Requests for Critiques or Work Reviews

San Diego — Based on the last post concerning my (and other judge’s) observations at out first round of jurying entries to the International Photography Exhibit at the San Diego Fair, I have now received several comments as well as a number of emails from readers saying they would like to have a forum to get some critiques and reviews of their work with an eye towards getting better.  And the implication was that I should be the one to provide it.

On one hand I am more than pleased to see it.  It is encouraging to see readers understand that it is only through such events that we learn what needs improving and grow in our work.  But before I step up to the plate to look into providing such an educational forum, I would want to make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into.  So let me say up front, serious portfolio or individual image critiques are not for the thin skinned and faint of heart.  They are forums to find out things to improve not to just get stroked and purred over.

Years ago when I was trying to break in (cameras were carved out of living rock and hunks of native crystal was all we had for lenses back then…) I went to annual portfolio reviews for a number of years running.  I have to be honest here… I thought I was pretty good when I went to that first one.  And why not?  Heck my friends all bragged about me, Mom hung nearly everything I ever did on the fridge, everyone (well, in retrospect, everyone close to me, that is) told me how good my work was.  So it was with a smile on my face and an utterly unearned sense of confidence I went to the first review assuming I would blow the doors off of the reviewers.

And there they were, seated at a long row of tables, all of them pros of one sort or another.  Art Directors, Creative Directors, Designers, Professional Shooters, people of substance, quality, experience, and I was there in line, big grin on my face, ready to impress their socks off and feeling sorry for those other poor shnooks wasting their time trying to compete with the stunning work i was about to show.

I don’t think my heart would stand a complete retelling of the aesthetic bloodletting that ensued over the next few minutes, but let me just say I walked out crushed, bleeding from every ego-ridden pore, believing that perhaps I should sell my camera stuff and consider a field in something more suited to my abilities such as auto mechanics, mining, or custodial work, or just go back to being a rancher/cowboy or something where I could not embarrass myself so thoroughly ever again.

Simply put, I was devastated.  But after that first shock wore off, I finally went back and looked at those images again and read the notes my unbelieving fingers had written as issue after issue was spotlighted and flayed open for a large dose of salts during the session.  My goodness I had more problems in one shot that I had shots to show.  I had problems i not only had not seen, I didn’t even know they WERE problems.

It is truly difficult to hear such scathing views of your creative work and not take it personally.  These are your babies, you have given them birth and nurtured them into existence.  They bring back memories of wonderful, awe-inspiring events that never fail to make you smile.   So how on earth could those people, who were supposed to know what they were doing, have completely failed to grasp the sheer brilliance and stunning emotional power those images contained?  My world turned a little sideways and for a moment I was in danger of falling off, so deep was my sense of hurt, depression, and wounded pride.

But somewhere deep inside, the more I studied on it, the more I knew those biting comments were true.  Those leading lines DID sweep your eye right off the page.  That horizon WAS a little out of kilter.  That shot DID have distracting elements in it even if they were all fascinating to me.  In fact, it occurred to me, the more i review it, that every one of those horrid comments actually made a point.  So I got out of my bed a black depression, bound up the searing wounds to my pride and ego, and spent my time working on those issues.

At the next year’s event I was back.  I had worked hard and knew the work was better – I could feel it – but I was a little less cocky about it… a change in attitude soon to be proven correct.  This time it for was a whole different set of issues that my aesthetic soul was laid bare and scourged… but none fewer.  Not a stroke or compliment about anything.   Well, that is not quite true… they said I cut nice mats… wow.

It was not until the fourth try that I actually had the reviewer hold out a print and say that it was really nice… though they still found some small niggling thing to point out that could have been done better even then.

I noticed that each time I went back, there were fewer of the people from that first session returning though others had signed up to fill their places.  But I also noted it was those that came back over and over that were getting the gigs, getting their work seen and exposed, and that were, most importantly, getting better.

I also discovered that different reviewers were just as unique as the artists themselves.  Oh they all could see the basic level problems, but once past those, each saw the work with a different set of experiences, biases, styles, etc.  I learned to separate issues that were a matter of style (though in the commercial world that is important as well) as opposed to basic issues of technicalities and composition.  That allowed me to put reviews in perspective.  The hardest part was learning not to take any of it personally but that was critical to the processes and to my ability to use the input constructively.

When I have students come to me now outside of class and want more feedback I ask them if they are serious about their photography and truly want to make it better.  In class I am aware of issues that arrive in such a dynamic environment.  I do not want to let anyone feel like I have slam-dunked them in front of their friends and fellow students, or that I am picking on them.  I tend to try to focus on the positive sides and treat the negatives more generically.

Outside of the class room I am more comfortable digging into a print because by the time they do that the students know I am truly there to help them produce consistently better work.  At the heart of it all is the knowledge that if you can look back at work done even 6-months prior, and not know that you could now do it better, then you have stopped growing and learning and are on a plateau you desperately need to get off of.

If I were to decide to tackle this, I would want it to be worthhile for all of us.  Especially I would want it to be a forum where you could learn and grow in your art and photography.  And that means it could get a bit harsh seeming for all but those with very thick skin.  In an advanced class or workshop setting it is easy.

But in a web-based forum, I do not know all of you.  So some assumptions will have to be made and that is that you have submitted yourself to the fire because you want to be better.  I would love to have a cadre of “guest” reviewers so you could hear not just my thoughts but those of others as well.  And I would love to be able to take the time to do as I do in class, actually take the student submissions into the computer and show them what I am talking about as well as how they can accomplish it.  But that is all incredibly time consuming and I don’t know how many I could handle in a given period of time.

I do not know whether the time and cost of developing the web site to do it means it should be a subscription site or not.  All questions I have and to which I do not have answers.  But if you think it would be of value to you and you could partake in the right spirit, then I promise you I will give it some very serious thought.

Meantime, for those of you in the San Diego area, I will be giving three lecture/seminars at the San Diego Fair on June 30 and July 1.  They will be on HDR, Printing Canvas, and my favorite on whether Photography is an Art.

In addition to my presentations there are a number that are really worth considering.  The presenters are ALL professionals in their fields and some, like John Watts, Jim Respess, Ron Garrison, Jack David, for example, are friends and colleagues of mine with lots and lots of experience in the topics they are presenting.  These will be the most bang for your educational buck you will ever have put before you so if any of the topics interest you or in some way impacts your work then I cannot over emphasize how good these could be for you.

Besides where else for the admission price to the fair can you get a full day of insightful presentations and close by lunch stands with deep fried Twinkies?

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Requests for Critiques or Work Reviews

  1. Adam Johnson says:

    That’s why I like you as a person – I know you genuinely care and want all of us to get better. A subscription is a good idea, after all web hosting and storage are not free. Furthermore it weeds out the people that would be drawn to it only for the novelty of a pro critique and no real interest in digesting what is talked about.

    That’s why I also like the submission method I spoke of in my other comment. Maybe you can choose what to publicly critique based on what you think your readers will get the most out of. It would be difficult to oblige the hundreds of requests you would get a month and still do your day job. You could also limit the number of images submitted by each member to say, one per month?

    People need to understand that asking for a true professional critique in any creative discipline is the same thing as going up on American Idol and singing for Simon Cowell. The same thing. I believe you, David, would tone it down a bit, but honestly Simon is more polite than some of the universities guest critics that would attend my industrial design critiques a decade ago. If you aren’t prepared for that level of reality then keep posting on flickr and immensely enjoy photography as a hobby. Just don’t expect to get ribbons at the fair.

  2. wattsdigital says:

    What’s wrong with Simon Cowell??? Dave’s better-looking, anyway … 🙂

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