chose not to be part of that, obviously.
    2. I have also seen it go the other way: people defend their work (or their reasoning or logic) to the extent that they ignore criticism, questions and end up blocking people (mentally or actually) because they couldn’t handle it. And that obviously has a lot to do with ego. If you have several thousand social media followers and get a bunch of likes and plusses and what not, it can be hard to accept that your photo may not be as good as it seems. And this can happen between people who started off on good terms!

    Both are reasons why I have not participated in any such groups so far. I think the only way this could work is if there was a mentor-mentee relationship. Each participant chooses one (or two) mentors whose work the participant admires and looks up to. This is very important: the mentee has to choose who they want to be their mentor, because they look up to them. And the mentor then has to accept the mentee. The mentor understands that he or she cannot just dismiss the work without providing constructive feedback. The mentee understands that his or her ego can’t get in the way: after all this is the person you admire, so you gotta listen to them.

    Any free shooting group feedback can be a recipe for disaster. It has the possibility of souring relationships. I mean, you don’t want Tom, Dick and Harry giving you feedback just because they are part of a group. Their style and genre may be different, they may be less skilled than you are, &etc. Basically, it means the person receiving feedback does so willingly from someone they respect, who in turn genuinely takes interest in the work.
    Look at this post about The Disapproval Matrix:

    1. Hi Dev, I can see your point of view.

      The issue is that you’re looking at it through the lens of social media and I agree that its a recipe for disaster. In a true learning environment, group crit is a place of development and support. I’m anticipating a small, focused and like minded group. Differing opinions are a fact of life. I propose this group in the interest of professional development as opposed to a place to show off your latest. I’m not looking to remake FlickR in my image, but make private spot for our circle to get some meaningful interaction beyond LIKE, SHARE AND SUBSCRIBE.

      Maybe it’s an image or print that just isn’t 100% and you want the opinion of a supportive, knowledgeable group you trust. If you want a mentor to deal with 1:1, I’m not sure this model works for you. The experience I had in college was that even if you weren’t friends with everyone, you knew everyone in your class was there for the right reasons. We had many different styles and personalities, but I could trust every one of those people to give me the straight dope and help me get all the juice out of whichever idea I was chasing.

      Happy to chat here on via DM.

      1. Dev’s makes a lot of very good points including the meanness via the anonymity of internet comments. If you don’t know who is making the comments it may as well be your granny who loves all your pictures or some art-snob in NYC who thinks only his view of photography has merit.

        Also I would point out this idea you’re seeking was, for most photographers, an issue long before
        the existence of the internet. If you showed work to family and friends you got thumbs up for popular kind of images, also maybe for good images that were “well-seen”, but not for anything very off-beat, experimental or outside photographic norms. Unless you lived in NYC or Chicago with a big population of dedicated working photographers, this was always an issue for most photographers.

        As soon as you let a big group from the general public judge your images you’re susceptible to making pictures for other people and not for yourself. A lot of people who call themselves “photographers” have no higher concept of photography than a pretty picture, competently made.

  4. I’m in. I’ve been craving some constructive criticism. Although I think my first hurdle is figuring out how to be comfortable with critiquing others. I’m willing to give it a shot though!

  5. I’d love to be in if you’d have me. It’s been a few years since uni crits but appreciate how well meaning constructive critique can help. I just have a steeper learning curve to get to some others levels 🙂 always trying though

    1. Thanks for checking in, and your interest! I’m behind the curve here. This post was a cathartic outpouring without doing any prep and frankly I wasn’t ready for the response. I’m getting somethings in place and will make an update when I’ve sorted it all out.

      Always keep trying, that’s the spirit of this plan.

  6. It’s a great idea and I hope it works out! Rather than falling in love with my work, I tend to not like much of what I’ve done. My old groups used to see potential in images that I’d (mentally) discarded.

    Please keep me in mind, if you think my work would be a good fit for the group you end up with.

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