When I was in High School, I took, among other things, an introduction drawing and painting class. At the beginning of the year, our teacher, Mrs. Yantz directed us to draw a landscape using either crayon, charcoal, pen or pencil. At the end of the session, she told us, excitedly, that we were going to tape our finished pieces to the chalkboard and our classmates would critique our work. When we were done, and our drawings were taped up on the board, I listened quietly as my classmates tore one another apart. The majority of the reasons seemed awfully subjective and really didn’t seem to make much sense to me - “I don’t like this because it sucks," “I don’t like what you did with the colors," or "that mountain looks like a pile of poop," etc. When it was my turn, I took part in the tearing apart, happily breaking down everyone else's work the way they broke mine down (my mountain, apparently, looked like a pile of poop). Although it felt good at the moment, it wasn’t until a few minutes later when one of the quieter (and more talented) students in the class looked at the majority of the work and said something to the effect of, “I don’t know, I think they’re all good in their own way…” She went on to [briefly] explain why each drawing was good in it’s own way and where and how each one could be improved.
The class reacted in the typical way an 11th grade last period art class would react - poorly - and I wish I could say that my 16 year-old-self reacted any differently, but I, like the rest of the class, shunned our classmate back to silence. Our teacher, overburdened, overworked, and quite possibly a few years past retirement tried to explain to the rest of the class that that student was right - critique does not really have to be negative and shouldn’t involve tearing things apart because you personally don't like it, that it should help make the artists next work better. It didn’t matter, however, the negative connotation attached to critique and criticism stuck.
As I drifted on and out of high school and through college and into the “real world”, the concept of critique took on a few different meanings but none that ever seemed to relate back what we were supposed to have learned that day in art class. It wasn’t until years later - after I picked up a camera and began posting my work online - that I realized how ridiculously out of whack the concept of critique, or CC as it’s often called had become.
When we post an image online for review we’re almost literally putting ourselves out on a limb. That image, whatever it may be of, is something we feel particularly proud of and despite our lack of certainty about how the image should be processed (color vs black and white), how the retouching looks, whether or not the posing works, if the color toning is appropriate, the etc, etc, had we not felt that the photo had at least something we would not have posted it. In effect, we’re taping it up on the blackboard and expecting the rest of the class to tear it apart…
Unfortunately, it seems that is still all the “class” knows how to do. I participated in a conversation the other night which began, as they all do, quite innocently enough. A photographer posted a photo in a Facebook photography group. He didn’t ask for critique or review or anything, he just posted an image that he enjoyed making and one which, I assume, he was particularly proud of. Fair enough, right? Well, within a few minutes, the ensuing thread was filled with reasons why the image sucked, how the posing didn’t work, how the shadows should be lifted, and how he broke several rules of photography. Rules of photography aside, all of the critique was based on personal subjectivity! Not a single ounce of reality-based constructive criticism - just other photographers sitting at home telling some guy how they’d do it better.
Arm Chair Photographers...
I digress. While the criticism can be harsh, the point of it isn’t, in my opinion, to impart our style upon the work of someone else - it’s to look at the work and - objectively - tell the artist what could be fixed / what could be done better. There is, of course, a caveat to this. When compiling a critique of someone’s work, the person doing the critique should be steeped and/or familiar in that particular style and should have a body of work to prove their prowess among that genre. For example, I am a lifestyle and swim photographer. I can look at and critique lifestyle and swim images all day and I think, based on my experience and my portfolio, what I offer should carry some weight. If you ask me to critique a landscape photo, well, although I have seen some mountains, I haven't the slightest idea on how to properly photography them (or draw them)
See what I’m getting at here? When my friend posted his photo in the photography group it was immediately torn apart for reasons which had very little to do with the actual photo - shadows, rules, color, posing - none of the critique was constructive in my opinion because within the first few comments, he had said something to the effect of, I’m not posting this for critique - this is my work and I wanted to show it to you. Well, as Internet “discussions” go, it devolved quickly into name calling and attention whoring until everyone got fed up or tired and went elsewhere.
In light of that (and many, MANY other experiences like it), I’ve compiled a short list of how to give and accept criticism and critique. It might not work for everyone, but it’s at least I think a start. It’s kind of tongue in cheek, but, well…
When Giving Criticism
Be sure the artist / photographer is asking for critique: Nothing sets people off like posting work to show off and then immediately having someone comment how they would change it or what they would do better. I think it’s best to assume that unless the photographer specifically states they are looking for critique, we should keep our opinion to ourself.
Been steeped and/or familiar with the specific genre: I mean…
Have the body of work to back it up: While everyone in your family agrees that your newborn photography page has some great photos, please keep your criticisms in check. Listen to what the others are saying, look at and understand what the photographer is asking for.
Be freaking nice about it: Nobody likes a jerk. And on the Internet, people are mostly jerks (or at least it’s easy to come off as one). I’m not saying you have to give the “compliment sandwich” but, come on, we’re all working toward that same goal here. Propping up others is often the key to our own success..
Accept the fact that it’s not YOUR work: Everyone is different and is going to do things different and yes, that includes taking photos. If your criticism is based on what you would do differently, it’s not an objective criticism.
When Receiving Criticism
Realize what you're asking for: You’re putting your work out there into the proverbial lion’s den. Despite my repeated requests, people aren’t going to be nice about telling you what you’ve done wrong. When they tell you, accept it graciously and…
Recognize the source: Not everyone who gives critique knows what they’re talking about. Smile, nod, and move on.
Don’t get angry: I’ve learned that people love to tell other people they’re wrong. This is a part of life. When you encounter one of these creatures, realize they’re unhappy with the vast majority of their own lives and that somewhere, someone is critiquing them just as harshly. Best you can do (aside from avoiding these people like the plague) is smile and move on.
Be appreciative: When the criticism seems appropriate, meaning, some valid points are raised, there is a consensus, and your work will be better for it, a heartfelt thank you seems like the right thing to do.
Keep working: Never, ever get discouraged when someone critiques your work. Take a step back and see if it works for you. If so, get back to work and make sure what you put out next time is at least 10% better.
With all that said, I realize that I’m not going to change the world and suddenly everyone in forums and groups is going to start to be nice to one another and I'm not about to revolution the critiquing industry (wait, is that a thing?). I recognize what industry we’re in and I know how competitive it is. As I type this, I am sitting in Miami amongst some of the best fashion, lifestyle and swimwear photographers in the world and to be honest, it’s difficult, despite how proud I am of my own body of work, not to look around and critique the hell out of someone else’s work simply because I want nothing more than to be in their position… Ugh.
Thanks for reading,