Why I Will Critique Other People’s Work

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White Bus, South Dakota

I am often asked by other photographers to look at their work. While I do not always have time to oblige (I get busier every year), I think it’s important that, as a photographer with a modicum of success, I try to give something back to the photographic community. I would be lying if I said that I thought I was the most qualified person to provide a critique, but I would be lying if I said I were the least qualified. Let’s just say that I feel, in all sincerity, that I AM qualified.

As many of you know, I penned a blog post entitled “Stop Worrying if Others like Your Work and Create, Dammit!” and I stand by that statement. YOU are the ultimate “decider” of the value and quality of your work. Not others. You alone. However, that is, in no way, meant to imply that a bit of outside perspective or insight cannot be useful. Consider the Old Masters, the greatest painters in history. Did they achieve their status alone, or did they have mentors and teachers? Hint: they had the latter.

Professional critiques (or ANY critique, for that matter) should never be a value assessment about “good”, or “not good.” Not ever! They should also never be an insistence or command. Instead, they should a conversation whose primary goal is helping photographers better understand and communicate their own visions and styles and intents, and to help hone their craft. The goal isn’t to tell someone how to do something better, but to provide the insights and tools to allow them to discover for themselves how they can “improve.” Also, and this not to be understated, providing reviews and critiques forces me think about photography and art, and to consider my own work and my own vision. They make me a stronger artist.

In other words, critiques are not about teaching, they are about learning.

And that is why I will critique other people’s work.

Note: I wrote this as a response to Cole Thompson’s recent post entitled Why I Don’t Critique Other People’s Work. In it, he brought up some very valid points which are hard to disagree with, but I thought I would proffer up a slightly different take.

The Myth of “Good” Light

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Barn Shadow, photographed in the mid-afternoon

As talented photographer Mark Citret wrote in his insightful essay entitled Where to Stand:

“The quality of light in a photograph is meaningless unless it helps to express something!”

Brilliant!

Those of us who are landscape photographers are extremely sensitive to the quality of light upon our chosen subject matter. Our sensitivity is based, in large part, on the fact that we cannot control that light but rather must react to it, work within its confines, gleefully accepting the crumbs we are thrown.

But much of what we think of light, much of what we were taught, is wrong. We have been given bad advice. Misled. Bamboozled. We have been told that the “quality” of light is, above all else (above even subject matter), our primary consideration. We have been too strongly encouraged to use only the warm, quiet light near sunrise and sunset, and to ignore the “harsh” overhead light of the noon hours, or the flat, “featureless” light of overcast days. And our photography often suffers for it.

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All photographs made in the mid-day sun which would have failed in any other light

The ironic thing is . . . we don’t actually photograph the light, rather we photograph how that light illuminates our subject matter. It is that resulting interplay of shape and form, light and shadow which, when combined with our vision and purpose, gives significance and meaning to our work. Despite what some may tell us, one size does not fit all. The various factors are too numerous for such a simplistic way of thinking—subject, personal vision, purpose, mood, what we had for breakfast, attitude, how tired we are, etc, all combine with light to, as Mark Citret wrote, “express something.”

So don’t be afraid of noon light, don’t fear overcast days, and don’t think you have to avoid morning and evening light, either. There is no such thing as bad light, only bad advice.

BTW, I own’s Mark Citret’s book, Along the Way, and can say in all honesty that it’s as exceptional as his insight.

I Have to Work on That

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Sinclair Refinery in Fog, Mills, Wyoming

I had this great conversation last week with friend, talented photographer, and inspiring educator, Jean Miele. I first met Jean when I took his photo workshop in Sante Fe a number of years ago, and we have stayed in touch ever since. (He and my wife both graduated from the same exclusive NYC high school. Whatter the odds?)

During our conversation—I forget the exact topic but it was definitely related to photography and things we didn’t do as well as we hoped—Jean paused and earnestly said “I have to work on that.” Hearing that surprised me for a couple of reasons. First, he really is talented and knowledgeable and I assumed quasi-omnipotent. Second, he and I are both in our mid-50’s and are far from inexperienced. Third, it’s just not something I hear a lot . . . from anyone. Hell, even when I was teaching a college-level photography class I rarely heard that from my students (and lawd knows some of them needed a lot of work). Nowadays, it seems everyone just assumes they know it all or they pretend they do, which is the same thing. All too few will admit to wanting, or needing, to get better.

“I have to work on that.”

It was an impressive admission for someone so established. I was suitable impressed. As photographers, especially in this day and age of digital ease, it’s easy to be competent but, as it has always been, it’s difficult to be good. Even harder to be great. It takes work. A lifetime of work. And that means always admitting we aren’t perfect and always working to be perfect.

