the art of the critique

The Critique

The critique process is one of the most underestimated learning tools available to photographers. Coming from an original meaning of "critical examination or review of the merits of something," this provides and understanding of what makes compelling artwork attractive, both from the perspective of the artist and that of a broader audience.

However, the process may not be for the faint of heart; requesting a critique can leave an artist feeling vulnerable, the critic on the other hand may feel unqualified or afraid to face the possible disagreement of others. However I feel it important to overcome such reservations as the process provides so much opportunity for growth.

But what is the process of critique, and who should participate?

A good critique should provide an artist feedback on all aspects that strengthen or diminish a requested image, and include the emotion/story the artwork evokes. All of this is on the understanding that art is extremely subjective and that the contributor has the ultimate decision in following their own artistic taste.

The Process

First off I want to dispel any feeling that you have to be an expert to provide feedback on images. In my book as long as you have a set of eyes, an opinion and a willingness to help others that is qualification enough. In fact feedback coming from a perspective free of preconceived ‘rules’ can be just as valuable as that provided by a seasoned critic.

Following is my view on how an evaluation should work, and the feedback that should be presented to the artist. In ALL cases this should be done both with sincerity and with the intent of helping the artist.

Feeling

Enlarge the image to full screen - take at least 10 seconds to view and ‘feel’ the image (no analysis at this point). Acknowledge that initial reaction - describe an overview of what you see overall, how the image makes you feel.

Seeing

Start with identifying the positives in the image. What do you feel strengthens the image (composition/processing etc). Be sure to include a number of positive elements to balance the perhaps easier to spot flaws.

Move on to the negatives. Identify key elements that diminish the image. If these vastly outweigh the positives above focus on one or two of the most obvious flaws, consider those where you can offer correction steps. If in doubt show restraint with negative comments.

Thinking

What changes do you think can be made that might make the image stronger (eg cropping, color correction, removal of distracting elements etc)?

Closing

Finish the critique with an overview of the key points you have covered. Be sure to state that your critique reflects your own artistic taste and that this may differ to that of the artist/others. Other suggestions include thanking the artist for being open to critique, indicating that you are looking forward to seeing a re-edit of the image, or future works by the artist etc.

The Benefits

So now we understand the critique, where is the payback for the time that has been invested?

Benefits for the artist

  • like it or not, our personal images contain an underlying emotional element. They capture a snapshot of the environment and experience we felt at the instant the shutter was triggered and can have a strong influence on how we feel about an image. Other viewers are decoupled from this emotional element (unless perhaps captured adequately and included in the image) and are free to analyze on the basis of what is presented in front of them.

  • we learn how a broader audience reacts to our work, the resulting feedback can aid growth

  • through experience we become better critics of our own work, thus promoting growth both technically and in our confidence

Benefits for the critic

  • offering critique forces us to not simply react to an image. This require us to to pause and investigate, dissecting and understanding the elements that strengthen or diminish images.

  • performing critiques subconsciously influences our own work in a positive manner

  • we become better critics of our own images, resulting in a higher quality output

  • we learn the ability to decouple the emotional attachment to images, to stand back and view artwork as others would.

The Guidelines

With such growth potential I would recommend that all embrace the critique process. Here are a few brief guidelines to help make each participation successful;

  • respect the viewpoint of others and be open to disagreement - there is no right or wrong, only opinions

  • all comments should be well-intended, clear and sincere - remember the goal is to help one another grow

  • consider the feelings of those you are critiquing. If you are unable to comment on any positive aspects within an image then don’t comment at all.

  • invest the time into providing a meaningful critique. Help others understand what you feel and see in an image - brevity such as “I like it” is little help to anyone without understanding the ‘why’..

I guarantee that being involved in the critique process will result in significant growth and provide a better understanding of the diverse viewpoints we all hold.

truth in photography

A question that often comes up that I hear asks if a photograph is ‘real’, or whether it has been enhanced in any way. My immediate answer is “does it matter?”

Many look at photography and see it purely as a snapshot of reality, misunderstanding the art-form that it represents. Yes, in some forms (ie photojournalism, documentaries) a photograph needs to closely represent the sight as seen, especially so if the photographer identifies images as a true representation of fact.

However, in most cases images are created with the sole intent of providing visual appeal - in that respect then it is up to the photographer, to provide their own artistic impression to an image.

Is this cheating? Compare that to an artist - here a painter may perhaps paint a wonderful landscape, but do they paint exactly as seen, or do they leave out unsightly elements, add drams to a sky or make a sunset more vibrant etc to enhance the finished product?

