How to take criticism
Taking criticism is an artform. It terrifies many people, but should not. We crave feedback, but criticism comes with baggage. It takes years to learn how to cut through the b/s and get a good review versus some of the horror stories I have heard over the years.
You might not know your reviewer, where their head is at that day, or if they had an argument with their partner this morning. The day they are having can totally affect your review. I’ve seen people give consecutive reviews that were on par with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By that I mean they were absolutely mental one day and perfectly level the next. If you take their bad day to heart, it might do you some damage. So here are a few survival tips. And instead of jumping over the moon at every compliment or selling all of your gear if they don’t like your stuff, here is a look at how I take criticism through two reviews of my work by the folks at LensCulture. This is part 1.
What to expect from a review
Critiques are nothing new to me. I’ve had my drawing, photography, sculpture and paintings reviewed nonstop since I was in my early teens. The feedback has been everything from “oh my god that is amazing” to “are you sure you really want to be an artist?” Keep in mind this is all done to test your willpower. Good, bad, or indifferent, the best thing to do with criticism is learn to tease out the useful stuff and disregard the opinion, conjecture, and outright junk. All reviewers are different, but photo-people tend to say the same things in reviews. I’m telling you this so you know what to expect and how to skip through it. As you read Lens Culture’s review of my work, see if you can spot them.
“I want to see more.” Always, always, always…unless you have laid down a flawless set of 200+ images, reviewers want to see more.
ADVICE: Nod, smile, and tell them you are still working. The funny thing is, you might only be able to submit a limited number of pictures, so they might be reviewing a selection because that’s all there is at that time. Asking for more is a knee jerk reaction from most people. Try not to fault them for it.
“I wish there was more explanation or context” or “I wish more was left up to the imagination”
ADVICE: Some people like to learn, while others like to fill in the blanks. You will get one or the other in a reviewer. Figure out who you are dealing with and ask them to elaborate…what more would they like to see that would make it better for them, or what should be left out. If they don’t tell you what they want to see and why, the critique is worthless. Reviewers need to substantiate everything they are saying…why? Because that is the purpose of the review.
“Do you know the work of so and so?”
ADVICE: Reviewers are usually academics first. If they are into photography and not a photographer themselves, they usually went to school for it. Which means, when they look at pictures, they think about research. It’s a tendency that was hammered into them. For you, as the photographer, it is good to know about other people doing similar things, even if the connection is loose. You want to know your market. Take notes and if the connections aren’t clear, ask where they see a similarity.
“Can you develop this part more”
ADVICE: Be careful here…take input, but don’t make work to please them. Unless they are funding your project, they are only one person. I’ve seen people give reviews and ask photographer to develop the most absurd niches of a project that are barely relevant because the reviewer has a personal interest in that area. On the flip side, I’ve seen reviewers point out some connections the photographer missed and it ended up coming together beautifully.
To put all of this into context, here is Lens Culture’s review of my new project “Zen in the Art of Archery (after Herrigel)” See what you can spot and let me know if this was helpful in the comments below.
Lens Culture Reviewer Feedback
You have quite a compelling and engaging project here. Thanks for sharing your series looking inside the world of Kyudo with us at LensCulture. Of the many photography documentary series I have looked through, you have hit, (no pun intended), on a unique story to tell. And it’s connection to “Zen in the Art of Archery” adds extra interest. I strongly encourage you to continue and put in the work necessary to take it to the next level.
Overall – I want to see more! While you have some strong photographs here, it feels a bit like a first visit to the space. Are you able to go back? Repeated visits are truly the way to uncover unexpected moments and gain a more complete picture of the practice of Kyudo. You almost want to go so much that you get bored with the space and the practice – that is often when the more nuanced and evocative photographs begin to surface. You have a strong natural feel for portraiture, with image 1 being a standout example. The woman’s gaze and gesture are compelling here, but it is the light that really makes this image. Wow, the light in the space is fantastic – what a photographic gift! And you are using the light quite well in all of your photographs. Keep considering how it shapes and transforms the space as you continue photographing. On a compositional note, though, I think more space around the woman would make the photograph even stronger. The crop on her sleeve and the bow feels just a bit awkward. Push yourself to vary your framing and composition a bit more and see what evolves.
Image 2 is quite a strong photograph as well, while I see where you were thinking with including the full 1-2-3 sequence, there may be other ways to show the full arc of the shot, without being quite so specific. Of the three, I would keep photograph 2 for sure with her expression and the framing it is set apart from the rest. You have quite a good eye for detail and your instinct to include moments such as 7, 8 and 10 is spot on. Keep looking to incorporate details as you continue photographing. I like where you are headed with image 5 as well – good idea to use the mirrors as a compositional element. More than that though, it gives the viewer a new look at the Kyudo practice and process. Look for more moments like this when you go back.
Also, I’d suggest revisiting your statement a bit here. At the moment it is descriptive of your personal interest in the project and connection to photography and Cartier Bresson, but it doesn’t give much of a framework about Kyudo. Or what might have struck Cartier Bresson in particular as he read “Zen in the Art of Archery”. A quote from the book itself could be interesting to incorporate. Above all – do keep going with this! I see a lot of potential here and certainly hope to see more!
- Doing Documentary Work, by Robert Coles
- Crusade For Your Art: Best Practices for Fine Art Photographers, by Jennifer Schwartz
- How to Assess and Edit Your Photographs by Karen Marshall (seminar leader)
- Photo Editing and Presentation – Douglas Holleley
- The Artist Statement: How and Why to Write Yours, by Jennifer Schwartz
- The Photography Workshop Books (especially, Larry Fink and Mary Ellen Mark)
Other Photo Competitions to Consider
Portfolio Reviews to Consider
- Photolucida (USA)
- FotoFest (USA)
- The Annual New York Portfolio Review
- PhotoNOLA (USA)
- Center’s Review Santa Fe (USA)