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Photo Credit: Rob McGuinness

The Art of Critique (Part 2) by Andre H, Part 1

The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism. ~Wole Soyinka

Critiques can be a little scary. We are essentially asking someone to purposely look at our work and tell us what we’re doing right, and wrong. But how often have you countered your critic with the question, “how do I fix what’s not working? How do I make my work stronger?” The critique is a conversation, a two-way road. A critique isn’t just someone looking at your work and sharing their thoughts. It is an opportunity to pick their brain, learn as much as much as possible. Ask questions. Engage the person. Have those questions answered. Leave so inspired that you want to immediately dive into improving your work. This is why it is so important to carefully choose who reviews your work, making sure you choose photographers who’s work you admire.

We don’t like being told we’re wrong, or that we failed. Yet, we all want to grow and have our decisions reinforced with the positive. Critiques are a necessary pill that must be taken in order to improve our work. It’s up to you to decide just how easy that pill will be to swallow. The sooner you learn how to take and interpret a critique the quicker you will begin to see your work develop, while making some new friends along the way. Keep in mind that giving a critique can be as difficult as receiving one. If you’re asking someone to give their time to critique your work, and they agree to take a look, its safe to say they genuinely want to help you, not hurt you. So keep an open mind.

Photo Credit: Jonas Karlson

The critique is like photography itself, subjective. And should be taken with a grain of salt. You’ve heard the saying, “everyone’s a critic.” Critiques from the ‘right’ people can sometimes be brutally painful to the ego, gnawing at the soul of some. Yet, like an amazing, unforgettable photograph, they can change perspectives on life and creative vision. Yet, a critique from the ‘wrong’ person, i.e., an unsolicited critique, or someone who really doesn’t want to do so, can also fall on the other end of the perspective—confusing, hurtful, and worthless. Whether you’ve experienced one, or all of these, I’m here to help shed some light on the process. In ‘The Art Of The Critique’ (part 1) we discussed how to give a critique. This time I will discuss how to receive a critique, how to find the right person(s) to review your work, and hopefully give you a new perspective on how to get the most out of a critique, with your soul and ego fully intact.

Finding the right people to review your work
I mentioned in ‘The Art Of The Critique’ (part 1) that I have given and received my fair share of critiques in my time, and continue to do so. I have always chosen the people to review my work very carefully, with exception to the few times when I didn’t have a choice in the matter. The people I choose are doing the caliber of work that I would like to be doing myself—my photographer heroes.

Photo Credit: Alexia Stins

I have seen the full spectrum of personalities from students and instructors, and their reactions to giving and receiving critiques. I have had my work critiqued by some of the most amazing photographers, some my heroes of the documentary & photojournalism worlds, Ed Kashi, James Nachtwey, Richard Koci Hernandez, Emilio Morenatti. And, I have experienced putting my work through the portfolio ‘meat grinder’ that is the Eddie Adams Workshop late night portfolio review. Each photographer had his own way of conducting a critique, some spoke kindly focusing only on the positive. Others were jaded, throwing scathing, thoughtless remarks without any care for who was sitting across the table from them. While others gracefully married the positive and negative into a mesmerizing dance that left me striving to engage, pushing my work further. Yet in the end it was up to me to direct the critique to make sure I received exactly what I needed. These people weren’t going to read my mind—ask my questions for me. Nor were they going to assume I understood every comment they made.

Some may say this is the most challenging part of the critique, finding the right person to review your work. Here are a few tips to help you do just that:

  1. Refrain from asking your mom, partner, family members, or circle of friends. Often times these people are only trying to be nice. If you want sunshine blown up your ass ask one of these people. But be prepared to hear nothing constructive, usually. Though there are exceptions.
  2. Ask a variety of photographers from various genres who know nothing of you or your work. This will help produce a broad spectrum of content for you to sift through for consideration.
  3. Look for photographers you admire in your genre, or that are proven masters at what they do, who are at a level you are striving for.
  4. No matter how successful, or popular a photographer, they are accessible, and most are approachable, nice people. All you have to do is ask. It may take a few attempts but be patient. You’ll be surprised at how many pro photographers will give you a few minutes of their time.
  5. If you are meeting in person, or by phone, and ask for 15 minutes of their time, be prepared to finish within 15 minutes, unless they offer more time. Being considerate goes a long way, especially if you want to follow-up with them.
  6. If you are publicly posting your photos to IG, Flickr, etc, be prepared for the unsolicited critique. These can be worthless at times, and even downright hurtful, ignorant. Other times, a diamond in the rough. Be careful of these and take them with a grain of salt. Ask the person to elaborate on their comment. More often than not genuine comments will be followed by genuine discussions.