The trouble with thinking that we know everything is that we lose our incentive to create better work, or even good work. We rest on our laurels, content in our assumed perfection which we gleefully share with the world, often with more effort and zeal then we put into our creating our images. The Internet is full of examples. (I don’t want to name names, but Peter Lik comes to mind. Just sayin.)

For mere mortals, though, despite our age or experience level, we can only improve by admitting to ourselves that we don’t know everything. That we still have much to learn and much to do. We should tell ourselves that until the day we die. Our tomorrows should see us smarter than our todays, and our next photographs should be better and more insightful than those we took yesterday.

Photography is a journey, not a destination. So take a cue from Jean, and “work on that.”

If you would like to learn from Jean, something I highly recommend, he’s leading a workshop at Maine Media Workshops in August: check it out

 

Pounders

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Arnold Palmer beer can and Pronghorn Carcass

A children’s riddle goes, “what weighs more, pound of feathers or a pound of lead?” The answer is obvious when guessed wrong and cruelly laughed at (thank you third grade classmates. Jerks.). That riddle, with slight alterations, is relevant to those of us in the arts: “what weighs more, a pound of acceptance or a pound of rejection?” (Of course, neither has mass thus cannot be weighed, but when getting rejected it does sorta feel like someone pounded you so, with a bit of stretch, it does work).

So, back to the question. I can tell you from experience that, in this case, the weight is not the same. The pound of rejection weighs more. A lot more. Acceptance—juried exhibit, magazine feature, contest, etc—is great, but rejection from those same opportunities is simply dreadful. I would estimate that one rejection is worth 2.75 acceptances. At least it’s that way for me, and I know I am not alone. As an example, I was accepted into a juried exhibit one day last year, and the very next day was rejected by another. So how do you think I felt? Bummed. Frustrated. It wasn’t that the rejection came after the acceptance, it was that its effect was more powerful.

Looking back it seems rather silly to have let the negative overpower the positive, but at the time it seemed a reasonable response. I mean, I know the subjectiveness of photography and how one person’s opinion (or ANYONE else’s opinion) is completely meaningless (I tell that to others all the time), but I also know that, as someone who takes his photography very seriously, it’s all too easy to overreact to rejection. My photographs are like my children, and we all know how parents become despondent when their tykes lives are ruined when they get rejected from the preschool on the good side of town (they get laughed at in third grade).

The trick for those of us working in a creative field isn’t to change our responses as much as it is to get through them. Mourn your rejections if you have to, but don’t get consumed by them. I guarantee that you’ll come out the other side a better and stronger artist for the experience. I know I have.

Deja View-finder

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Photography has changed. New processes, which require little skill and knowledge, have made it easy for anyone to become a (mediocre) photographer and the streets are full of charlatans and over-hyped, over-loud and under-talented hacks. Things have gotten so bad that many of the gifted photographers have given up entirely and moved on to other things rather than be associated with this new breed of photographers picture takers. One leading photographer of note said about this very issue . . .

“photography, as a profession, has, of late years, greatly changed for the worse, and I think many of my hearers will agree with me. It is not now the best photographer, but the most shameless tout, that makes the most money.”

I, myself, have made similar claims and stand by those statements (I am pig-headed). However, the above is not referencing digital photography. It wasn’t even said about film photography. Hell, it wasn’t even said this century, or last. This quote was made by well-known photographer Henry Peach Robinson in the 1850’s about the growth of inexperienced and talentless “professional” photographers after the introduction of the wet plate (collodion) process usurped the more limited-use Daguerreotype. He and his contemporaries were worried, and justifiably so, about the bad reputation photography was getting.

A slightly different, but comparable, complaint was widely repeated by dry plate photographers when George Eastman introduced the first roll film camera in 1888, or thereabouts, and of course, in more recent times by film photographers against digital cameras. We have gone down this route before, and will do so again.

It has been almost 200 years since the first photograph was created (1827) and photography has gone through several major technological iterations— Daguerreotype, Calotype, wet plate, dry plate, film and now digital, among many other less processes, of course. (I like to remind some of the more self-righteous film photographers that their “traditional” process is at least four generations old . . . BAM!)

Knowledge of the history of photography, as well as the work of those who came before us, is important both for perspective and appreciation. Sadly, too few know much of photography (other than Saint Ansel) before 2000 when digital cameras started to become affordable. It’s not that the information isn’t out there, it’s that nobody bothers to look. Even many colleges who offer a photography program don’t address photography’s history other than some rudimentary mention in a generic art history class. So, we have to learn it ourselves. Two books I highly recommend on the subject:

The History of Photography by Beumont Newhall
(considered the quintessential reference, although only covers only until about mid-20th century)

Photography Until Now by John Szarkowski

(the links are provided for your expediency only, I don’t make anything from any purchases)

Both are excellent books written by authors with extensive knowledge of, and love for, photography. Newhall’s is more about the chronological evolution of photography (if you’re only going to read one, this should be it), and Szarkowski’s is more about, as he puts it, “a history of photographic pictures.”

