I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.
Douglas Adams (born March 11, 1952) first came up with the idea for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when he was traveling around Europe—inspiration struck when he was lying in a field in Austria, drunk. So long, and thanks for all the fish!
So here it is. The moment of truth. The meat of all the bones we’ve chewed on the last few weeks. It’s in light of everything that we’ve talked about, the principles that we’ve learned, the intentions that we’ve set, that we now look at the approach of critique. This is an old approach, that is covered in art schools, museum tours, scholarly books, book clubs, and anywhere else an evaluation of someone’s creativity is discussed.
Remember, we all want critique, feedback or constructive criticism. No matter what you call it the goal is to get better, learn and improve in our craft.
So there tend to be a few ways that people respond to a work and call critique. There is the what I’m going to call the “Facebook critique”. “WOW, Great capture”, “that’s beautiful, you should go pro”, “love it” and on and on I could go. If you post on social media you’re more than familiar with these comments. The truth is that these folks are just letting you know that they saw you on their feed while on the way to Aunt Bea’s. This might make you feel good. Having a million likes on a photo would look great; it’s just not helpful. It offers nothing for you to grapple with and ponder or challenge you to get better.
Next, there are those that are going to offer advice or direction. Let’s call this “critique disguised”. They often sound like this, “this is good but I would have shot a little to the left”. Again, this is just not useful in any way. They don’t know if there was a 5,000 foot drop to the left. There is no explanation as to why they would shoot there. Nor is there an explanation to why they are suggesting it. They offer an approach without discussing the why’s and how’s and specifics.
This is where the conversation comes in. This is the meat right here. It’s these questions, that come because of the critical thinking we talked about in the last article. These will initiate the conversation that comes with those questions that will challenge us, force us to grow, outside our comfort zone. They will ask us to challenge what we did and why?
How do we do this? Firstly, look at the work and see what you see. A literal description of the work at hand. Is it a seashell. Then recognize that. This shell is the subject. A mountain and lake, it’s a landscape. An older couple, it’s a portrait of some sort. Colors reflected in the water, it is an abstract. You get the idea.
Next, scrutinize the work, this might be a little bit of a harsh word. Because, it implies dissection, analysis, and intense examination. But that’s okay, It’s a good thing. Study it, explore it, consider what’s in front of you. Start with the intangible qualities. Where is, your eye drawn? Is it to the subject? Is there something distracting your eye? Look for proportion, lines, balance, forms, texture, shapes, patterns, repetition, rhythm, movement within the composition. Do you see these elements? What do they bring to the image?
Move on to the technical aspects photography. Exposure, DOF, rules of composition, like the rule of thirds, or the golden mean. Look at contrast, colors, saturation, luminance, color, and vibrance. Consider the shadows and highlights, are there details there? Should there be? Consider what choices the photographer might have made within the frame. Does it communicate a thought, idea, feeling, concept? The entire premise about critical thinking was to ask questions. So, ask away.
Now it’s time to come up with an evaluation, an opinion to take a position. Take the answers to everything you took away from the above process and form a fair, logical, cohesive evaluation. Come up with gentle comments of encouragement, improvement and open-ended questions, in preparation for the conversation that’s to take place. Focus on the artist’s intention and be helpful, informative and encouraging.
Then engage the artist. Talk through your thoughts, and see if what you are thinking helps or hinders the creator of the work that you are critiquing. It’s not a problem if after discussing your ideas that you come to understand your idea couldn’t have been implemented. Acknowledge that and move on. If you are trying to share a photoshop technique offer to sit down with the person and show them or do a skype session to show them. Ask permission to download their picture and process it and then repost it to show them what you’re talking about. It’s in the showing and trying that we will improve, and grow.
There is an added benefit of working through this process with people. That is we break through the barriers the were between us and build trust and interest in each other’s work. We come to understand what this particular artist’s work is like, what their style is like, and personal preferences. We become confidants and trusted sounding boards.