Photography should be viewed in a similar light (excuse the pun) - in this case most often the ‘artist’ composes and captures a scene, having to remove elements that detract from the composition, and adjust other elements so they fall into the overall balance.

“But what about Photoshop?” I hear you say. Granted, the old masters did not have access to such digital tools, but do not think their images were manipulated any less. Yes, they could not merge images or add components, but every single print they made was adjusted heavily in the darkroom and before, starting with the choice of film and lens, the type of paper to print on and the chemicals to do so and the dodging and burning, all to create the desired look to the final image.

So again the question - if you see a wonderful image that takes your breath away, does it really matter that the photographer/artist worked creatively to produce such artwork? To me, that is the art of good photography.

Jamie Windsor covers this so well in his following YouTube video - view and draw your own conclusions;

Are these photographers CHEATING?

a need for inspiration

The early days of a New England winter can only be described as largely uninspiring, producing drab landscapes accompanied by increasingly shorter days. At this time I find it hard to get motivated, my creativity drifts into hibernation, craving for an environment that provides interest. This self-imposed hibernation ends as we enter the new year as winter storms start to become the norm, bland vegetation becoming covered by an accumulation of heavy snow and fresh wet powder highlights tree limbs.

Such was the case on this mid-January day. Following two days of perpetual snowfall the New England landscape was transformed from drab to fab, releasing the creative juices within and the desire to explore this winter wonderland. And although the lighting may not have been ideal for the most part that day it just felt so good to get out, to explore and enjoy a glorious day.

Are the resulting images world-beaters? Perhaps not but they are a true reflection the splendor witnessed at that time and a constant reminder to me of this enjoyable outing.

— click on images to expand —

abandoned - an adventure in old

Another wonderful find during a recent road trip. This abandoned home was discovered when driving across the back roads of Maine, and one that certainly caused me turn back and investigate.

The home has so much character, from the weathered exterior, to a partially visible inside and the irony of young trees growing against an aged wooden frame. Gently falling snow provided a challenge but resultant streaks add a sense of coldness and drama that I feel adds to the image.

— click images to enlarge —


'tis the season - a case for repeat visits

I was looking at the work of an admired photographer recently and was struck by the comment that he never revisits a scene. While I understand the view that a sole visit helps maintain focus and the need to get it right the first time I feel that attitude leaves so much on the table;

1) Planning. Even when paying the utmost attention to detail it can be extremely challenging to fully determine image quality from the camera LCD panel. The possibility for improvement may not be understood until the processing stage, and this may drive a plan for a return visit.

2) Timing. We are all aware of how lighting conditions impact images, but we also need to consider weather and seasonal conditions (does the weather reflect the mood of the image, do cloud details add/subtract from the image etc). With all things considered I feel a photographer would have to be extremely lucky to capture ideal conditions on their first visit.

3) Variation on a theme. Of course repeat visits are required if the photographer wants to capture a subject under varying conditions (before/after, time lapse, moods, seasons etc)

For my own workflow I like to scout and take test images, and use post production to drive decisions on follow up visits. This may not always be practical (eg when traveling) or even needed of course but I do try to keep my options open.

Following is a series of shots I took over the period of approximately a year. this is a place I have hiked on multiple occasions. The first image is one I took for reference - image #2 the result of waiting for the appropriate conditions (snowstorm) and #3 just because I thought autumn may provide a different perspective.

a state of disrepair

Throughout my travels I am struck by the number of buildings that are either in a state of severe disrepair or are abandoned altogether. Structures that are insufficiently protected can quickly deteriorate over a harsh New England winter and it is a fact of life that many are left to succumb due to the need for perpetual upkeep.

However, such objects can provide a wealth of character and interest. A project dear to my heart is to try and capture the essence of these beauties, whether abandoned or just in a state of disrepair, and before they disappear from the landscape.

I plan to add blog entries as I finding structure or objects of interest, so check back for updates.

car No. 707

This weathered train car was purchased and moved with the intent of opening as a diner, plans which unfortunately never came to fruition. Now it lies in a state of sad dereliction alongside a busy road in Grand Isle, Vermont.

According to research, the Rutland Railroad car No. 707 was either a parlor or a smoker car (not a passenger car) built by the Wagner Palace Car Company of Buffalo, N.Y., most likely in 1891. It’s 70 feet long, weighs more than 30 tons and has the unusual design feature of three — rather than two — six-wheel trucks, presumably to increase passenger comfort.

an early invitation to winter

One week I’m out dashing around tying to capture the glorious Vermont Autumn and the next - snow!

