Musings on Photography

Critiques

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on March 13, 2007

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In the current issue of LensWork (no. 69 Mar-Apr 2007) Brooks Jensen writes rather extensively on the problems with print critiques.  Two excerpts, to give you a flavor of what he says:

I like it or I don’t like it doesn’t tell us anything about the artwork, although it does tell us quite a bit about the person who makes the statment.  Frankly speaking, why would you care if I like a piece of work or, for that matter, if I don’t like a piece of work.  It doesn’t make any difference whether or not you like it.  Futhermore, such personal preferences don’t add anything to the discussion about the work.  As the basis for the critique, this is a perfectly valueless statement.

and

Related to person preference is the often heard comment in a critique “If it were my image I would do this to it…” followed by some advice about cropping it here, straightening there, dodging, burning, etc. The point is, it’s not my work.   How I would approach a photograph, how I would change it, or how I would print it is essentially totally irrelevant.  It doesn’t tell us anything about the work as it is.  It clearly doesn’t tell us anyting about the photographer’s intent or success.  It doesn’t help us understand the context, meaning, background, intenion, or historic importance of the work.

You get the idea.  Jensen then goes on to propose that rather than be critics (and offer critiques of work) we should instead be docents, and offer commentary on the work.

On the one hand, I agree with Jensen that often (nearly always) print critiques are nearly worthless.  I know photographers who have taken portfolios to the big photo revue events, where there are 100 gallery owners, curators, and famous photographers there, and you can get your work critiqued by half a dozen of them.  So you take a week, and you get a one half hour critique from six different (presumed) experts on photographic art, and you come away with 9 different opinions, none of which is particularly helpful.    I watched several friends go through the stress filled agony of preparing portfolios of their work, take them to events like this, and come back with feedback that seemed at best not very helpful and at worst positively destructive.

On the other hand, I have seen critiques work.  The caveat, here, is that when I say critique, and Jensen says critique, we’re talking about two different things which are only tangentially related.

Yesterday, I got a chance to meet with a good friend of mine, Alex Brikoff.  Alex is a member of the Monday Night Group, a new work review group I founded in 1996 and which I was a part of until this past September.  Since I left the group, I’ve met with Alex several times, both to review Alex’s recent work, and to have Alex review mine.  Now, it turns out that in the Monday Night Group, and in my further meetings with Alex, quite a few of the comments that get made are along the lines of Jensen’s two no-no’s: “I like/don’t like it” and “if it were mine, I’d…”  So the interesting question is why do I find answers along those lines helpful, when Jensen insists that they’re not even relevant.

The difference lies in this – Jensen is looking at the critique from the point of view that says the print is a finished work of art, and the only thing useful to do at that point is to explore it more deeply – as Jensen puts it, to “repress one’s personal like and disklikes; then look for connections, similarities, and parallels; explore symbols, metaphors, similes, and the unsaid, unconscious; provide context, or background; offer a point of view that will expand the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of a photograph.”  (side note: this seems to me to be suspiciously like a very wordy version of “I like it/I don’t like it” with academic art-history values replacing personal preference, and it isn’t clear to me that that substitution is necessarily a good thing.)

In contrast, I look at it from the point of view of process.  I took my box of prints over to Alex’s house, and to be honest, I was feeling pretty bummed about them.  I made them last week; they’re the result of my stubborn attempt to break out of a dry spell following putting together my last show.  I didn’t think much of the prints, I didn’t think much of the photos.  That’s ok.  Alex has been looking at my work in progress (the good images and the crappy ones, the good ideas and the bad ones) for more than a decade.  He’s seen it all.   So we sat down, and I laid out my prints, and Alex looked at them for a bit, and shuffled them around a bit, and then he uttered the words that would make Brooks Jensen stamp his feet in fury – “I like them.”  But here’s the catch – in the language of a decade long relationship based on reviewing each other’s work in progress, “I like them” means something rather different from what it means when you hand a single print to a stranger and the stranger looks at it and says “I like it.”

In the process context, “I like it” is shorthand for something more like this: “I can tell that you are disappointed by these prints.  I know you’re trying to break out of a dry spell.  I’m looking at these prints, and they are not utter garbage.  There are aspects of these that are not so good, but there are aspects of them that are good, too.  I see things that reflect what you’ve done in the past, and I see new things you haven’t done before.  This stuff is going in an interesting direction.  Keep going, I want to see more.”

And, in the process context and with such a long history, “If I were printing this, I would…” really is shorthand for “I think I see where you’re trying to go with this latest stuff.  Have you considered how things would change if you…”

So I went over to Alex’s house, and we reviewed my prints (and his).  Both of us uttered the phrases guaranteed to make Brooks Jensen cringe and call them ‘the most deadly form of comment one can make about an image’.  But what I came away with from that review session was quite a bit different from what Jensen envisions.  I came away with the message “Yes.  You were in a dry spell, and now you’re getting unstuck.  Good.” and “This work is connected to what you were doing before, but you’re not just retreading last years photos.  Keep going.”  Trust me, in a world where the biggest problem facing artists is how to not stop, messages like that are like a life preserver thrown to a drowning man.