You’ll thank me.

As for digital, I do abhor what it has done to photography, as an art, and the subsequent rise and success of so many who are incompetent, mediocre, and derivative. But at least I know, from the lessons of history, that photography will survive.

It’s All About the Picture, Silly.

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Miller Time, Alova Reservoir, Wyoming

A couple weeks ago a fellow photographer liked one of my blog posts and linked to it from a within a Facebook group for film photographers.  As most of you know, I shoot digitally, and I do so without excuse or apology. It’s my personal choice and I don’t care what anyone else thinks of it. But when I write, it is almost never about gear or process. This particular post was simply about general creativity and getting our collective heads out of our butts. I thought it was pretty good.

Well, as can often be the case in film-centric groups, a couple of the responses were less than enthusiastic (not all, though). Their gist? How dare someone post a link to a digital photographer! Never mind the content (which I am assuming was not even read before being commented upon) had nothing to do with either digital OR film. Or that I, as a photographer, have at least a small amount of skill and talent. Or, that I actually like encouraging and helping people to become better, more personal, photographers. All that mattered were my camera’s innards.

Here’s the main negative response:  In that case, I don’t see what it has to do with this group. The digitalers have all the space in the world to discuss the wonders of digital photography. This group is reserved for analogue photography.

What a dumbass thing to say.

The experience frustrated me, a bit. Not for myself, mind you, but for those ignorant fools who still put process above pictures, and hardware above vision. By placing such gear-specific value judgments onto their work, and the work of others—rather than on artistic vision and message—they are stifling their own creative growth. Art is about intent, vision and the final product. That’s it. Process is irrelevant. In 50 years when people are appreciating our work, nobody is going to give a rats ass what camera was used. Unless, of course, you care more about gear than photographs because, in that case, in 50 nobody will have heard of you.

Look, I have a lot of friends who shoot film. Some even shoot <gasp!> color. We give each other crap for our respective choices, but that’s all in fun. Sibling rivalry. When it comes to our photographs, there is nothing but respect and admiration. Why? Because we have learned, in our respective journeys, that it’s all about the picture silly stupid.

. . . Stranger than Fiction

140425_PlayHouse_CoalMountainWY_1Doll House of Horrors, Natrona County, Wyoming

As a photographic artist (as opposed to a photojournalist), I don’t often manipulate the scenes in front of my camera. Sure, I will move the occasional offensive stick or gum wrapper, or brush aside an errant tree branch (without breaking it!), but I want to show the world as I experience it, so I try and keep such alterations to a minimum.

However, my latest project, tentatively entitled “Trash Lands” is different for me. It’s a more purposeful series of images, and what I am witnessing does not always translate into a compelling or meaningful visual message. So I have, on a small handful of images, manipulated the scene. I created a new reality, but a reality based on what I was actually witnessing.

For instance, during one of my first outings with this project, I found a cigarette butt and a crayfish claw lying mere inches from each other. Sort of interesting, but not overly compelling. So, feeling dissatisfied with the photographic results, I did something new, at least for me, and placed the cigarette butt in the claw (see previous blog post). The resulting image was, IMHO, quite powerful in its juxtaposition of natural and man-made discards. It meant something, and I was happy . . .

. . .  until Friday.

On Friday, while revisiting a site I had photographed earlier, I came across a bizarre scene. A discarded child’s plastic playhouse on a hillside, surrounded by bleached deer and pronghorn bones (lazily supplied by hunters), with a doll’s head propped up in one of the windows. It was surreal, and may have even impressed the likes of Tim Burton.  Of course it wasn’t a scene of happenstance­—two kids were using the doll’s head for BB gun practice and generously let me interrupt. But it was a scene as I “found” it. Unfortunately, as I have already admitted contriving other scenes, this one is now suspect. And, for a while, I was worried. But, does it matter? No, not really. Not in the bigger picture, anyway. I am trying something new, taking a chance, and hoping to grow, which is all that really matters.

Stop Worrying About People Liking your Work and Create, Dammit!

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Trash Land  #16

I read a recent photography-related post which said that people don’t have to like your work. I wish I could remember who wrote it, because it is all too true and is, IMNSHO, one of the biggest mistakes made in landscape photography today: Pictures are made with the sole purpose of appealing to others.

Hey, we all like affirmation. Hell, I like affirmation. I admit to a small sense of pride when someone “likes” my Facebook page or sends me a complimentary email. We are only human, after all, and we like to think what we are doing is appreciated by others. As the great sage Stuart Smalley so succinctly said “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”

Stuart, though, was not an artist.