The ultimate goal here is to have an interaction about your baby, your work of love. This conversation should lead to ideas, suggestions, and improvements in not only the individual piece of art you are discussing but in your creative journey. This evaluation of your work is going to involve you expressing your thoughts with someone who has other thoughts. You both need to start utilizing some critical thinking.
When I first heard this term, I started researching it and came up with some pretty intense and deep articles, ideas, scholarly works that, quite frankly were beyond my comprehension skills. Papers from ivory league schools, psychological research, educational information and the kicker for me was the philosophic Socratic approach.
So, in the words of Lynyrd Skynyrd, “be a simple kind of man oh, be something you love and understand”; so I’m showing my age here. Maybe in writing this series of articles I’m realizing that I’m not a critical thinker. But I’m going to try to simplify it anyway. Okay, here it goes. You ready? Ask questions! That’s it! Find something to talk about, with another person. Talk about your work and their work. Look for information, answers and solutions. These last three need to be facts from trustworthy sources. Or come up with a counter argument if you feel it’s needed. Be honest about facts, and avoid your preconceived ideas and opinions.
I think that’s it. I’m sure you know the acronym, KISS? Keep it simple smarty! Ok so I made that up, because stupid just didn’t seem right after all that talk about being gentle.
Facebook, it’s what has become the norm
The social mediatization that has descended on our sociality in the last decade or so, hasn’t been kind to the art of critique. We all post our efforts on Facebook, 500 px, Viewbug, or Flicker. But Why? Are you just looking for a pat on the back? A thumbs up? A like? Or are you really looking for feedback? Honest to goodness thoughts and ideas about your efforts. Ideas that might not jive with what your thoughts are. In their very nature, these venues aren’t good environments for that.
You, as an artist, a photographer, a creative need to decide that you want to hear these comments. Until you make that decision you’re not going to be open to other people’s ideas, or suggestions to improve your work. You must want it, be open to it, seek it, and dare I say ask for it. Yes, you must ASK for it. Once you’ve come to that point, you will start to be accepting of ideas other than your own. I can’t emphasize how important this step is. It’s only by making ourselves vulnerable that we open ourselves up to accept what we might have done wrong, or how we might improve our work, or have our eyes focus on something that we didn’t see ourselves, though our monocular field of view.
It’s no wonder really. Ours is a labor of love, we share our heart, soul and being. If we are pursuing an art form, we find that we are pouring ourselves into our work. It’s a sacrifice that we willingly make. A sacrifice of time, energy, resources, and a piece of our hearts. We have an affair with it. We don’t want to lose it or have the nature of our relationship with it change. Sharing our work for someone else to make changes to, is a vulnerability, yet another sacrifice.
After all this work, do you really just want to post a picture and get a thumbs up, “WOW”, “great picture”, “nice capture”, “love it”. These are all the same type of responses, emotional, a quick way of letting someone know that they saw you on their way to aunt Mame’s page to ask how she was feeling. Or, do you want to open a conversation about your work? Start by asking for the constructive part of criticism. We are back to the asking part again.
You start this process by not only sharing a picture but telling the viewer something about how it came about. What you struggled with in its creation. What your goals were in making it. And then ask for specifics. Did I meet this goal? Do you have any ideas on how I communicate my thoughts better? How could I make that background smoother? Have you ever done A, B, or C in photoshop?
When I worked in sales one of the first things they teach you is to ask open-ended questions. Because this leads to conversation, and that’s the goal here. A dialog about your work. A two-way conversation about what you’ve created, how it comes across to others and how it might be improved. Learn the fine art of conversation.
Dealing with the Voices
We all hear it! That voice inside that we argue with. That relentless, nagging, pain in the a** that is always playing the devil’s advocate. We listen to it constantly. It’s the classic angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.