Photo Credit: Massimo

Preparing for the critique
Entering a critique you need to be prepared to discuss your work and processes intelligently. Think about your work and what you hope to accomplish from this critique.

  1. Put up your best work. Focus on the most critical. Include images you feel most strongly about and those you are questioning the most. For example, when you can’t decide between two or three images. Include all three and ask for an opinion of which is strongest.
  2. Don’t overwhelm the person with more than 10-12 images. Take time to self-edit first. If you must show more than 15 images include a contact sheet of additional images. In my experience, during a critique I have been asked, “did you try this angle, or crop this way?” In which I responded “yes” but did not have the image to show. After that I began carrying contact sheets so the person could see the different variations I had attempted. Not everyone will ask for a contact sheet. Keep it on hand just in case.
  3. Create a series of questions that you want to ask your reviewer. The conversation can and will go off on tangents. You want to make sure you cover all of your bases. It’s easy to forget, especially when you’re sitting across from your photography hero.
  4. Don’t get offensive if you hear something negative. After all, it is only photography. A good practice is to critique your own work beforehand as if it was someone else’s work. What might you say about it? This will help prepare you for anything negative that might be said.
  5. Please leave the attitude at home. Don’t go in thinking your work is perfect. It’s not. Be happy for that. If it was perfect you’d probably get really bored with photography and move on to something else.
  6. Don’t expect only positive feedback. Remember, we need to know what we’re doing wrong in order to get better. Yet we need to hear what we’re also doing right to affirm our current abilities. It’s the photographer’s yin & yang.
  7. If a person says something that you don’t agree with, ask what they would have done differently. This shows that you are eager to learn, and progress.
  8. Don’t shun your reviewer’s opinion, or tell them they’re wrong because you disagree. I have experienced this in the past. This is a quick way to turn people off, and close doors in your face.
  9. Thank your reviewer when finished. Ask if you can come back, or resubmit your work for a second round review after corrections are made.
  10. It’s ok to be disappointed and sometimes feel hurt. Don’t retaliate with a random negative critique of their work. This is very unprofessional and only reflects negatively on you.
  11. Takes notes during, or write like a madman right after in a journal or notebook. You’d be surprised how fast we begin to forget details. Specifically make note of consistent comments that you continue to hear from various people. These are the points that you should really pay attention to.
  12. Once you’re finished receiving all the feedback you want, act on it, shoot, experiment with the newly acquired ideas. Don’t sit on it and do nothing with it. You’ll only find yourself feeling disappointed.
  13. Want, need, strive for comments beyond the ego-stroking techno gibberish that plagues the online communities, “Wow! Nice light! Cool! Amazing!” These do nothing to help you better understand your mistakes, or your work. They are lazy, empty critiques. If you are faced with comments like this ask the person to elaborate.

Photo Credit: Federica Corbelli

Conclusion
Like most people out there I was not born with a thick skin. It took me many years of critiques, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and hard work in art school experiencing both good and bad critiques to understand myself, and the critique. I’ve made just about every mistake possible you can imagine relating to both giving and receiving a critique.

In the end, hearing negative comments about your work can be a jagged pill—hard to swallow. It can feel like a personal hit against who you are as a person, especially if you put everything into your work. But it really isn’t. Believe me. The point is, the more we explore both the successful and unsuccessful aspects of our work, the more we grow as artists. So ask questions, get feedback and keep shooting. Be honest with yourself about your work and your expectations. Personally review your own work. Be prepared to hear the positive, and the negative. Soon you’ll begin to see your work develop


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