I had planned to take time with a friend to go shoot remaining autumn foliage images featuring Mount Mansfield (Vermont’s highest peak) as a backdrop. Although the weather was not great for photography (clear skies) I found the thought of shooting in reasonable temperatures appealing (after freezing taking pictures the night before). I always look at the opportunity to feel my fingers when shooting as a bonus:-)

As we headed toward our target location it quickly became evident that a passing storm had dumped snow on the higher elevations. This led us to rethink a little and after hiking our intended spot we headed to the hills. Sometimes the best laid plans need to be changed to make the most of the prevailing conditions. All in all a fun afternoon spent with good company in beautiful surroundings.

—click on an image to enlarge —



a fall morning in Belvidere

Fall/Autumn in New England is such a spectacular time of year - the eyes are delighted by a feast of color as deciduous foliage turns red and gold. During peak season I prefer to stay away from the iconic fall sites in Vermont (and the chance of crowds of ‘leaf-peepers’) , opting for locations that are a bit less traveled and peaceful.

Thus I found myself at Belvidere Pond, a secluded spot a little north of Cambridge Vermont. Having left home before daybreak my hope was to capture peak foliage lit by early morning sun. As is so often the case however, Mother nature had a plan of her own. Working under a cloudy and flat sky all I could do was to scout compositions and awaiting improved lighting conditions.

On the plus side there was absolutely no wind, resulting in a glass-like pond and the chance to capture some stunning reflections. In the end my patience paid off, my quiet time waiting for light interrupted only by the sound of Loons on the pond and a flock of Canada Geese rising from their rest as they head south for the winter.

From the images presented you will see my journey , from the early morning atmosphere of rustic colors under rising clouds, through to images with sun breaking through clouds and spotlighting bands of foliage

All in all it was a very relaxing and tranquil morning, and images aside the beauty and stillness of nature left me feeling refreshed and ready to face the world.

— click on an image to enlarge and see details —

seeing in black and white

I love the rich monochromatic creations of the old master photographers; their work has an unsurpassed quality, their techniques continue to be replicated across generations. But in a modern world where color is so so readily available why do black and white images continue to excite? The fact is that restricting a view to black and white provides certain advantages. Removing the distraction of color results in texture, contrast and composition becoming more pronounced, enhancing the underlying character of the image. Monochrome images also present an alternative and often interestingly new view of our familiar world, in fact many photographers are so enamored that color is not an option for them.

One of the more abstract skills in photography is the ability to 'see' in black and white. Scenes with high contrast/bold lines may make it a little easier to imagine a monochromatic result but as the human eye/brain is more sensitive to certain colors (red, orange, yellow) others can produce results that are much harder to predict. The advent of digital images and processing presents the modern photographer with infinitely more flexibility than those who shoot film (with film type & speed fixed for each roll, filters planned and added in advance) but nonetheless creating interest in black and white from what we see in color remains a challenge.

That is not to say that B&W images should be valued in any way above their colorful counterparts but the next time you view such work do so with an appreciation of the effort and skill involved to reach that result.

I would be interested to hear the views of  fellow photographers - do you have any tips & tricks to share on your process for producing black & white artwork?

see my artwork at the Darkroom Gallery

As mentioned elsewhere my image 'Lady of the Woods' is now on display at the juried ‘Trees’ exhibition hosted by the Darkroom Gallery in Essex Junction, Vermont.

The gallery is displaying all finalists through 28 October 2018, with an artist's reception on the 13th October at 4pm.

I would highly recommend a visit if you are in the area. Click HERE for a link to the Darkroom Gallery

Click on image to open full size in a lightbox

the story behind - 'Hestitant Step'

This is a story of a marriage between 'lady' luck and 'master' planning. The intent of the image below was simple - to capture an interesting rock jutting out of the lake, with a long exposure softening distracting details in both water and sky.

Unfortunately, as I set up I found the rock occupied by a group of boys using the rock as a jumping point. No problem - I set up and fired off some test shots to ensure settings were optimal prior to the installation of a 10 stop ND filter.

Then it was a matter of waiting............, and once the boys drifted off to their next exciting adventure I had the rock to myself.

It was only after reviewing the images at home that I realized that I had captured a young lad as he was hesitant, seemingly pondering the jump ahead. Whether the timing was dumb luck or an innate sense I can't say, but I feel that merging both fast and slow images produces a result that is far greater than the sum of each individually.

BTW - each time I look at this I see a face in the rock, almost squinting toward the boy. If you see the same please contact me and let me know that I'm not going crazy (or at least not alone....)

The Hesitant Step

 

 

beach stroll

Following are images captured on a Maine beach during a short family vacation. The light that day was terrible - a scorching sun beating down from a cloudless sky. Great for lazing in the sun but challenging for photographers.