The difference between Jensen’s view and mine is this: Jensen sees critiques as something you do to finished work, and I see them as something best done with unfinished work.  Jensen sees the prints as the final product, and I see them as checkpoints in an ongoing process.  Given his focus on the prints as finished objects, he’s exclusively interested in answering the question “Are there more insightful things we might say about these finished artworks?”  And given my focus on ‘Art is a Verb’, I’m almost entirely interested in answers to questions along the lines of “Given that I made these photos last week, what interesting photographs might I try to make tomorrow?”

7 Responses

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  1. akikana said, on March 13, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Good post – I like it…

    Being an insecure type of person with respect to my photographic prowess I’m happy to receive or porivde any feedback. As you allude, sometimes an ‘I like it’ is all it takes to build my confidence or confirm I’m not totally devoid of talent. However to say ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ must be based upon something deeper that is stirring within you. This is the difficult part of the critque – the ability to document those feelings. To take the ‘I like it’ and add substance to those three little words without drowning it all in artistic mumbo jumbo is an art in itself.

    Good post – I like it for its simple use of language, focused reasoning and above all logical conclusion. How’s that?

  2. Darrell Klein said, on March 13, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    That was a pretty good post Paul but if it were mine… :)

    Seriously, I really enjoyed hearing your take on this subject. Critiques are a slippery slope. As you mentioned in your post, I think the I like it or don’t critique only works when it comes from someone that is familiar with at least a good sized portion of your body of work. If you get that from someone that has just seen their first image of yours, it is almost useless. To me, the same is true with the “I would have done it this way” critiques. Those critiques are often based on “the rules” of photography like the rule of thirds and so forth. When I get a critique like that, I often wonder how the person providing the critique knew what it was that I was trying to accomplish. How can they say that I failed when they don’t know what I was trying to say with the photograph in the first place?

    Wow, this comment will probably make it sound like I cannot take criticism. :)

  3. Frank said, on March 14, 2007 at 9:14 am

    Seems to me there are different levels of “classrooms” for critiques, and obviously Brooks is maybe out of the classroom entirely. But for those of us who teach, “like/dislike” is a jumping off place for the newbies in photography. My first rule of critique in the classroom is you may start by stating your like/dislike of an image, but you have to say why. And as Darrell mentioned about “rules”, that one of the reason I never use the word “composition” in a critique session because it implies rules. Just as there is no reality in art, there should be no rules either, and for me, it’s a lot easier to talk about a particular image from that stand point.

  4. paul said, on March 15, 2007 at 11:26 am

    I would agree that getting an “I like” from someone who knows you and your work has more meaning than from a stranger. For example, my wife sometimes critiques my work in this way: I’ll ask her what she thinks about a certain image. She’ll either make an exclamation of “It’s so beautiful, or touching, or ____”; however, there are those times that she’ll say “I like it”, which means, keep trying. :-) Other times I just get a “It’s not doing anything for me.”. Sometimes, we don’t like the same thing.

    It would be difficult to delve into the meaning of a print unless specifically told to you, by the photographer, what was his/her intent. Only at this point can you say, in your opinion, if they reached that goal and perhaps offer ideas as to how they might meet it, if indeed they did fall short. This is highly subjective as well, as your perceptions about the print are relative to your experiences.

    There are, however, some valid critiques that offer compositional suggestions. At least I think so.

    Overall, I don’t see many critiques as very useful and they can be detrimental sometimes.

  5. Bryan Willman said, on March 16, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    I think that “constructive criticism and advice and support” and “observation of public works” are being confused.

    When somebody says (as I have said to Paul) “try printing it ” that is meant as helpful advice. It is not “criticism” it is more support or collaboration.

    To be a critic in the sense Jensen is talking about is much more about acting as an observer for other people. I claim that such tasks should be devoted to helping parties who have not seen the work understand (at least partly) some key things. 1. Is it worth my time to go look at it, and is more or less worth my time than the show across the street? 2. What mind set or historical context will help me understand it? 3. What other things might it reasonably be seen to be related to, and in particular, what other things that I care about?

    How the work fits in some branch of academic theory is a discussion that should be stored in a lead lined box with the academics. Likewise for yammerings about market values, auction surprizes, and other market noise.

    All this implies that critical reviews should be 2 or 3 paragraphs of straight forward writing.

  6. Bryan Willman said, on March 16, 2007 at 7:16 pm

    I think that “constructive criticism and advice and support” and “observation of public works” are being confused.

    When somebody says “try printing it {harder, softer, darker, lighter}” that is meant as helpful advice. It is not “criticism” it is more support or collaboration.

    To be a critic in the sense Jensen is talking about is much more about acting as an observer for other people. I claim that such writing should be devoted to helping parties who have not seen the work understand (at least partly) some key things. 1. Is it worth my time to go look at it, and is it more or less worth my time than the show across the street? 2. What mind set or historical context will help me understand it? 3. What other things might it reasonably be seen to be related to, and in particular, what other things that I care about?

    How the work fits in some branch of academic theory is a discussion that should be stored in a lead lined box with the academics. Likewise for yammerings about market values, auction surprizes, and other market noise.

    All this implies that critical reviews should be 2 or 3 paragraphs of straight forward writing, that let the normal reader conclude they do or do not want to go see the work, and help them understand it when they see it.

  7. [...] both giving and receiving constructive criticism on photographs lately. Paul Butzi had a great post on critiques a few weeks back that’s quite thought [...]


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