Devil: That picture is horrible
Angel: No, it’s not, it’s the best you’ve done to date
Devil: So, what’s that say about your past work
Lewis: You’re right I suck
Throughout my life, I have been more and less successful at quieting that voice. I’ve found that when that voice is still I can focus, learn, enter that state of flow. Where time seems to fly by and the productivity and retention is high. But if I’m engaging that voice, I am sluggish, distracted, and misled. That’s not to say that it’s all negative. More on that later.
There are any number of ways to silence that arguing chatterbox in your mind. It’s mostly just a matter of slowing down and being mindful. Bringing our attention to what it is that we are trying to do. To focus on the work, extending our effort to a single point. We live in such a fast-paced world that this can be difficult at times.
The classic meditation techniques help here. I’m not going to go to deep into this point. As it’s something that I’ve practiced on and off my entire life, in one way or another. But I think it’s worth noting that if you are struggling with those voices, it’s worth taking a minute to stop, empty your mind. And don’t allow yourself to think of anything, anything at all. Find a point on the wall and focus on that for 5 minutes. Or concentrate on your breathing, in, and out.
You’ve chosen this medium of photography and made a decision to pursue it. So, don’t quit. Don’t allow your mind, the antagonist inside to divert your efforts. So many people just give up when things get tough. It’s so much easier to sit in front of the TV or surf the internet, or Facebook. But that’s passive, we need to train our mind to be active, engaged, occupied, and involved. It’s a matter of showing up and doing. It’s that easy.
Quitting can come in two ways. I’m a crappy photographer, so I’m selling my equipment and never doing this again. The broader disillusion of the entire practice. Then there is the narrower more subtle view. I can’t ever get that nice bokeh in my portraits. I’m just going to focus on landscapes. This is where the critique and mentoring, and creative community comes in. The superhero swoops in and saves the day.
Once we understand that, we just need to keep working, making art, pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. It’s never been easier than it is right now. We can try something and check it right there on the spot. Accelerating the learning curve to be as fast as we want it to be. Google your favorite classic artist, you’ll find that there was study upon study, sketch after sketch, effort after effort. Writers, write and rewrite, draft after draft. It’s in the doing that we grow.
Now back to that voice. Once it’s calmed down and acting civil, engage it. You have a valid point of view. No one knows what you are trying to create better than you. When you are in that state of flow, that voice will be a productive, helpful guide. That voice can be as gentle and directive as anyone else offering critique. It’s a matter of training it to be so. To make it your friend. Take the time, teach it, restrain it and let it guide you into your creative visions.
The Why’s of Critique
Critiquing someone’s art, whether photography, painting, writing, or work performance is an art form onto itself. First, you need to understand why you are offering the critique.
These reasons would be the same reasons that you would ask for critique. You want to learn and grow in your chosen medium, might be the best reason and top of the list. We all learn and grow as artists and people in our individual ways. Some are visual learners, some are better off working in the field. Some can read and be self-taught. We all learn in all of these ways. But we absorb knowledge better in some of these ways better than some of the others.
For me it’s repetition. When I was in college, I would take my notes in class and then rewrite them into a more cohesive format. There were no computers yet, no laptops. It was the act of physically rewriting and reorganizing the information that made it sink in deeper than if I just listened to the lecture. I also did well if I researched and compiled information into either a paper or presentation. It’s the redundancy of gathering, organizing, and reiterating information that makes this process so effective, that information sticks in my head.
One might also be seeking critique to see if your message is getting across to the viewer. What are you communicating in your art? Is it a representation of nature? Then the question becomes does it reflect that serene feeling that you had while you were there, at the edge of the lake? Are you making a civil rights statement, at a black lives matter protest? Is that message coming across to the viewer? Are you working more abstract? What feelings are you conveying? The question then is, am I the viewer getting all this information as I look at your work? Are your layers and shades of blue speaking to a serene blue ocean and sky, or are you feeling the blues? Am I understanding that?
