How To Give A Critique (Part 1)

This article was first published on wearejuxt.com. To see the original article and images that accompanied the story click here

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.
–Frank A. Clark 

cake-3As artists producing work in the world of photography, we all want, we all fear, and we all rely on the critique, more importantly, the result of the critique—constructive criticism. And yet it is one of the most misunderstood, poorly practiced, and guarded of treasures. We look to our peers, our mentors, friends, family, and sometimes unsolicited strangers, for their honest thoughts and opinions of our work. So what is it about the critique that makes people so uncomfortable? How can we go about conducting a constructive critique in a way that helps everyone grow emotionally, and professionally?

The reason we ask for critiques is because we know deep down inside our work can be improved upon on one level or another. We all want to see our work evolve, elevating to a new level. We want recognition that what we are attempting is successfully communicating the intended message, and if it’s not doing it properly we want to know what we can do to make sure it succeeds.

I’ve always been in awe of the critique. Most people want it yet shy away from sharing it as if they will suffer some great torture at the hands of the photographer for sharing their thoughts. The blind stares, one-word answers, and strange soliloquies that dance around protecting one’s creative decisions from their reviewer’s honest opinion exist in a space of confusing absurdity. I honestly believe people have an easier time critiquing their friend’s failing relationship than their creative endeavors.

All too often I hear of slanted critiques that fall on one side of the fence or the other—someone only giving positive feedback, blowing sunshine up someone’s ass. Or, nothing positive is said at all leaving the person mentally broken with nothing to strive for. Both of these are tragic, and do nothing to help develop strong storytellers.

As an educator, mentor, and professional photographer I have been learning the graceful dance of giving a critique, pinpointing both the positive highlights, and, negative shortcomings of my students work while managing what peers are saying to help everyone get the most out of the experience. And yes, you heard me correctly, I said ‘negative.’ The critique is an art form, as subjective as photography itself. It is a fine balance between the positive and negative, and the informed and personal opinion. Believe it or not, people do benefit more from hearing the negative.
Nowadays we are conditioned to take a critique as being one word answers or short phrases such as “cool,” “awesome,” “great,” “cute,” “nice light,” and the use of thumbs-up emoticons, and other gibberish. Ask yourself, what is the real takeaway from responses such as these? Often times this is where the process ends. Without out proper constructive criticism we learn nothing of ourselves. Our work. Or how we can improve as storytellers by receiving this strangely seductive 21st century ego stroke.

So what is a critique?
According to thefreedictionary.com, ‘critique’ is defined as ‘the art of criticizing.’ Moving one step further,siting the same resource, ‘criticize’ simply defined means to ’to judge or discuss the merits and faults of.’ Pay close attention to the word ‘discuss.’ What I want you to realize is that a critique IS a conversation, a two-way road driven by give-and-take. Like photography itself, the critique is a form of communication in which we are inviting the audience to engage the image(s), start a dialogue about the work and processes, and share thoughts and experiences with each other with the intention of learning more about who and why we are.

I’ve had my work critiqued by some really amazing photographers. Some famous, others less known who have poured their passion and experience for the craft into the critique in hopes to help cultivate another strong storyteller. And I have had my work critiqued by some real cards who were far beyond jaded, caring nothing for the person sitting across the table from them, or for the further development of the craft. So what I am about to share with you is a culmination of what I have learned over the years not only as a student ravenous to devour as much knowledge as I could from my photography heroes, and my like-minded peers, but what I have learned along the way translating my past experiences to critique the next generation of storytellers in the classroom.

You’ve been asked for your opinion. Now what? So, you’ve been asked to critique someone’s photography. First of all, feel blessed. This person cares enough about you, your skills, and your opinion to ask for your help. Before accepting the request, ask yourself, “Am I knowledgeable on the subject or genre I am about to critique? Or am I just highly opinionated?” For example, looking at the We Are Juxt Art Critique forums, I would probably not volunteer to critique the ‘Mobile Artistry’ community. I am a street photographer & documentary photographer. I know nothing of the apps one utilizes to create these amazing images, or the subtle nuances involved in the Mobile Artistry workflow. I could tell you what I think looks “cool and awesome,” and why I feel that way. But what good would that do you?

The critiquing process relies on asking questions, engagement, and answers. So ask some questions. Get to know a little about the person, their thought process, and their image(s). Ask the person what they are specifically looking for. This is very important. Photography cannot be properly critiqued without knowing who the intended audience is, what the person is hoping to accomplish, or a clear idea of what exactly they want from you.

