The Value of Critiques

2018

I recently worked with a friend on a portfolio for a possible magazine submission. He asked for some thoughts and, while some of it was not as positive as he might have hoped, I think it helped offer some clarity and possibility. I hope it helped.

There is a school of thought that those of use who have some semblance of experience and a modicum of talent and skill should not critique or review the work of others. That we should let them develop their art and craft without our bias. I could not disagree more. I received innumerable suggestions and criticisms (both positive and negative) during my early years. While I did not agree with everything and forgot much of the details, the overall impact and effect was transformative. I would not be the photographer I am today (and I kinda like that guy) without the thoughtful help and comments I solicited from others throughout the years.

Many years ago, I had the honor of a critique by the great Charles Cramer. To this day, I remember one of his comments—it was not positive—and I think about every time I make an image. Exactly what he said is unimportant, and it was a short and simple statement, but it had a profound effect on my work. I pass that same thought to others, when necessary. Charlie did the review perfectly, he supported my vision and style, but let me know that not everything was working as well as I had hoped.

So, what is a good review/critique? First, and most importantly, it must be supportive. Nobody should ever tell you that your vision or style are wrong. Once, during a review I paid for, it was suggested that landscapes were like, so yesterday, and that I should turn my attention towards more conceptual work. The reviewer neither considered, nor cared, who I was or why I photographed the plains. To them, it was all about the trend of the day.

Second, a critique must be honest to be valuable. Meaningless compliments and likes (do you hear me Internet?) can do more harm, than good. They WILL do more harm, than good. Instead, expect to hear what isn’t working, and why. But, also expect to hear what is working, and why. Listen. Take notes, either mentally or physically. And don’t act on any advice right away. Let it stew for a while. Will everything said be valuable to us and our work? Of course not. But, even one eye-opening and revealing comment can be crucially important and make the experience worth it.

Lastly, a critique should be a conversation, not a lecture. A good reviewer will ask more questions than they make statements. They will encourage you, through dialog, to discover many of your own answers. And you, in turn, should ask questions. Make sure you understand the reviewer’s motivation and point of view. Make sure you are getting the feedback you want, and deserve. Defend your work, if you must, but don’t turn a review into an argument. Remember, you are the ultimate decider of what is valuable and what is not. You have all the power.

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Joshua Tree and Shadows

Joshua Tree and Shadows