Everyone’s a Critic

2 01 2010

Critique is something near and dear to my heart. There’s nothing like an outside perspective on our work to understand where we are as artists, and how to get where we want to be.

I think, though, that there are misconceptions about what critique is and isn’t, or maybe what it should and shouldn’t be. For that reason, the word “critique” tends to strike fear in the hearts of vulnerable artists. I’d like to address a few points for your consideration.

Critique does not have to be brutal and abrasive to be effective. I really do not understand the mentality that a mean critique is somehow more effective. I feel just the opposite; an unnecessarily abrasive critique tends to instantly put the “critiquee” on the defensive, and the hurt feelings can prevent the critique from really being absorbed. It is possible to be just as honest and frank without ripping holes in the self-esteem.

Let’s say you went to your hairstylist asking for advice on how you could improve your look. Would you want the feedback to start with, “Well, your current hairstyle is ugly and makes you look like a troll?” Of course not. It’s not necessary.

Critiques that include the word “can’t” are rarely valuable. I hear this a lot. You can’t center your subjects. You can’t use high contrast. You can compose your shots like that. You can’t have that much DOF. Can’t, can’t, can’t. This is art, folks. There are very few things that can’t be done successfully. An effective critique will not tell you what you can’t do; it will help you identify your tendencies so that YOU can decide how you would like to address those issues. A good critique-giver will help you understand why certain things generally work, and leave it to you to decide what is right for you.

The best critiques take into account your personal taste and what you are trying to accomplish. Critiques based solely on the preferences of the critic will only tell you how to make that person happy. It’s much more valuable for you to get feedback on how to achieve the results YOU want. I may personally prefer muted color, but if you love saturated color, my job is to help you do saturated color well.

A truly effective critique should help you identify opportunities for improvement and direction in your entire body of work — not just nit-picking little things in individual images. At the end of the critique, you should have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. And a really good critique will also help you understand what you do well, so you walk away feeling positive and motivated. it is at least as important to understand your strengths as it is to understand your weaknesses.

Critique should never be accepted blindly. You’ve heard me say it before. Just because someone said it doesn’t make it so. It’s up to you to listen to what is said, consider the point of view of the critic, and decide if and how you will act on it. Only you can truly understand your sense of beauty and what you want your work to say. Apply what it makes sense to apply. You should never have to worry about offending the critic; the critic who demands gratitude and obedience is (generally) just plain old insecure.


I'll break the rules if I want to, thank you.



23 responses

2 01 2010

All good points. I think these same things about critique all the time and it frustrates me that I have a hard time putting my thoughts into words, but you’ve said it all well.

It’s also extremely frustrating when someone asking for a critique asks something along the lines of, “Am I taking the portrait the right way?” I just want to grab them by their shoulders, shake them a few times, and yell “Right? There is no ‘right’ way to do portraiture! Do it how you need to to achieve the results you want.”

Keep up the posting. You don’t post often, but when you do, I definitely appreciate it.

2 01 2010

Yep, that question drives me nuts, along the same lines as “What settings should I use?” and “What kind of film is best?” Gah!

Thanks very much for the comment and encouragement.

– CJ

2 01 2010

Once again, loving your perspective! “this is art, folks” best line!

I’d accept your critique any day 🙂

2 01 2010

http://cheryljacobsworkshops.com/critiques.html 😉

Thanks for following my blog!

– CJ

2 01 2010

I participated in a number of portfolio reviews last year, and never had a mean or abrasive critique, thank goodness. As long as the focus is on the work, then I want and crave the feedback. Fresh eyes can be invaluable. I have to say, too, that there was one reviewer who, at first, seemed a little “off” with his criticism. (And inconsistent from most others.) Oddly enough… I found myself thinking a lot about what he said, and as I continued to work found his thoughts, in fact quite helpful.

Sometimes you don’t know a good critique until six months later!! It’s important to stay open to what a reviewer might say, even if it seems a little “off”.

Good post, Cheryl, thanks, and happy new year!

2 01 2010
Michael Sebastian

Well done, Cheryl. And timely, since I just spent two days at a review being critiqued. It was my first one, so I was not at all sure what to expect. It is intimidating—at first—to put yourself and your work out there in front of others in such an intimate way. But it was a positive experience throughout, mainly because my reviewers hewed to your ideal of a what a critique should be. None was abrasive or arrogant in the least.

Not that every reviewer liked the work; but I made it a point to try to find something of value in each reviewer’s comments. For example, one person who I was pretty sure was so-so about the work asked provocative and insightful questions to help me understand better what I was trying to say.

I enjoyed the experience so much, I can’t wait for my next one. Great post, Cheryl.

2 01 2010

i LOVE your perspective and insight. everytime a new post of yours comes through my google reader i always wait to read it till i have time to “really” read it, with no distractions. i find myself re-reading your post over and over again, they are so good!

i did have 2 questions though,

1. whats the best settings for my camera to get great pics?
2. whats the best film to use?


thanks again!

3 01 2010

Smart ass. 😉

3 01 2010

When I was in college, I took Art History for Physicists, and the professor told us, “You have all heard the phrase, ‘I don’t know what’s art, I just know what I like.’ If I hear you use that phrase in my class, I will flunk you. When I’m done with you, you will know what’s art. You may or may not like it, but you will know what it is.”

While she was exaggerating a tad, she meant it, and she was right. I’ve seldom enjoyed a class so much that hadn’t anything to do with my main fields of interest. (Ironically, art now *is* one of my fields of interest.) But my point is that what she taught me is whether somebody “likes” or “doesn’t like” has NOTHING TO DO with the validity or quality of an artwork. (Excepting that if one likes quality, that does.)