I was at a C&C meeting one day when I first started using HDR, high dynamic range photography. And a gentleman made a comment to me that I had all this ghosting in my picture. I got very defensive at first. I looked at the edges of the subject and the trees and shrubs that were at the base of the picture. There wasn’t any kind of ghosting! And those are the areas that one would find ghosting in an HDR image. And I asked him very suspiciously and defensively, what are you talking about? Then he pointed to the clouds that were very obviously doubled up. Every cloud was reproduced twice throughout the picture. It was a glaring oversight that I didn’t see. So, we often need someone with a fresh set of eyes to look at our work. You might see something that I didn’t.
Another reason to seek constructive criticism is that you might have a different perspective than I do. We all tend to see things through the tinted lenses of our own experiences, beliefs, and lives. No two people see the world in the same way.
Perhaps you’re struggling with something or you have come to a technical block that is inhibiting your progress or development. I’m sure there will be someone who knows how to move past that point. A technique in Photoshop or Lightroom. Or how to handle an exposure problem you have time in and time out. There are always better and different ways to approach an issue, roadblock or problem. Remember, there’s really nothing new under the sun.
One thing for sure we all need encouragement to keep moving forward! To keep learning! To keep perusing our chosen medium! This is more than likely the biggest reason we seek critique. We all want reassurance that we are improving and getting better. Inspiration comes from many places, and a common one are the people we are surrounded by. It’s here that we get a boost in our creative direction. The support that we need to move on.
If you are offering an evaluation of someone’s work, it needs to be for the right reasons. The reasons you want to hear someone else’s point of view. You need to offer it with the purest of intentions. With a gentle heart and words that meet the person where they are at. It’s only in this way that it can be accepted and applied. So, there is always an encouraging voice urging us to go on. A movement and development of the artist. Encouraging words, that stimulate and inspire, not tear down and discourage.
What Kind of Photographer Are You?
It seems to me that there is a trend of recently published books, “The Education of”, Or “What I learned in…” I read a book a while back about the education of a chef, and another one called “The Education of a Photographer”. And while I feel stupid admitting this, I can’t find the book about the chef, even on Amazon. The one about photography was a compilation of Lenswork magazine. But that’s ok, my points will still hold true.
There are a lot of reasons to take pictures. There are those that are very happy to use their cell phones and just keep their pictures in the cloud. Then there are those that are willing to go a step further and buy a point and shoot camera and maybe print out their pictures to send to family members to share the memories of a holiday or special occasion. Then perhaps the next jump up are the folks that buy a DSLR because they feel that this will give them better pictures. Out of that group there will be some that realize that it’s not a point and shoot world, but there is so much more to photography. So, a large portion of that small demographic will go on to learn the technical basics of capturing the world around them photographically.
But ultimately there will be a group that will come to realize that photography is a creative, artistic medium. Capable of being an art form. I want to set the tone for the next several articles that will look at critiquing our work. Let’s start by trying to define what it is we do and where we fit into this photographic hierarchy.
What constitutes art? Or for that matter an artist? The points that I’ll lay out here are not intended to be a definitive explanation or an all-inclusive definition in any way. But they are where I want to start in our pursuit of a description of what it is we’re doing.
Firstly, can art be taught? There are those that seem to think that we can all be artists. While I think that there is some merit to that idea, I also don’t think that everyone can be a great artist. An artist that will be remembered and honored. We can all learn technique, and theory. We can express ourselves and communicate our thoughts, ideas, and feelings creatively. But the next step after that becomes will that expression capture the attention of the viewer. An artist in the historical sense needs to at some point have a following, or audience that can relate to their work, whether that’s with their contemporaries, or in historical hindsight. I think the role of a teacher and the most he or she can do is help someone find their direction or voice. By asking the questions and raising points that will inspire, encourage, and challenge the artist to better express themselves. This probably falls better under a mentor than a teacher.
