5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It sucks.” – Elements of Practical Critique: Part I

Rain_on_Wrights_Creek_Redoux_tmb
Rain on Wright’s Creek (after applying the judges’ suggestions) copyright 2013 Paul Vreeland

I entered a version of the image above in the 2013 PEI Photo Club Annual Show in the Black & White category.  The judging of the show took place a few days before the exhibition was installed at The Guild in downtown Charlottetown.   Three competent professional photographers, invited to serve as judges, had been given access to the digital images well in advance and had been instructed to give ample comments –critiques intended to help photographers to learn how to improve their craft.  The evening of the judging was the first time they had seen the actual prints, all about 8 x 10 mounted on foam core. The images were laid out category by category on tables for their assessment. I was among the club members in attendance, listening closely to the judges’ comments. (The judges, by the way, had not been given the names of the photographers.)  My image, “Rain on Wright’s Creek” was eliminated  early; it was one of the first to be put aside. “Nah. It’s been sharpened. It’s over-processed,” said one judge answering the rhetorical question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Another judge agreed. “A softer treatment would have served it better,” answering the question, “How can it be improved?”

I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed.  I liked the way my eyes would not settle, but jumped from raindrop ring to raindrop ring, much in the same way as they did when I had stood on the banks of the creek. And while I was disappointed—a disappointment that was heightened when the image that I had submitted in the next category was also quickly eliminated,  I was also heartened by the comments. I knew I could go back to the image and work to improve it. In less than a minute, I had learned something.

Learning is at the heart of critique.

If you want to learn how to write, you have to learn how to read. You learn from reading, reading, reading and from writing, writing, writing. You cannot improve your craft without continual learning, and the best, most relevant source of learning is from the skilled critiques of trusted fellow writers. If you want to learn the art of photography you have to get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot, study the photography of others, and learn to give and receive meaningful practical suggestions.

Before discussing the elements of practical critique, I’d like to discuss two things I have learned about the nature of critique:

  1. Practical Critique is neither praise nor condemnation

Several years ago when I took up my pen and dedicated myself more seriously as a writer I joined a writer’s group. Since that time I have been a member of a few different groups. In each of them, however, the members took time to study the work of another member and to offer comments to help the writer improve. But when I joined that first group, I was looking for praise.  I wanted others to ooo and ahh say things like “wow!” and “Hey, that’s great.” When I moved beyond the need for praise, I wanted the comments and plenty of them. I took the critiques home and re-worked my pieces.  I may have moved beyond the need for praise, but I have not overcome it; I’d be lying if I said I don’t want praise.

Praise may feed my ego, but it teaches me little. Similarly condemnation teaches me nothing,  but it is much more dangerous. It serves no useful purpose and can kill my creative spirit. (See 5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You It Sucks below.)

I had an idea of how to critique a short-story or an essay and I did my best to offer constructive criticism.  My first writer’s group met every week and I was blissfully happy with it for the first few sessions. Then a member brought poetry. While I had written the occasional poem, I had no idea how to critique poetry. I fumbled. I didn’t give the poet her due. She gave me her skilled and considered suggestions, but I was unable to reciprocate. I signed up for a course in poetry writing with Sue Goyette ( http://writers.ns.ca/members/profile/87 ) through the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia. I became a better poet, and I began to learn to critique poetry.  As much as I wanted the writer’s group to help me to become a better writer, my experience with it taught me that I had to give as good as I got. In other words, if I wanted help in becoming a better writer, I had to learn how to give a better critique.  Which leads me to point number two.

2. There is no such thing as gratuitous critique.

Writers and photographers and unnumbered artists of other media post their work on the web. I’ve cruised the communities on Google+ and I’ve looked at sites promising forums for photo critique. I have posted my work to Picasa, Flickr and 500px accounts. I have seen many fledgling artists upload their work begging for feedback. And what I find, in the case of photographers, is an abundance of dim praise and a dearth of positive and/or negative criticism.  When it comes to writers posting on-line, I’m sorry. but I’m not about to give freely of my time to read the work of a stranger, let alone take the additional time to compose a thoughtful list of suggestions. My time is not that free. And so it is with most other artists. The posted appeals for critique go unanswered.

Writer’s groups work, or at least the most of the ones I’ve been associated with do (okay, my first group was a disaster, but that’s another story) because it takes face-to-face time to build knowledge and, more important, trust. Knowledge of the others’ competence as writers will determine the credibility I give to their critiques. If I truly admire a person’s craft as a writer, it is most likely I will give his/her comments about my own work more serious consideration than the comments of a person whose writing is, for me, questionable. There  have been times when I have gone to accomplished writers in my community and have asked for more detailed critiques, and writers have come to me for the same.

It takes time as well to build trust.  The writer’s group to which I presently belong (TWiG—The Writers in Group), is a safe, comfortable environment in which I feel free to reveal myself by sharing the drafts of my precious creations. And I am comfortable with the feedback I receive, because I trust the other members’ intentions to help me.  I dare say, there is a great deal of love among us; we share a sense of common vision and purpose, and we are aware of ourselves as a community. I doubt that this can be accomplished among on-line strangers.

If you want serious critique, you have to pay your dues. You have to earn trust and credibility, and you have to give as good as you get. For these reasons, I believe the face-to-face meetings of photo clubs can be the greatest resource for practical critique.

There is no such thing as gratuitous critique, and outside of a well-groomed photo club, gurushots.com is the best place I know to learn about the art of practical critique. If you want detailed critique from the professionals at gurushots, you pay a modest fee.

And, as promised, here it is:

5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It Sucks.”

  1. “It sucks,” is a form of condemnation and condemnation serves no useful purpose.
  2. The desire to create is a spiritual gift mirroring the impulse of the divine. My job is to enkindle the flickering flames of that desire with a kindly tongue and practical advice. What right do I have to extinguish the fire.
  3. Condemnation does not build trust or contribute to a sense of community and common purpose. If you want to lose your membership in the artistic community, offer condemnation. The reciprocity of the Golden Rule applies.
  4. Condemnation does not accept the pursuit of artistic development; it does not accept the potential and possibility that my work can/will improve.
  5. Saying “It sucks,” reveals more about my ineptitude than it does about your craft.

Coming up: Part II – “Every Image is a Lesson.”

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