2011-07-18

self-critique


“If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
At any given point in time, you’re only one thought away from changing your thinking. What thought can you change today?
The other day, I blogged about the difficulty I have with curating my own work. It's not that I don't want to or that I am not trying - I just seem to have a blind spot when it comes to telling my good photos from my mediocre ones. When I submit photos to a competition, I sometimes ask for opinions among some photographically acclaimed or interested Facebook friends about what to submit. The last time I did this, I gave them 20 photos to choose and rank their favorite three from. I received the following feedback from a friend; a great photographer himself, and also a college teacher on media science with a vast knowledge of the subject, so I wouldn't hesitate to call him an expert:
Gabi, you take so many fine, distinctive photos. Some of them really special. [...] But although that is a collection of quite decent photos there are not many that are really outstanding in their own right. [...] On Flickr I might say "Nice one", meaning up to your usual standard of competence and with a small measure of interest, but for a competition? So I am not really on your wave-length. I would have preferred it if you had discarded all except about 3-5 which you could yourself see were better than rest and asked us to vote amongst those. Don't get me wrong, these are all okay, but some genuinely also completely ordinary [...] I would feel more comfortable if this were as obvious to you [...] as it is to me.
It wasn't what I wanted to hear, obviously, and I felt rather discouraged. This statement didn't question one or a couple of photos I had chosen (which is what I had implicitly asked for) - it questioned the whole bunch. And since those were the ones which I had deemed most suitable to submit for the competition, it questioned either my ability to take good photos (at least good enough to meet the call of the competition), or my ability to make a preselection - both of which are interrelated. How can I claim to be a photographer if I can't even tell good from bad in my own work? 

Is it a common phenomenon that people struggle with judging their own work? A quick Google search suggests that all kinds of creative people, like writers, designers, glass artists, painters, musicians, and other photographers seem to have difficulties with self-critique. And if you look at social science literature on the topic, it shows evidence too: A 1977 social psychological study found that 94% of all college professors think they do above-average work. Do your math.

I am able to give how-to advice in photography, e.g. to a beginner who had posted  a question in a Linked-In group a month ago who was faced with the task to take photos of her co-workers in a work setting. But what about objective criteria which can tell whether a photo is outstanding? And shouldn't they be different for different types of photos - places vs. people, architecture vs. food? I wonder: If I had formal art education, would that enable me to be a better judge of my own work?

How can you learn to be your own critic? I found an online course called the artist’s development toolkit which describes itself as 'a self-reflective programme for artists at all career stages and student artists. It enables them to review their position and explore ways of developing themselves and their practice.' I registered and came across a module called 'The do-it-yourself critique', which consists of rating one's satisfaction with one's own work on a 5-point scale according to 14 criteria, one of which is the ability to be critical about your work. It doesn't go further than that. Not very helpful. Here is a fairly comprehensive list a graphic designer has compiled to critique his own work. But it's for graphic design, not for photography. This blog post does give some advice, e.g. asking yourself whether the photo has any emotional impact. But how should I know what a photo does for other people's emotions - unless I ask them, as I do by putting my work out for the world to view it and comment on? 

Hardcore Street Photography (HCSP), one of the most active and most acclaimed of the hundreds of thousands groups on Flickr, also comes to my mind when I ponder about this. It's a very tightly curated group (at 42,000+ members, the photo pool shows only 3,000+ photos), and it's highly exceptional for a photo to make it into their pool (I only ever got one in, but it was removed again later). The curators are mostly young male photographers, who prefer a very raw, at times even brutal style of street photography, unveiling their subjects rather than documenting them, and unlike other street photography groups, they select way more color than black-and-white photos. Classical rules of composition (rule of thirds) or lighting don't seem to apply here: They prefer their subjects to be centered; their backgrounds to be cluttered; people grimacing; feet and hands cut off by the frame or reaching into the frame out of nowhere; randomly obscured or obstructed faces; tilted horizons; a lot of the photographers use harsh straight-on flash to illuminate the subjects; and often, random foreground objects like sign posts or lamp posts partly obstruct the view. A lot of the photos rather resemble random snapshots than carefully composed scenes, and it often takes a second or third look to get an idea why they were approved to be displayed - if you get it at all. The group claims to be 'an ode to all great street photographers such as Winogrand, Arbus, Levitt, Koudelka and many, many more' - yet, when looking at the photos they choose to accept in the pool, I can't help asking myself whether some of the great classic street photos from Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau who composed carefully, watched their background, and made best use of the light in a scene, would even make it into this group. On the question What goes and what stays?, HCSP gives the following answer: 

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Robert Doisneau
'Give us a reason to remember the photograph. Ask yourself, what makes it so special, why is it worth remembering for more than a split second? The reason why it's so hard for us to tell you why we keep or delete a photo from the pool is because we don't have a quantified set of rules. It's just a feeling that we have.' 


Is that what artistic quality comes down to - a feeling? Personal taste?

Subjectivity?

Maybe it is. During my portfolio review in January, the reviewer who has arranged hundreds of curated shows, with the most different characters as curators, and has done quite a bit of curating herself, told me that the differences in what catches curators' interest are huge. So, if it's about the feelings we provoke in others, is it any wonder why it's so hard to judge our own work? When I take a photo, of something, somewhere, or someone, I relate to it. The thing or the place or the person I depict become, in a strange and inexplicable way, a part of me; I internalize them. Is it this internalization which overshadows the criteria I can easily apply to other people's photos, which makes it so hard for me to judge my own work? How can I tell what is worth remembering, when I remember almost every single photo I keep (definitely the 15,000+ ones I have on Flickr) - because I have this relationship with each of them?

Shall I just continue to 'put it out and let the world decide', as this very compassionate video from Derek Sivers suggests? Would that be a change in attitude, and if yes, would it be the right one?


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing that video! I quite liked it. Your whole post was very resonant with me today; I've been thinking a lot about self-critique, and critique by others, lately. I've been feeling very exposed and tentative and unsure about creative things. It was a huge step today to post a link to the blog (and thus, my photography) on Google+ and to expose it to everyone I know there so far.

    I read this blog post by you today; and tonight, there's this - Risking Criticism - by T. Thorn Coyle. I have a lot of food for thought about the risks of visibility. While I know that's not what your post is about, it resonated as well.

    My very closest friend (besides Dr. Nick) said to me this summer that maybe I should consider therapy for my perfectionist tendencies, as it seemed to be hindering my creative process (or at least, the sharing of my work) more than helping it.

    I'm not very good with the self-critique - I beat myself up about what I know are my technical deficiencies. But I did make progress in the past year - when I started the 365 project, each day I would have Dr. Nick review the day's shooting with me to help me pick out the shot for the day, because I just didn't know which was the best one. By midway through the project, I wasn't asking for his help at all :)

    So. Hi. I guess this is me coming out of lurk mode.

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