Defining Art – the value, production, expression, or domain, per aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary. So, by definition, (and connecting this to the post about objectivity and subjectivity) this is a very subjective pursuit. That’s how we end up with all kinds of crazy installations and exhibits. There are so many points of view and so many opinions that if you could wrangle enough people to understand your creations then it will find its place in the art world.
However, the creation of art is the ability to take your perspectives, insights, and awareness of the things, feelings, and people around us and express them in a tactile way. Whether that is sculpture, painting, music, poetry, theater or even photography.
It’s the job of the artist to facilitate the creation of their visions, opinions, ideas and thoughts into something more tangible then any of those nouns are. It’s the artist’s job to look, think, listen, and be aware of their environment, lifestyles, and feelings then express this filtered through their life’s experiences and present it their chosen medium.
So why did I start here? We as photographers need to experience an awakening to what it is we pursue. Where do we fit on the hierarchal scale that I started with? It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t a point and shoot kind of guy. I wanted to create. To show a piece of myself. That’s why the name “Peace of My Heart Photography” spoke to me so much. I wanted to be a creative. I wanted an outlet! Then much like the beatnik generation of Greenwich Village or the hippie’s summer of love at Haight Ashbury, or dare I say the f64 group of photographers, I wanted to gather like-minded folks together. To pursue our creative ideas and visions, and challenges. To learn from each other and inspire each other. Each growing and keeping ourselves accountable.
Knowing what it is we’re doing with our art, creations, photography, or whatever label you want to give it. It’s my thought that we take this commitment of an artist community to heart. Belonging to such a group will naturally give us a forum to receive and offer constructive criticism and critique and the opportunity to work and rework ideas. Not to yield, or sur-come to someone else’s ideas, but to hone our skills and vision as students and teachers to each other. To experiment in a safe comfortable environment that encourages us to grow as artists.
“Art is what we call…the thing an artist does.
It’s not the medium or the oil or the price or whether it hangs on a wall or you eat it. What matters, what makes it art, is that the person who made it overcame the resistance, ignored the voice of doubt and made something worth making. Something risky. Something human.
Art is not in the …eye of the beholder. It’s in the soul of the artist.”
Got up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. So, goes the classic Beatles song, “A Day In The Life”. I was reading a journaling book and one of the assignments was to document your day with pictures. Not a special day. Let’s face it, I’m an avid photographer, for me to photograph a day at the zoo, or anything I’m doing on the weekend is something I’m photographing anyway. No this had to be a regular, average day. Nothing special. Nothing unusual. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a regular, normal day in and day out representation of what my day is. So here it is.
When I was off for intersession, I had no problem getting up early every day. In fact, I like getting up early. Get out and do something, or take a class online, write, whatever I had on my plate for that day. But now that I’m back to work, I fight to get out of bed. I fight to get out of the house. And then I fight to get to bed early at the end of the day. So today wasn’t any different. Once I’m up and about it’s all good. It’s just getting started. Once up, I put on the local news and check the headlines and weather.
Then I get to it. Check the menu, get everything organized, and gather all my ingredients. Start setting up for the daily routine. The second chef comes in a half hour latter and the day is underway. After cooking my ingredients and assembling the pizza’s, calzones, three cheese bread sticks and anything else I need to do, my day starts.
Ther are basically two big rushes, one right at noon and another at 1:15 or so. This can be a little chaotic. On an average day, my floor can serve somewhere around 1000 people. Campus-wide it’s more like 3500 a meal, we’re in somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 meals a day.
But enough of the rant. Another thing that I like about my job, and didn’t realize I would see today, is the fact the students are always involved in different social awareness issues. This particular day and every Thursday through the end of March, they are selling bowls. Empty bowls to fill with soup for the local soup kitchen. Two dollars and fifty cents. They stand at each register and explain to everyone that come through what they are doing and why. They have a sign with graphics and collected about 100 bowls on this day. I am always encouraged with how excited and eager they are to help, and volunteer for a cause.
