The problems with Photo-Critique

Someone once asked me on a forum I was involved with, ' What do you do when another photographer asks you to critique their pictures?' To which my answer was 'Change the subject!'

For many years I worked as a teacher in colleges for the 16-19 age group here in the UK. During that time I was involved in the creation and running of one of the first courses in the country to specialise in teaching popular music. Not a very satisfactory term, but this was pretty much all music that wasn't classical or jazz. The issue that caused most discussion in both the writing of the course and its implementation, was how to ascribe value to, i.e. mark a creative act, a creative process and the results of those. How do you maintain objectivity?, how can you compare one against another?, and how can you achieve the two aims of getting the student to improve and understand the reasons why improvement is needed?

Our solution to that was to assign very specific criteria to assigments. The notion of setting an assigment that said 'Go and write me a killer 3-minute song' was not liable to achieve much and would be loaded with so much value-judgement when assessed that it would be useless.

As a professional photographer for many years I have known many others who make their living in the same way. The one thing we never do is critique each others work. The basic understanding is, if you make a living you must be doing something right and whether we personally liked each others work or not, if it had a market and was successful then that was fine.

The photographic internet is however somewhat different. 'Everybodys a critic' and 'Opinions are like a*******s everybodys got one' spring to mind. An internet contact of mine, and someone I respect once emailed me to write 'Why is it always the very worst photographers who seem to be the first to jump in and criticise others?'

The very real issue with this is the dissociating of personal preference from any such process and the very real question that can be asked 'What gives someone the right to criticise anothers work?' Now I loathe and detest the work of Martin Parr, I pretty much see him as the photographic antichrist, and I'm far from alone in this view, but that same Parr has a reputation amongst other photographic critics as being one of the best UK photographers ever. So who is 'right'? In fact is anybody 'right'?

I removed a couple of posts the other day and one of them had mutated into a discussion on Google+ where someone took it upon himself to criticise my work. Now this is water off a ducks back to me. As someone who has earnt his living from photography for many years, sells 15-20,000 images a year and has grossed $500,000+ in picture library fees alone, I'm not likely to get upset when someone suggests that by doing x,y and z I could improve my pictures. However what I won't tolerate is when someone decides to gratuitously give the 'benefit' of their advice when not asked to do so and with no clear credentials or purpose other than to try and impose their personal taste on someone else. To me the problems with doing such a thing are clear, and they relate not to people like me but to beginners and those who are genuinely insecure about what they do.

It is probably my experience as a teacher that shapes my views on this, but I believe it is very difficult to achieve that balance between offering advice that may lead to someone else being able to focus better on what they are trying to achieve and creating negativity and self disapproval. And there is of course the very real question of credentials. Now if someone asks me, 'Do you think my work is suitable for stock photography?' then I would feel able to provide an answer. I have enough experience doing it, have made a decent living for many years doing it and even owned and ran a picture library for a while, so I would feel capable of offering advice in that particular area. I have in the past done that and have generally approached it by taking some examples of the questioners work and saying, well this is the way that I would have done it. That I'm comfortable with. But in terms of critiquing overall thats about as far as I will go.

I don't think I'm alone in this. I've often stated that the reason the majority of the photographic internet seems to be about gear rather than pictures, is because of the difficulties of this. If you have never done it before it can be hard to put your work out there and let others write what they want about it. Some obviously never do it. Interestingly enough, those who are so free with their criticisms of others often seem somewhat reluctant to post their own work. I wonder why?

I could of course be somewhat more 'robust' in my criticism of the critics. Dogma, cliched thinking, arrogant, patronising, offensive, know-it-all, self-styled, disrespectful etc. etc. could all be words that I could use, but I am trying to keep this relatively low-key and make a point that I believe to be important. 

Finally I have a very strict policy on this blog, and its accompanying Google+ discussion groups that unwanted criticism of others photography is not tolerated and is met with deletion of the post and blocking of the poster. You may think that unreasonable, but then its my blog, my rules. This is not a forum or a cosy chat group or a discussion platform and its certainly not the place where photographs get criticised. I keep my opinions to myself on images that get posted on the Soundimageplus Google+ groups and I expect others to do the same. Because thats what they are, opinions. Unlike some others I lack the vanity and self-importance to think that I have the ability, the knowledge and experience and above all the right to state that what I am doing is superior to what others are doing. Those who do should seriously question why they are doing it and if they still feel inclined to do it, should take it elsewhere, because its not welcome here.


Over on Google+ Sami posted this quote. I liked it so much I've added it to my piece.
Many Thanks.
I was reminded of this great quote immediately when reading your article:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…"

- Theodore Roosevelt

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