The Art of Criticism

January 12, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 9 Comments | |
The Art of Criticism Image

Pay no attention to critics. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.

Jean Sibelius

I have sometimes wondered in idle moments over the last twenty years or so what a photo judge would think of my work. (I've even wondered if I should anonymously put forward a panel of work to the Royal Photographic Society just to see what reaction the images would get without my “Name” attached.) What’s held me back from applying hasn’t been a fear or criticism, rather it’s been a suspicion that I wouldn’t receive the right kind of criticism.

The approval of our peers is something that we almost all seek. The most common way that people look for this is by placing their images in a web forum or by entering them in a club competition. But publishing our work lays it open to criticism as well as approval. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In theory entering your work into a photo competition, for instance, could help you to understand your strengths and weaknesses in relation to other photographers and hence help you grow as a photographer. Even if you don't win, receiving a commentary on your work should give you some pointers on how to improve.

But criticism is a double-edged sword. It might be conveniently split into “good” or “bad”; constructive or destructive. Now the latter isn’t simply a comment that you don’t want to hear! Destructive criticism is characterized by a lack of insight, a lack of respect and a lack of understanding on the part of the critic. Whereas this diminishes both artist and critic I deem constructive criticism is essential for the growth and understanding of any artist.

The Art of Criticism

So let’s look at a couple of examples of “bad” criticism. A few years ago I was shown some truly exquisite black & white images taken by Tony, a participant on one of my large format workshops. The story relating to one photo in particular was both depressing and fascinating. This image might be thought of as being in the Michael Kenna school, though not in any way derivative of that great photographer's work. It had been a medal winner at one salon yet when it was presented to another judge at his own club the judge took a cursory glance and then turned the print to the wall and made the following remark, "This is the kind of image that looks better this way round." What did he mean by this? Tony took it to mean that in this judge's opinion the image wasn't very good, that the most interesting thing about it was the array of judges' awards affixed to the rear of the mount; first, distinction, highly commended etc. More than that, that this judge was surprised at the accolades that had been heaped upon this image.

We can't castigate the judge for his opinion - that is, after all, what he was called upon to provide. The problem is its lack of useful content and the manner in which it was delivered. What gives him the right to belittle somebody's work? What possible benefit is there in being harsh in such an unconstructive way? I can only think that it made the judge feel superior and, sadly, that that's how he thought he ought to feel. He'd been called upon to exercise his judgement. He felt that his opinion was exalted. So, it would seem, he felt that he was superior to the photographers' whose work he was criticising.

The Art of Criticism

Of course it’s not just judges that can have a negative effect. I'm still stung by a remark made 10 years ago by an art buyer when I showed her the image at the beginning of this article. It was one of the first detail images that I had made and reminded me of the stark simplicity of a Zen garden (follow the Rock Garden link to see what I mean). At the time it was one of my favourite images. She glanced at it briefly and quickly pushed it across the lightbox, making the derisory comment, "Oh look, a turd on the beach..." I was devastated. But the real damage was not just the short-term shock but that for many years I couldn't shake off that description. The transparency stayed hidden away in my filing cabinet and was shown to no one. Whenever I viewed the image it had lost the power to evoke tranquility and had just become a vision of mammalian effluent stranded by the falling tide... Now you can't get that association out of your head either! So be careful what you say about another’s work. What is said about an image can become more prominent than the complex but difficult to grasp feelings evoked by the purely visual information. These feelings are hard to express precisely because they don't relate easily to language. Words swamp them, drown their delicate form beneath overpoweringly concrete signification.

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David Ward, forums, criticism, destructive, constructive, judge, contests, judgement, competitions, critics

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#1 Mandeno Moments

This is an excellent treatment of a difficult subject. I particularly like the five guidelines for critics and the following:

I would advise that if you seek critical appraisal in order to improve the quality of your work you must also appraise the quality of the critic. Think about the comments that are offered and ruthlessly disregard those without a consistently reasoned argument, this goes for the mindless “Wow, great!” comments as much as for the “Don’t like it” ones.

I believe that photography is art, with the possible exception of the most basic forms of documentary photography (eg job site photos): please don’t start a flame war over this statement! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if you think that your photo of a mangled dead cat is beautiful then it is beautiful, even if a critic disagrees.

