Sunday, September 27, 2009

Photography on the 'Net: the Unsolicited Critique

While I consider myself to be a tolerant and somewhat thick-skinned type personality, I've started to notice a growing trend in the online photography community that has forced me to create this self-fulfilling rant.

Over the years, I have become quite the stalker of photography related information on the internet. I myself have my own photography website, a Flickr account, a blog (duh), a Facebook account and on and on and on and on... I also read as many as 10 different photography blogs a week to stay informed on the latest technologies but also to learn from some really talented photographers out there. With the advent of the internet it has become so easy to display your work, to learn and to share your knowledge with others. This is where I've become a little disgruntled with the community.

First, let me make this statement. I absolutely have no problems with the critiquing of one's work. It helps us to grow as professionals and to perfect our craft. However what does irk me is when someone critiques another person's work when it wasn't asked for. I do realize that when you post a photo on the internet it can become a host to a menagerie of abuses. They can be stolen, used without your permission or any compensation and anyone can comment anything they want about it (generally speaking). In my humble opinion though, I believe this boils down to manners ...or the lack thereof.

When someone posts a photo of theirs on a public forum such as Flickr, Photobucket or Facebook, usually its because: they are somewhat proud of it, they want to share it with their friends/family, they are documenting a moment in time, they want to provide an educational resource or they simply want to show their work. Most of these public places where you can post your images, also have comments sections so that you can tell the creator what you think of the work.

Now while I agree that if you are going to post your work in these "public forums" you should be willing to accept the fact that some (or dreadfully) all of the comments you receive may not be positive. Personally, I have never minded a negative critique, but I don't think its appropriate to do so, unless a request for an honest critique has been made by the poster.

I think that most of the time, if someone has posted a photo on the internet, its because they thought it was reasonably good and liked it for some reason or another. Its been my practice that if I like a photo that someone has posted for whatever reason (and especially if they're a friend or someone who is just starting out in photography), I try to say at least something positive about that photo. I think it makes people feel good about themselves and builds a little confidence, even if its a comment as simple as "Awesome!" I try to be more constructive in my comments too if I can. If I don't like the photo, then I simply don't look at it, or don't leave a comment, unless that person is requesting a critique of their work. Even then, I try to find something I like about the photo, before stating what I think could be better about the photo.

I am constantly amazed at the rudeness of people who post negative critiques about other people's work, especially when it was not asked for. As hokey as this sounds, my momma always told me, if you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all. Personally, I think this is a philosophy to live by. It seems that good manners these days are not something that is practiced and its a shame. Why be negative to people and lower their self-esteem? There are ways to communicate with people without being demeaning. Almost all of the "public forums" that are out there, have a method to direct message someone without making it public. If you feel you need to critique someone's work, than for pete's sake, try that method first. Who knows, you might even make a new friend!

Photography to me, is an art. Just like any other medium of art, there are going to be works you like, and works you don't. Some people like different styles, techniques, subject matters and just do it to have fun. To say that you don't like a certain style or technique is quite fine (the world would be boring if we all liked the same things) but to negatively comment on someone's work, or about someone's work just because you don't personally like that style is in poor taste imho.

If you're a person who finds the need to critique others, then there are groups specifically for that. If someone is asking for a critique in a public forum, then do your best to be honest, but try to be polite and positive at the same time and keep in mind that while you may have skin as thick as leather, other people may not. With all the negativity in this world, why add to it? We can all get along and learn from each other without stepping on each others toes.

Don Giannatti of Lighting Essentials fame (known as Wizwow on Flickr), a photographer who's work and skill I really admire, summed my thoughts up best in a Flickr discussion group recently so I thought I'd share his insight:

"...I rarely critique work without having discussed the image with the photographer first. And I never offer unsolicited critique. I really wouldn't know where to start.

Without knowing the purpose of the photograph, the intentions of the photographer, the genre or style of his/her work, and whether they thought the image successful, what would I say?

Too dark? For
Need more space to the top? For who... me?

Critique without knowing the intentions, style and perspective of the viewer is not critique, it is initializing a set of personal parameters that one brings totally externally to the image.

And one can make images that mean nothing to one person and the world to another. What makes a good photograph is what one brings to the image as viewing it. Photography runs the gamut of styles from the nearly focused, deeply moody, dark and underexposed imagery of Matt Mahurin to the digital fantasy of Tim Tadder to the beautifully stark realism of Dan Winters.

Would we judge Mahurin's work with the same set of critiques as we would Winters? Surely not.

There is a famous Flickr page that can be found archived somewhere (I am getting to the airport now) that shows the absolutely incredible critique of Henri Cartier Bresson's "The Bicyclist". The image, acclaimed the world over and I believe is the highest paid image at Sotheby's, gets crucified by Flickrites for being in black and white and slightly out of focus and 'why vertical... and on and on.

So while I will occasionally note that I really like some image, I do not nor will I ever, offer negative comments. I don't know what good it does, and without a discussion back and forth it is simply "I woulda done it this way..." and of course that isn't critique. I would rather keep my mouth shut and be thought a boor."

I couldn't agree with him more! Ok, that's my rant for the year, and the next post will be something worth reading ...not just me venting. =)

Keep in mind, this is just my opinion, and its ok if yours differ ...just realize that I am right and you are wrong. ;)


Jacki said...

I agree about the rudeness. It seems as if people loose their civility while hiding behind a computer.

Pam said...

John, I know where you're coming from. I've fallen victim to a few unwelcome critiques. Thankfully, they were via flickrmail and not publicly but it was still annoying. It's always the same person and it's someone that we have multiple friends in common and it seems like said person is comparing my work to our mutual friends and that person doesn't understand that I'm not trying to be on the same level as them. I realize that person is trying to be helpful but it makes photography not fun when you get comments or emails about what you're doing wrong. If I wanted the critique I would have asked for it, personally, I like living in a bubble where I'm an OK photographer! Heh-heh.

Alice said...

Well said, John. I agree that constructive (tactful) criticism can be helpful, but the bitter, snarky, rude comments that people post online these days is becoming exhausting. Honestly, that's why I quit participating in the LPC. The handful of rude people on that site far outweighed the enjoyable people. The rude ones were always way more vocal. When I realized I was just grouchy after visiting the forum each time, I realized it was time for me to leave. Which is a shame because there are a lot of really cool, very talented people there. (You, Jenn and a few others of course are the ones I do enjoy hearing from.)

Thanks for your blog post and for giving everyone something to think about.

Ted @... you know the one. said...

For those interested, here is a link to the critiqued bicycle photo mentioned in the quote... although it appears that some of the shameful people have since deleted their original comments. If they weren't losers before for leaving the rude comments, they are now for not owning up to them...

Elizabeth C said...

I stumbled upon your article while doing some searching on how other phtoographers handle unsolicited critiques. This is a really well written article on the subject. I've had numerous (some rude) critique comments that were completely unsolicited lately, and it's been really bothering me. Maybe I need to put a disclaimer up on my flickr images... :)

Anyway. Nice article and nice blog. I'll be keeping up with you along the way now.

John said...

Hi Elizabeth,

Thanks for sharing your opinions and views. It really solidifies what I think a lot of other folks feel as well.

Unfortunately, the internet being as "open" as it is, I think this is probably just a "nature of the beast" and will have to be tolerated as long as photographers want to share the work in public forums and websites.

I still feel its a shame though that people use their computer to hide behind when voicing their opinions and lack the common courtesy of considering other people's feelings before leaving comments.

Thanks again Elizabeth and may the patience be with you! :)