So, for now, that’s the goal. If I can stick out the next 8, 10, 12 years and be healthy and financially sound, the second half of my life is feeling good and giving me a direction after a long time of feeling like there was no direction in my life.
On with my day. I work till 4:30 most days. Wednesdays I have my photo club, Peace of My Heart Photography. Fridays I generally go out with some friends. A couple of nights a week I’ll out for a couple of beers. Such is the plan for tonight.
My destination of choice, “The Backyard Ale House”. Twenty-eight rotating beers on tap, good food, and friendly staff. While I don’t usually bring my laptop, on this particular evening I did. Most nights when I get home I’m online anyway, working on pictures, a class, the website, or just chores so I’m free on the weekend.
They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.
An architectural Detail is a small piece of the whole, yet it has the power to characterize and define the entire building. Details tell us what a building is; they are fundamental to the life and personality of a space.
When I was selling windows most of the work we did was replacements. So, the one thing that set us apart was that when all was said and done, everything matched. This fits into this because it was the details that made the difference. Details set the style, design, character of a building. This is what we’re looking for here.
So when this assignment came up I had an idea right away. There is an old building in downtown Scranton came to mind. The court annex is in an old factory. I told the story, that it was an old toy factory, but it was really a furniture manufacturer. The building has little sculptures of elves at work. I took a picture of each one, with the intention of working them into a creative work. The picture above was the finished image that was submitted for the project.
The gallery has different ideas efforts and pictures that I took on that day shooting downtown.
Any of you that know me know that I’m a big proponent of the philosophy “It’s not the destination it’s the journey that makes life worth living”. In my youth, I was a huge hiker and athlete. I know you wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but it’s true. I used to dream about hiking all 2000 miles of the Appalachian trail. While I’ve never done that, I have hiked it in every state that it passes through.
Hiking for me always started by looking up to the peak from the base of the trail. That can be intimidating. Looking up, seeing the height and big sky ahead of you. There was something of an explorer’s heart in that for me. But these hikes would always start at the base of the narrow trail. Then as you would begin, especially in the summer, when the trees were full of green and the underbrush was at peak, the sky would disappear and the trees would close in around you, often just leaving a narrow path where you would follow single file, one foot in front of the other.
This mountain, whether it’s a physical mountain, or a metaphysical one is not something to be conquered, but embraced. The trail pondered upon as you take one step at a time. The goal, prize, and destination might be at the top, but the path is under your feet.
This applies to photography in both ways the metaphor and the physical. Yesterday I went with some friends to a park. It was misty, raining, at times cold, and while we had a destination in mind, we took the path one step at a time looking around and examining everything around us and stopping to photograph things along the way. An ice formation here, pine cones there, bright green moss with its color-saturated by the moist mist and rich dirt it was growing in.
But let’s not forget that meta-mountain. That mountain of knowledge we think we’ll never be able to learn. Or the quality of our images as we compare our pictures to the millions of high-quality pictures on the internet. How about the learning curve for software? I allowed Photoshop to intimidate me for years. Then there’s the biggest culprit of all, gear lust. That longing for what we don’t have, that self-imposed mentality that thinking if I only had that $15,000 f5.6 800 mm lens, then I’d really be able to see that eagles eye. The technical mastery of our chosen endeavor, photography, creativity, connection. Whatever it is for you that gets into you head that makes you think you can’t do something.
The truth is we are spurred on by the destination. Looking up once and a while to keep the goal in mind. But the truth is, it’s the little steps that give us momentum. That propel us forward, toward that goal. The goal is at the top, but the path is under our feet. We need to take one step at a time to get there. We need to see what it is that’s around us on the journey. We need to head in the direction of the goal, and celebrate when we get there. The knowledge, the technical mastery, the experience along the way all adds to who we are. Enjoy, and embrace both the journey and the destination.