OK. So lets get to why you’re really reading this, The do’s, the don’ts, and the how-to’s

What TO do

  1. Ask the person what they are hoping to get out of the critique. Are they lost, seeking direction? Or are they only looking for insight on how to polish, or further develop the work?
  2. Inquire about their work. The critiquing process involves asking questions. Who is the intended audience? Why did they create this image or series? What do they hope to accomplish with it? This will help you can gain a better understanding of what you’re looking at, and how you might relate to it.
  3. Take your time critiquing the work. Give the person your undivided attention. Take time to look at their work. Step aside, come back and look at it again before sharing your thoughts to make sure you are comfortable with your feedback. Treat it as if it was your own.
  4. Invite the person to ask questions as you go. This only applies if critiquing over the phone or face-to-face. Remember, a critique is a conversation between two people. Make sure the person understands what you’re saying.
  5. Relate to the work by sharing a story. People like to hear that their heroes and peers have lived and learned the same experiences both positive and negative.
  6. Reference another photographer’s work. This is extremely valuable to the learning process. Introduce someone to another photographer’s work.
  7. Look at the [objective] technical qualities: focus, exposure, contrast, quality of light, color, DOF (depth of field,) composition, framing
  8. Look at the [subjective] emotional qualities: Is the subject clearly defined? Is there emotional appeal? Is the story or concept well realized?
  9. Make sure your critique is clear and easily understandable. If you’re doing it by email type it out in a word processor. Sit on it overnight. Revisit in the morning before sending. Read it out loud to yourself.
  10. Suggest ways to improve or correct the issues. I like to call it ‘the take-away.’ Your suggestions are what will help the person grow. Believe it, or not, they will remember you for the suggestions you give them.

What NOT to do

  1. Do not ignore a request to critique someone’s work. It is an awful feeling to be ignored, especially if it’­­­s from someone you admire. If you are uncomfortable, or for some reason cannot find the time, or are unknowledgeable of the content let them know that. And don’t give a half-assed excuse why you can’t critique their work, like “its hard to critique such a personal story.” These sound like cop-outs and don’t help anyone. Remember the golden rule. You know, do unto others…
  2. Do not start with the negative.The critique is all about first impressions, and how you set the stage for the discussion. This is something that I’ve found a lot of students do. No one benefits from it. Find something positive to start with.
  3. Do not assume that everyone has a “thick skin.” Everyone reacts to critiques differently. Some people are very sensitive about their work and may have never had experienced a critique before. Sometimes people feel that any comment less than positive is an insult to their very soul. How you present your feedback, and knowing a little about who you’re critiquing will serve you well to navigate.
  4. Don’t be silent. The person is looking to you for insight. If you can’t find anything positive or negative to say tell a story, ask a question. Dig a little deeper. Take control of the situation.
  5. Don’t forget there is another person on the receiving end of your critique. Don’t talk down to them or ride a high horse. You may just learn something from the person and their work.

The Critiquing Process
Now that you know the do’s and don’ts lets talk about the how-to’s. When critiquing I always try to start with something positive, something the person did right—something that is ‘working.’ Then something that needs help or is lacking, followed by suggestions of how they can potentially fix it.  Remember, the ‘take-away’ is very important here—what you want the person to question and hopefully explore. There have been times when, for whatever reason, I was not able to find anything positive to say about someone’s work. This happens. It can feel dreadful—puts us on the spot. Embrace it as a challenge. Just as there is always room for improvement, there is also always something positive to compliment, even if it’s something as simple as, “your choice of working with this subject shows your dedication to addressing this issue and telling its story.”

What I look for when critiquing

  1. Architecture of the frame (elements form visual triangles in the frame, simply; all of the elements feel good and are well positioned.)
  2. What’s happening on the outer edges? (Are there any distracting elements that distract our eye from the subject?)
  3. What is the subject? And, is it clearly in focus?
  4. Technical [objective] qualities (see #7 above)
  5. Emotional [subjective] qualities (see #8 above)
  6. Did they show their image some love? Curve adjustments, sharpening, color corrections?
  7. Can they clearly describe their work or concept?
  8. Color or black-and-white? What is their rationale? “Because everyone else is doing it doesn’t cut it.”
  9. Is the moment spot on or did they miss it?
  10. Does the image have a clear voice? What is it trying to say?
  11. Does it leave a strong first impression?
  12. Does the image have a caption? Does it help, or distract from, the image?

Conclusion
Giving a critique is not always easy. Similar to photography it requires a little time, patience and a genuine curiosity for life happening around you. By reviewing a person’s work you are playing a significant role in helping them to develop skills to create better photography, in the end contributing to a better, more sophisticated photographic world, all the while helping to build a strong sense of community. So pay attention to who’s sitting on the other side of the work you’re about to critique and remember you were there once yourself. You might be surprised to find yourself asking them for a critique next time.

In part 2 of the Art of The Critique, I will discuss how to find the right person to critique your work, how to receive and interpret a critique, and other things to keep in mind to make sure you get exactly what you want out of it.

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