Many moons ago, after I’d mastered the technical aspects of photography, I set about trying to further the aesthetic side of the endeavor. The logical approach, it seemed to me at the time, was to ask for critiques from other photographers. It seemed intuitive that such an approach would provide substantial assistance in my quest to develop creatively.
I was wrong. Critiques from others did me little, if any, good. I found many of the critiques—most of which were highly positive (perhaps unfortunately)–to be fairly prosaic, for one thing, but even with thoughtful, well-meaning constructive criticism, I found myself at least as likely to disagree with the thrust of the criticism as I was to gain anything from it.
In more recent years I’ve had a fairly large number of requests from other—presumably developing—photographers asking me to critique their work. I’m almost always willing, but with a couple of caveats, the first being that I never got much out of this process myself. The second limitation is that I see these kinds of critiques as little more than “one man’s opinion,” and I’m far from certain that anyone ought to take anyone’s opinion about something I believe to be as inherently subjective as the aesthetics of art all that seriously. Surely that doubt applies every bit as much to my opinion of someone’s art as anyone else’s.
Before anyone gets bent out of shape about any of this, let me clarify that I’m not saying that it’s impossible for anyone to benefit from the critique of their work by others. I have a number of photographer friends who swear that such a process was more helpful to them in their development than anything else. All I’m saying is that I don’t feel that it was helpful to me.
But, somewhat ironically, I do feel that the critique process was more helpful to my artistic development than anything else.
Huh? Did I not just contradict everything I wrote in the four preceding paragraphs? No. I really did benefit from the critique process. But it was the process of critiquing the images of others—often silently—that assisted me, not having others critique my work. Allow me to explain—this ongoing exercise helped me and it’s possible that it will help some of you with your own photographic development. It’s really quite simple.
Step 1: Look at images—lots of them. Include any and all photographic genres in which you’re interested and include the work of a multitude of photographers—and don’t necessarily limit yourself to those whose work you like—cast a broad brush.
Step 2: When you look at an image, give yourself a few seconds to simply react to it—and note that reaction, be it like, dislike, ambivalence, whatever.
Step 3: Analyze the reaction recorded in Step 2. Why did you have the reaction you had? What is it about the image in question that elicited your visceral response? Be as specific and complete as possible. This is the most difficult step of all, in my view, but it’s assuredly the most important—the critique itself. You may well take some time before you’re able to routinely—and honestly—fulfill this step, but don’t be frustrated and definitely don’t get caught up in the notion of discovering the “correct” answer. There isn’t one, at least not in any objective sense. And keep in mind that since the point of this exercise is to benefit you, there’s no need to share your feelings with anyone else.
Step 4: After running through steps 1-3 on at least a few dozen images, step back and attempt to summarize to yourself; are you detecting any patterns outlining what you like/dislike and why? You may have to run though many, many images before you’re able to answer these questions in the affirmative but, eventually, you’re likely to do so. This is where the process should concretely help you in your own photographic endeavors, because once you’re able to obtain a better feel for what appeals to you and why you can apply that knowledge directly in the field.
And understand—this isn’t about copying someone else’s technique or duplicating their images. It’s about using the power of observation to better understand yourself and, as a result, your ever-developing art.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.