I am by conviction an objectivist, but when it comes to art objectivism is impossible and relativism reigns. Translation: it is impossible to define what is a ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ photograph.

8:48 pm - Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#2 luciano

Sono d’accordo con il tuo commento!
Quel giudice ha perso una buona occasione per tacere! Ha dimostrato di singoli e nonssere all’altezza dell’incarico di giudice. E ‘un mese che mi sono iscritto al vs blog e sono contento di averlo fatto: è istruttivo e da informazioni Sull’evoluzione della fotografia.
E per anni ho utilizzato l’analogico (quasisclusivamente dia) Con reflex Canon, Nikon e Leica. Quest’ultima l’ho usata in manuale. Ora vorrei acquistare una reflex digitale di qualità, Ma senza spendere troppo. Quale mi consigli? Sarei Orientato su Nikon D90, Nikon D5000, Pentax 7, Canon 50D, oppure al Micro Quattro Terzi (Olympus o EP2 Panasonic GH1) per il minor peso e ingombro.
Inoltre Avendo Alcuni Obiettivi Leica M potrei utilizzarli MANUALMENTE.
Ti ringrazio anticipatamente e.. Buon Anno 2010.

9:29 pm - Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#3 Charles

There is a great quote by George Bernard Shaw about critics, it pretty much sums up what you are trying to say. I think I can quote it accurately from memory:

“It is not the job of the critic to say whether he was or was not amused. It is his job to say WHY he was or was not amused.”

10:21 pm - Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#4 Conor Lawrence

I worry that there is a such a level of expectation placed on the critic.  If you are placing your work before another individual and asking for a response then you must be prepared for anything ranging from a simple smile to a 50 page review.

11:02 pm - Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#5 rob

First of all, the art-critique is - sort of - an art in itself. There are critics who are more or less sensitive to certain topics and/or techniques. There are critics who have more or less experience in evaluating all elements of an image. And then, there are critics who have seen more or less works of art in their careers. Some critics have academic backgrounds, while others base their opinions solely on intuition and/or intelligence. All those factors weigh in on their opinions about images they are commenting on.

My private opinion about what is the critic’s role, is exactly the one expressed in the quote from Bernard Shaw, above.

I am not that much interested whether or not I like or dislike any particular photo. After all, there is as many artistic tastes as there are artists and as many opinions as there are critics. But if I can explain WHY I like or dislike a work of art, that means that I have made an effort to understand the artist’s intent and/or their efficiency (skills) to communicate that intent to me.

I have been in situations where the same photo has been praised by one critic while another one hasn’t been impressed at all. That is totally normal and understandable situation. If we all would see any particular photo in the same way, there would be no need for art and artists (not to mention - art critics).

11:03 pm - Tuesday, January 12, 2010

#6 tisane 

Very nice interesting article.I am very delighted to read it.I would like to say this is really an excellent treatment which is shared here.I want to know more on it.Please share more detail on this mater.Thanks.

4:48 am - Wednesday, January 13, 2010

#7 seoras

I very much agree with Rob.

The first step is however with the photographer who must analyse rigorously their own work to the best of their abilities. The example given is such a case. Do all the elements in the sand picture adhere to an oriental ‘zen’ aesthetic ? Clearly not as the the key element falls short of these aesthetic qualities and does indeed look like a turd. The ‘critic’ might I agree could have been more diplomatic but was correct. So, while there was a recognition of a particular ‘style’ it was not pursued rigorously enough. Photographers must also go beyond mere technique and be prepared to study and try to understand all visual media.

One must not mix ‘judging’ with ‘critique’ so readily. You can critique an acknowledged work and what should be reveled is an academic analysis of the work, not a judgement as you might find in a competition.

1:24 pm - Wednesday, January 13, 2010

#8 Bryan grant photography

I have a degree in Fine Art and Art Education and i have had over 7 years of scholastic critics. What i learned was… that the people that dont want to hear it and dont care need it the most. Ant if you start your criticism with “i like”  you are bad at giving critics. if you really care about improvement and growth then you will want “constructive criticism” and not a bunch of “oh its soo good and i love it”,,,, please.

8:22 pm - Monday, November 1, 2010

#9 David Yale

The thing is that art (and photography) are subjective, so no matter what another critic says about your work it is only one opinion out of millions. Some will like it some won’t.

2:12 pm - Wednesday, December 12, 2012