To expand on what you were saying, if a person cannot explain their critique, they are not critiquing: they are offering an opinion. “That’s too much DOF” is not a critique. “The image would be more effective if the main subject, which is not context-dependent, were more isolated from the background with a shallower DOF” is a critique. Note that in terms of what they advise – less DOF – they are identical, but the first is a statement of personal opinion and the second, while subjective, is a logical argument.

IMO, detailed and “harsh” critique is usually not valuable but can be effective when the person has bought into the “everything is art” bunk a little too deeply. It will occasionally shock someone who genuinely wants to improve into real introspection as opposed to blithely dismissing any non-positive remark as sour grapes and ignorance. If it doesn’t work, the person probably doesn’t really have any interest in improving anyway.

3 01 2010

Marc, excellent comment and I thoroughly agree.

The harshest critique I ever received was very early on in my photographic development (no pun intended) when I had no confidence in the work I was doing. I was beating myself up over imaginary flaws in images that are still some of my most popular ones today. A fellow photographer finally sat me down in front of my work and said, “What the hell is wrong with you, you idiot?” Basically shook me out of self-flagellation mode. It was exactly what I needed.

– CJ

3 01 2010

This is an excellent read, thank you. However……
(There’s always a “but” or “However”)

There is such a fine line with regards to your opening statement…
“There’s nothing like an outside perspective on our work to understand where we are as artists, and how to get where we want to be.”

So, should we listen to others to really understand where “WE” want to be…. Now, I’m not being a knuckle-head, but I do that well when I want to, but where is that so fine line?

Wonderful photograph!

3 01 2010

Thanks, Tom.

My response would be that if you, the photographer, are trying to communicate a certain message or emotion to the viewer, you may value the viewer/critic’s feedback to know whether you’re succeeding. However, if you are creating work solely for what it means to YOU and aren’t concerned with how it’s perceived, you might not value critique.

In my personal work, I fall into the latter. I create what is meaningful to me, and am not concerned with how others interpret it. In fact, it’s the ambiguity that I love.

3 01 2010
“10 days new” » Lailah Mueting Photography Blog

[…] good friend sent this to me today.  Thought I’d share.     https://photodino.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/everyones-a-critic/ Tags: Lailah Mueting, Lailah Mueting photography, Lailah Mueting Photography blog, Newborn […]

4 01 2010

Robert Adams has a good deal to say about this subject in his book, “Beauty in Photography.” I would recommend this book to all those who are interested in creating photographic art – indeed, art of any kind. To quote Adams, “Silence is after all the context for the deepest appreciation of art; the only important evaluations are finally personal, interior ones.”

5 01 2010

I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said.

I attended your workshop in Brighton a few years ago (it was the absolute best thing I’ve done) and your critique was brilliant.

In my “day job” in business, we are trained how to give feedback to people, I mean, properly trained (lots of courses, role play, etc). Giving critique well is a skill which must be developed as much as we need to develop any other skill, such as photography. In fact, more so, because poor critique can actually do a LOT of damage if you don’t know what you’re doing. It frustrates me that just because someone’s a great photographer, or business person or whatever, they think this is enough for them to give great critique – it’s not. I have been on the receiving end of a feedback session which literally made me want to give up photography… the person giving the feedback had neither thought about me as a person, nor my perspective, my goals or ambitions… nothing.
I am totally for constructive feedback, that is, after all, what we’re asking for, but it has to be thoughtfully, skilfully delivered.

Cheryl – I don’t know if you did this deliberately, but I felt like you took the time to get to know us each as people, to understand a bit about our personalities and our aspirations before giving us feedback. You did such a great job for each of us at the workshop, and yet we were all so different. Amongst many great things you said, your true gift to me was to tell me to believe in myself and trust my judgement… and I do!

5 01 2010

Rachel, great to hear from you! I completely agree with you that a poor critique can do a lot of damage–and it can take a very long time to undo it.

I’m so glad my critique was helpful for you. I really enjoy it, and yes, I consider it imperative to get to know the photographer before commenting on his/her work. It would be a bit like sailing without a compass. Or GPS. Whichever. 😉

15 01 2010
Stephen S. Mack

Cheryl, thanks for the encouraging words. I’m my own worst critic. I’m getting a little bit better: I’ve given myself a long-term project of photographing as many of the abandoned houses in Buckingham County, Virginia (where I live) as I can get to. It’s been a struggle within me to get up the gumption to go out and do the work. But I think I’m on the way. Thanks for the encouragement!

With best regards, Stephen

PS: I think it was Brendan Behan who described critics as being like eunuchs in a harem. They know how it’s done, they see it done every day, but they’re incapable of doing it themselves.

19 01 2010

Great post, Cheryl. Your thoughts echo some of the sentiments I recently discovered in John Daido Loori’s, “The Zen of Creativity” in his chapter on cultivating your creative feedback group.

15 02 2010

Cheryl, that photo of the girl is fantastic. Did you take that? Great job…makes me feel good to look at it. Nice blog! Bye!

15 02 2010

Thanks, Penny. Yes, I took that one back in ’04, I believe, in my backyard. It’s one of my long-time favorites.

– CJ

7 09 2010

Beautifully said. Couldn’t agree more. 😉

19 07 2011
24 09 2014
Everyone’s a critic - learning what an effective photo critique is - a photography link from simple_iso_v4

[…] Everyone’s a critic – learning what an effective photo critique is […]

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