Musings on Photography

The Next Level

Posted in aesthetics, art is a verb, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on March 27, 2007


By now, it seems likely that everyone has read George Barr’s Taking Your Photography to the Next Level Part One and Part Two.  I had a partly written post that was largely along the lines of Colin Jago’s response to part two but as usual Colin has both beat me to the ‘publish’ button and done a better writing job.  If you haven’t already read Colin’s view, go read it now and just think “Paul would have said much the same thing’ at the end.  (Colin has, in fact, pretty succinctly described how I go about photography as a general thing.)

To summarize Barr’s view as succinctly as I can:  Put together a portfolio of one to three dozen of your ‘very best images’.  Show them to other people, and get feedback.  Suggested places to get feedback in this way include friends, camera clubs, online review websites, and Barr’s strongest recommendation, workshops.  The goal to getting all this feedback is understanding where you fall on Barr’s aesthetic and technical rankings.

Like Barr, I think feedback is an important part of the artistic process.  It’s very hard to make your art progress in isolation.  But any agreement ends right there.

I don’t think the kind of feedback that Barr is proposing is very helpful.  I think if you show a friend your ‘Greatest Hits’, you’re going to learn how little your friend wants to hurt your feelings.  If you show them to a camera club, all you’re going to learn is how closely your work conforms to the ‘aesthetic rules’ used by that club to judge its monthly print competitions.  If you post your images on an online review site, you’re going to get useless feedback along the lines lamented by Mike Johnston.  I think if you take one to three dozen of your prints and show them to a gallery owner, you’re going to learn exactly one thing – whether or not the gallery owner believes he/she can sell your work.  And I don’t think any of those things is even remotely useful in making artistic progress.

If you haven’t read The Monday Night Manifesto and The Monday Night Group, go and read them.  They explain my views on getting feedback on your photography better than any short blurb I might write.  But the short version is this: the feedback that counts is feedback that is based on looking at the progress of your work, both the good AND the bad, over a span of years, and not on looking at a ‘Greatest Hits’ album a single time.  In the long run, the important thing is not the strength or weakness of individual images, but the overall direction of your work.  The valuable feedback is along the lines of “I notice you have lots of photos you feel don’t quite work, and most of them seem to be along the lines of… Have you thought about that?”, and not “I think you should print this a little harder”.

It seems to me that Barr is focusing on figuring out the answer to the question “How does my work stack up against the work of others?”, and I think that the answer is going to be almost perfectly useless.  I think you’ll get far more useful informatin if you seek feedback that gets you answers to the questions I propose at the end of Art is a Verb:

1. Does this work open up new avenues for me to explore?

2. Do I understand more about anything as a result of making this work?

3. Now that I’ve made this work, what will I make next?

8 Responses

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  1. andy ilachinski said, on March 27, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Stumbled on your site (from the “Philosophical Photographer” blog) and was mesmerized by your beautiful images and insightful commentary! And I concur with your commentary about George Barr’s essay; ultimately, for any artist, it is a journey from without. External guideposts and feedback are important, and will always be there, but the primary driver must always come from the inside. I recall a aphorism from Joseph Campbell along the lines that, if, as you machete your way through a thick jungle, struggling to find your “pathy” you stumble upon a well-trodden path that others had carved before you, do not rejoice!…for it is now that you’ve lost your way!

    Anyway, thanks for a wonderful blog that I will now have to make a daily stop as I sip coffee in the morning 😉

  2. Darrell Klein said, on March 27, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    “It seems to me that Barr is focusing on figuring out the answer to the question “How does my work stack up against the work of others?”, and I think that the answer is going to be almost perfectly useless.”

    I have to agree with you here Paul. When I read the two articles by George, I was having a hard time figuring out how it was going to get me anywhere. No disrespect meant to George because I enjoy reading his blog. I just think that this approach can lead to the trap of pandering to the critics and not actually advancing your creativity.

  3. Billie said, on March 28, 2007 at 8:06 am

    Taking your work to the next level is very hard to do. In general…..Camera clubs won’t help, workshops won’t help (excluding craft), portfolio reviews won’t help, “normal” friends won’t help, a photography or artist friend “might” help. Mostly, it comes from within and it is hard to find.

  4. tim atherton said, on March 28, 2007 at 9:31 am

    This looks like it could be a good pick for the Oprah Camera Club I suppose

  5. tim atherton said, on March 28, 2007 at 9:33 am

    This looks like it could be a good pick for the Oprah Camera Club I suppose

    Maybe someone could do a wiki version of it, like for the Happiness Formula?

  6. Paul Butzi said, on March 28, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Well, you posted it twice, so it must be very important. What’s the Oprah Camera Club?

    And what, exactly, are you referring to as ‘this’? George Barr’s article? My post?

  7. tim atherton said, on March 28, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    George Barr’s article

  8. Finding Your Level « through my eyes said, on March 28, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    […] part series on taking your photography to the next level on Luminous Landscape.  Colin Jago and Paul Butzi have discussed George’s series and raised some interesting issues with the approach that […]

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