And for artists, especially photographers, the surest path to mediocrity, the GUARANTEED path, is to let that external validation affect and influence our work. By doing so, we give control of our art to others. We lose our voice, and we lose our points of view. We stop interpreting the randomness we may witness, instead reproducing what we think will be popular. Our art becomes generic and bland and meaningless. Welcome to mediocrity.

What bothers me most, though, isn’t that the average hobbyist falls for this trap, but that supposed leaders in the industry, some of the most successful photography workshop instructors, are the worst offenders. To bolster their business model ($$$), they pander to the amateur hoards with over-saturated portfolios of slot canyons, long-exposure ocean scenes, arches at sunrise, mountains at sunset, and the Milky Way at midnight. None of it clever, none of it creative, and all of it done before . . . ad nauseam. Their fans eat it up, though, because the pictures are pretty and they simply don’t know any better.

Look, it’s okay if nobody likes your work, as long as you find meaning in it. I know it can be discouraging. I have been there and, in fact, am currently working a project photographing litter which is falling flat with a lot of people who usually like my work. Even my usually supportive wife is having a hard time liking this body of work, although it is growing on her. Regardless of everyone’s opinion, I like the images and find the project worthy and I plan to continue.

Going against popular opinion is often part of being an artist, a photographer, and is the only way we will ever find our voice and our personal style. So, embrace it. Learn from it. Grow from it. And Create, dammit.

Until Death Do We Part

131101_WhiteStopSign2_ShirleyBasinWYThe White Stop Sign, Wyoming

Two-years-ago this day, April 4, 2012, my much beloved Nikon D3x – the camera I still use today – was officially discontinued. I’ve owned mine for almost five years. Even now, at that advanced age, I have no desire to replace it. It works perfectly, has survived more than a couple drops onto asphalt without damage, creates amazing images and feels perfect in my hands. I consider it an old and dear friend.

It’s not perfect, mind you. It has poor high-ISO performance by today’s standards, and can get heavy on longer trips. I’m strong and don’t do much night shooting, so neither issue is particularly relevant to my work, and lawd knows the world does not need another high-ISO Milky Way photo (really, I mean it. Enough already, my eyes are freaking bleeding).

Throughout my many years as a photojournalist and educational photographer, I have known too many camera jockeys who were more interested in buying the latest gear than getting the best images. Kinda sad. I’ve often wondered how many people dumped the D3x when it was discontinued, and how many of those bought it the day it was announced. A fickle bunch they be.

I dunno, maybe I am just sentimental, or perhaps I’m a cheapskate. My car is 14-years-old and has 250,000 miles (and one rather large door dent), my camera bag has holes and multiple repairs, and my carbon-fiber Gitzo tripod has duct-tape holding one of the legs together.

I use my equipment hard. I often don’t have the time or the patience or the attention span to be gentle. So, when I find a piece of gear that can withstand my abuse, I keep it. Despite being outdated, replaced, and scoffed at, my D3x will continue to remain my primary camera.

My friend deserves that much.

Photo Promiscuity

140301_F_EvansvilleWYThe F Lot, Evansville, WY

A lot has been written recently about the practice of photo celibacy, which can be loosely defined as the attempt to avoid, or greatly diminish, looking at the photography of others in order to protect one’s personal vision from unintended influences. In other words, become re-virginized (wouldn’t THAT be cool)

I have no problem with those who attempt this. We each have to walk our own path or we would all be the same. But I go a different route, that of promiscuity. The more, and the more often, the better. Sometimes it’s once a day, sometimes three times. Rarely do I go more than a week without. My wife rarely complains and is, in fact, quite supportive of my needs. She’s a great gal.

And last Saturday I got lucky. Really lucky. FIVE times lucky, and it only cost me $10 (beat that, Hugh Grant). Needless to say, I walked away quite satisfied.

Alright, I am getting a bit off topic and . . . umm . . . distracted. I went to the book sale at the local library. HAPPY? I know I was. In what was usually a dismal and barren photography section, filled with bad how-to books, old magazines, and the usual Time-Life offerings, I found some real gems:

1. An “Aperture Masters of Photography”  book of Henri Cartier-Bresson (I have other, much larger of his monographs, but this was in perfect condition)

2. “Photographs” by Wijnanda Deroo, a wonderful monograph of balanced and formal images. Right up my alley.

3. “The Idea of North” by Birthe Piontek

4. “Moments” by Claire Yaffa

5. “Photography Until Now” by John Szarkowski (my favorite find of the day)

All of them are in wonderful condition. I have given each a quick scan as I do all my newly acquired books and will, in the near future, read and study each in detail. Do I expect them to influence my work? Of course I do, but not in any direct or overt way. Instead, what I glean from each book, from each author, will be added to my already vast archive of life experiences, each of which have combined to make me the photographer I am today. So any influence will be very slight, almost unnoticeable. But it will be there, none-the-less. And that is, at least in my mind, a very good thing.

Told ya I got lucky.