I don’t like to critique other photographers, or other artists for that matter, and here’s why:
I am a self taught photographer.* In my struggles early on to figure out what was good and what was frowned upon I commonly asked other photographers what they thought of my work and what I could do differently to improve. Generally, I got kicked around as it were, until one photographer told me he wouldn’t critique me. He shared why and at the time it made sense to me, but I didn’t really fully understand what he meant until a couple years ago. Here are my thoughts on the matter now:
When YOU do a photo shoot you have a very specific set of images in mind. How you get them to fruition is up to you and the tools or talents you use are only specific to you and your vision, not anyone else’s. So let’s criticize YOU if we don’t like the photography, right? Not so fast!
The thing about your photography, painting, and other forms of art that really lends itself to its vitality and human quality are the less quantifiable yet hugely recognizable elements of self expression and experimentation. No one has the right to tell you that your final product is wrong, bad, or poorly executed. We weren’t in your head when you conducted the photo shoot or painted that piece. We can’t tell you if you did or didn’t achieve your goals. Only YOU can come to a conclusion about it either way. At best, the rest of us can only determine if your final product moves us or not, and whether or not it does or not should neither validate nor invalidate your personal expression.
As a photographer, I go into every shoot with a certain expectation of what I want the final outcome to be but I leave a lot up to the unexpected elements that chance, a model’s unintentional gestures, and weather could bring to the creative side of the production itself. I don’t view these aspects as obstacles or inconveniences but rather as unique opportunities to do something unplanned and special that could really raise the bar creatively while getting new creative juices flowing that weren’t there in the pre-production phase. Sometimes a moment of inspiration by the hair stylist can change my entire plan and a whole new creative dynamic springs to life. As an artist I can choose to take advantage of these moments or not. The point is that what I intend to create when I start out isn’t necessarily the same thing that try to create when the photo shoot takes place.
When the entire project is finally completed only I can determine if I did something incorrectly or poorly because only I can tell if the final product matches my desires or not. With a client I can tell quickly if I have reached that quantifiable mark that he, she, or they need but when it comes to my own personal art, it’s a bit more of a struggle. I personally have such a fickle mind that can change abruptly because of mood or food which changes my perception of my own work. This makes it difficult for me to even self critique my photography. Sure I can go back and find technical aspects that I could have done differently, but when it comes to the artistic quest within, things tend to get a bit blurrier and less defined. If I can’t necessarily tell if I myself achieved my personal goals, how can I even decide if someone else did? For myself, I have no trouble achieving what a client needs. The end result is generally exactly what I intended. It’s the struggle with my personal aesthetic that gives me headaches and sometimes keeps me up at night.**
If the final result doesn’t match what you had in your head then it could very likely be a technical issue. Something to do with lighting or the camera that created an obstacle that you couldn’t overcome or didn’t even recognize existed to begin with. Technical issues can be fixed with practice over time but that being said, how could I even know that there was a problem when looking at your work? Unless I unfairly ask you to share your struggles, I have no way of knowing that there was a problem to begin with. And sometimes the final image is the result of everything going wrong. At which point any kind of critique is nothing more than an unfair exploitation of circumstances that destroyed your vision that may or may not have been within your realm of control.
In the end, if I critique your work, I’m not helping you get better at your art. I’m just changing your vision into my vision and telling you how I would have done it. That’s not fair to you because your vision is exactly that, YOUR vision. I don’t want to divert you from the exploration of your own creative direction.
I recognize that this opinion piece is an over-simplified glimpse into a much larger conversation, but I hope it at least gives you some understanding of how damaging critiques can really be. Be true to yourself.
* I am self taught but with a few caveats. Though I never received formal training in photography, I did grow up as the son of a master photographer/printmaker. I was also taught fine art by master painters and taught design and composition while working toward a degree in architecture.
**There is a general misconception that a photographer’s properly and perfectly executed work is inherently the same as a client’s end vision when working together on a project. The reality is that even though a photographer may produce perfectly what he or she intends for a client, the personal artistic vision is not necessarily in perfect parallel with the produced photography. For myself in particular, photography that is perfect by any quantitative definition when comparing the end result with the intended outcome is also, generally, exactly not perfect at the same time.