The Art of the Critique: Restoring the Conversation

A Little Rant on the Junk Critiques Filling Photo Forums

Last Updated: April 17th, 2015

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Fake Examples of Bad Critiques Online

Constructive is nearly always left out of Constructive Criticism online. I hope you enjoyed my Comic Sans font.

Lately, I’ve noticed in many photography and art forums that the notion of critique has taken a hard turn, a turn where simply criticizing a shared image is the norm. Or, a single short sentence of ultimate praise, which is almost equally as useless. Add in the standard follow-up comment of “You should learn how to take criticism / You need to develop a harder skin” and we are watching the death of the critique. I believe it’s time to restore the conversation.

The truth is really two-sided. There is an expectation of the presenter of the image, as well as the person commenting, to do a little work in order to keep the conversation engaging, fruitful, and more typical of what you would do in your art school. In their defense, many people hadn’t taken classes and aren’t as familiar, so I’ll provide my own take on this lost art. Others may not fully agree with my approach, but I believe it to be a starting point.

The Presenter:

As the person seeking critique in a forum or group, it is your job to present us with some facts and history. Most importantly, your artwork is full of both “why” and “why not”, and it’s these decisions that shaped your final image. Before you share the image, write some notes that will tell us how you got there:

  • Why did you choose this angle? Why did you exclude other angles?
  • Why did you choose this depth of field over others?
  • Why did you choose the color or lack of color?
  • What was the story you hoped the viewer would get from your image about the subject?
  • What lighting did you use and how was it setup? Why did you choose this over other options?

This will at least set the tone and as a viewer, we can see if we received the story as you intended. Many of these questions will help you critique your own work for the future as you being to create it. You may find that you didn’t consider other lighting or angles, and this may bring on more creative experiments even without others helping you.

The Critic:

Even if a presenter fails to include some storyline and technical detail above, there is still a bit of etiquette involved in your comments. If you want to help someone and believe that your knowledge is worth it, then you MUST dedicate the time in crafting your response. If you do not have the time at that moment, it is not appropriate to “drive-by” comment, except in cases where you need a little more information from the presenter before you can comment, similar to the ones I’ve provided for the presenter above.

  • Focus on the decisions, ask the why and why not, the “had you considered” type of questions.
  • If there is anything you enjoy about the image, now’s the time to point that out and “why” as well. You may find that that is the message the presenter wanted, or you may find out that it was a fluke. Both will help the presenter moving forward.
  • Be sure that you are not simply imposing your style onto the presenter. I’ve seen comments such as “I would have made the lighting entirely soft and removed all that dramatic contrast.” If the presenter is going for drama, this does not help them help them shape their story. As an artist, you should be able to live within their style and see how you would adjust it if you were the presenter.

The Conversation:

What typically has followed in the quick image posting and quicker comment sharing is the battle of defending your position. Most of this is made easier if the steps above are taken so as to setup some sort of background for both parties.

  • As a presenter, you may get some tough love / harsh criticism. While I hope the reasons why are given, you may have to ask for more information as well. Do not expect all praise. Even if you get praise, ask for some specifics as to what they like/love about it. As stated earlier, you may find it’s something you did not do on purpose, but will consider for other art moving forward. Still, you must keep an open mind as there is no way you could account for all the thoughts and views others have on the subject. Things may sting.
  • As a critique-provider, the artist has every right to ask you follow-up questions if your comments are unclear. They may also respond to you with a “why I did not choose to do that.” This is not being defensive (mostly). You do not have the right to make a rude and unclear comment and state that it should be accepted. There are many times I have had to explain myself in group critiques when someone brought something to my attention. It is part of the conversation. You may not have known that they tried your suggestion, and just as we hope the presenter accepts critique, you must also accept the fact that your critique may be flawed as well. One opinion is not an absolute, so you must also keep an open mind when you participate.

Social media and the easy access to artists all over the world has tremendous benefits, but it has also allowed us to move too quickly in some sense. We share in hopes that we’ll get praise and honest opinions as to how to improve, but are not providing crucial information to start a real discussion. We also become rushed critics trying to prove our opinions are so important, but not important enough to warrant any real thought while writing our opinion. The goal of this all is engage in meaningful conversations, ones that will help us all in the future as artists.

Be sure to provide your own thoughts on this subject as well. I may have missed a few things and would love the conversation.


EDIT 1:

I’ve already gotten valuable feedback on this topic, and as promised, I am updating this to reflect those thoughts. I view forums and groups as informal critiques. The kind where we are all students in a classroom working on our own projects simultaneously, and taking a moment to share an image, prefacing it with our goals. I understand in more formal critiques and competition settings, you place your work out there for the world to see and hope it speaks on its own merit. We have clients or galleries to prepare for, and the idea of conversation is more for helping each other get to that final “Ta-Da!” showcase scenario. However, each forum and group should decide which dynamic they want, but either works better than the current one. A thank you to Tom Adam for some helpful feedback.

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