This time last week, I wrote about our “inner critic.” Of course, the criticism doesn’t stop there. Part of our growth, regardless of whether we’re expressing ourselves with a camera or a Fender Telecaster, is finding someone to give an honest critique of our work; that growth continues when we’re approached to do the same for another person.
To begin with, let’s consider this from the viewpoint of the person who wants their work critiqued. Here, there are a few things to keep in mind: First, it should be someone who knows photography well enough to give not only an aesthetic critique, but also a technical one. On one hand, you may have a perfectly exposed but dull shot; on the other, you may have a terrific subject that’s undermined by poor focus or thoughtless composition. Someone who’s inexperienced might find it perfectly acceptable, or may realize something’s “off” but not be able to tell you what it is. Second, it should be someone who will be honest with you. Your best friend, or your mother, may not want to hurt your feelings;* an experienced critic knows how to give constructive feedback without being unduly harsh about it. Third, be specific as to what you expect from your critic. The criteria for evaluating the artistic merits of something versus its commercial viability, for instance, can be two very different things. The better your critic understands you, and also understands what you’re trying to accomplish, the better they can help get you there.
Having considered the photographer, let’s now consider the critic. Someone respects you, and your work, enough to think that you’d have something constructive to offer them about their craft. So be honest, obviously, but also be constructive. You know what your inner critic is like; you don’t need to externalize yours, or personify someone else’s. Saying, “Wow, that really sucks!” isn’t helping anybody; pointing out not only the flaws but their remedies, however, can teach both of you something. Think of yourself almost like an Olympic judge: you’re looking at technical merit, artistic impression, and giving an overall “score.”
Be encouraging; if there’s something you see someone doing well, whether it’s in just one photo or over the course of a batch of them, point that out, but be specific, since empty praise is about as helpful as empty criticism. Account for differences in communication style. Regardless of your “type,” (blunt, oblique, timid), hash that out ahead of time so there are no rude surprises. Most of all, though, if you’re not sure of something (intent, context, the photographer’s motivation not only in what they did, but how), ask.
One thing that both photographer and critic need to bear in mind is context. A single photo may be great, or awful, on its own merits. It helps, however, to know where this piece fits in relation to the rest of someone’s body of work. If it’s part of a series, does it make sense in the context of the rest of the photos that comprise that series? And if it’s being considered as an individual work, does it mark an improvement over previous efforts, a decline, or someone who’s holding steady? If you’re the photographer, you’ll likely get better feedback if you don’t just hand, or email, someone a single picture and ask, “What do you think of this?” Likewise, as the person giving the critique, it’s not unreasonable to ask ahead of time for works from different times in the photographer’s development to be included, so that it’s easier to give an informed opinion.
There’s an axiom that criticism says as much about the critic as it does the object of the criticism. Bear in mind that your approach to someone, and their work, may be remembered long after the specifics of what you said have faded from memory, and with that in mind, try to be the kind of critic you’d no doubt like to have: constructive, tough, but fair. Also remember that you’re being asked to give an assessment of the person’s work, not the person; you may think the person themselves is absolutely wonderful, but they still might not be doing their best work; conversely, you don’t have to particularly like an individual to see, and commend, the value of what they’re doing. And if you feel you’re not the right person to critique someone’s work, there’s no shame in directing them to someone you feel may be better qualified for the job.
*Of course, there are exceptions. If you’ve got the kind of friend or family member who not only knows what they’re talking about, but will share it constructively, at least you know they’re not blowing smoke if they tell you something’s good. My mother’s been a photographer for longer than I’ve been breathing, and while she’s encouraging, she’ll also let me know when I could do better, and how to do it. If you’ve got that kind of mother, disregard that last bit.