The Art of Criticism

January 12, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

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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