Nature of Critique Part 1

I have been co-teaching a class with Jahnavi Barnes at the Photographic Center Northwest this Fall on the critiquing of work. It has been an amazing experience to get to work with a diversity of photographers at different places, wanting different outcomes and each having a very different shooting style and approach to working.

The primary purpose of the class is to help photographers develop a vocabulary to contextualize their work and help them articulate what their work is about. In my experience over the years, I have been amazed at how hard it is for photographers (people in general maybe?) to be able to speak about their work in a way that is meaningful, coherent and helps move their work forward. My own experience with this struggle is that it takes a lot of time and energy, along with self-disclosure, to be able to talk about ones work. I think most artist believe their work speaks for itself. You create it, love it, hang it on the wall and think that is the end of the conversation.

What most photographers forget is that the conversation has been happening before they created a single image. The subject matter, camera and lens selection, camera settings, development, printing and output choices ALONG with the editing process all have massive internal dialogs. What we have have been attempting to do with this class is take that internal dialog out of a photographers head and move it into a conversation. We wanted to have a safe environment where everyone in the room can discuss and share what works, doesn’t work, alternatives and next steps for the series or artist.

In the end, my hope is that by critiquing various bodies of work over and over again will allow for us to find a way to openly talk about our work and get the feedback that constructively moves us forward.  We spend a lot of time learning about what makes images work and not work and how images are impacted by the images that surround it. Each week we get better and better figuring out new ways to see the work and new ways to have the internal monologue and external conversations.

Here are some things that I have learned over the course so far that have really made a difference for me and others in critiquing work.

Things that Work

  1. Create and edit your artist statement from the minute you start to put your work together. Writing about your work and why it matters will shape and reshape the work over and over again as both evolve.
  2. Always have more work than you need for the series. Edit from abundance not scarcity.
  3. Listen first to the artist before you speak. Even if it takes them a while to say anything at all.
  4. Images can get stronger when they live next to other images, but weak images always bring good images down.
  5. Be able to speak about your work in concrete terms and in abstract terms.
  6. When you get feedback you don’t understand keep asking questions until you do.
  7. Feedback you don’t agree with is still valuable feedback.  Listen to it and don’t argue.
  8. Questions are good ways to help someone understand their work.

Things that don’t work

  1. Your first edit.
  2. Your first artist statement.
  3. Your first print.
  4. Not enough work or images to edit.
  5. Your first anything.
  6. Only speaking about your technical way of creating work. Lens, camera, paper are not things that help us understand you as a artist. Yes they do matter in how you get a look or feel that you want, but they are not who you are as an artist.
  7. When things go sideways in a critique, and they will at some point, not taking a break to clear the space.
  8. Already knowing what your work is about and then not listening to feedback.
  9. Any excuse on why something is the way it is.
  10. Raising your voice.

Things I am working on getting better at

  1. Talking out loud when I am editing pieces as a series so that the other person/people can understand why I am doing what I am doing
  2. When someone wants to change and edit or resort a series, always have them try even if they think it might be a step backwards. You can’t always see things until you can actually see them.
  3. While I am bound by what I know, being open to what I don’t know.
  4. Always start with the artist statement.
  5. Always look at the work for a few minutes before you comment.
  6. Let the artist talk and take notes for them. They will thank you for giving them there words back to them.

Still a lot of great things in class yet to come. I’ll and a second post with more things that we have learned in the next few weeks as the class wraps up.

November 20, 2010

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