Nonetheless, I was up for the challenge and found a stroll down the beach looking for images both relaxed and rewarding. You never know what you might find, so keep that camera ready!

click on images to enlarge

 

 

a visual perspective

Who do you take photographs for? While this may sound like a simple question it is often one of the most difficult to answer. Many shoot with a goal of capturing meaningful moments to share or archive, or perhaps to fill a directive from a client.  My own passion led me to seek out subjects of interest or beauty but after early results being questioned I found myself following a subconscious goal of creating work to please others rather than myself.

A subsequent change in mindset now allows me the freedom to create artwork to my own liking, to experiment and to display as I see fit. Do I care what others think of my work? - ABSOLUTELY. However I feel that it is more important to remain authentic and true to myself,  and am content with viewers forming their own opinion. Strangely it is only after changing to this mindset that I started gaining the recognition and validation from others that I sought for so many years prior.

So my question to you is - who do you take photographs for? - for the appreciation of others or to satisfy your own creative desires?

Let me know, I would love to hear your feedback and personal experiences

Update Sept 2018

I have just come across a blog entry from an admired artist, requesting critique of an exquisite image. A concern expressed by the artist was that although he enjoys the image and is encouraged to create more he feels that such artwork rarely sells. A viewpoint returned from a 2nd respected artist indicates that although the image may not sell, it is ART, and something to be proud of.

This goes back to my original question/dilemma - are we taking pictures for the benefit of others, or creating art that satisfies perhaps a smaller audience, but most importantly OURSELVES?

Rocks in a calm tide

photography for fun

AKA - images from a fun trip to North Dakota....

As a fine art photographer, it is easy to become overly focused on a final result and perhaps a fear of producing work that inadequately reflects our vision. I think it is good to step back from time to time and reflect on what attracted us to  photography in the first place - not just for the one image that captures both imagination and heart but the joy in the process of creating images purely for the fun in doing so.

Family vacation is a perfect time where this lighter approach can be followed.  Although temptation surrounds us spending time with family and friends at this time is paramount - planned photographic trips are replaced with opportunistic captures as we explore new environments, the pleasure derived from planning and executing a vision replaced with spontaneity and an acute awareness of the world around us at each moment in time.

Such a time was spent during a recent trip to visit our son in North Dakota. Traveling with only the bare essentials the camera joined us on every adventure, capturing both memories and scenes of interest as discovered. An added bonus to me is that my son, Sam, has become interested in the art which enabled us to spend quality time shooting together.

While resulting images may not be exhibition quality they perhaps more importantly, capture a wealth of memories and added an extra element of fun during the visit. Following is a selection of opportunities encountered during our visit. Feel free to feed back comments or your own thoughts - I'd love to hear from you!

Click on the images below to view full-sized, then hover over for narrative.

 

 

 

 

inspiration or replication?

I have come across posts from a couple of photographers recently which suggest that we should avoid viewing the work of other artists in order to develop our own creativity. That's an interesting concept - this would certainly prevent us from being overly influenced by work we appreciate, but without access to artwork that inspires then I think we are limiting our own growth potential.

I do see cases where photographers have (subconsciously?) fallen into the trap of replicating rather than being inspired by the work of their heroes, but I think there needs to be a balance. My feeling is that we need to appreciate the work of a variety of great artists and draw inspiration from each in order to better evolve our own style. Working in isolation may work for some but I believe this can only work after having already built a solid foundation to build on.

Returning to growth; a second article referred to viewing one's own work over a period of a year. A suggestion is made that if you have grown as an artist in that period there is a good chance that you find your dated work less appealing than when first produced. If this is the benchmark then I certainly feel that I have grown in that period, not only on the technical side but on the style of work I produce . The question in my mind is how did that growth come about? Was natural progression demanding a more discerning viewpoint, did it come from being inspired by the viewing of other great artwork, or was it a bit of both?

What are YOUR thoughts? Would your own creative voice have developed if blind to the work of others, or would it be perhaps more unique?  

 

highlights magazine

In conjunction with Exhibitions Without Walls (EWW) I have created an interactive online magazine that highlights my work. The magazine can be viewed by clicking on the image below.

Again, I need to give many thanks to EWW and Ed Wedman in particular.

interview with Exhibitions Without Walls

I am honored to have been recognized for an online interview with Exhibitions Without Walls, an international organization that promotes photographers and digital artists.

I would recommend frequenting this site in general as it continues to unearth rising artists and bring to you great work that may not be seen otherwise.

My interview can be found via the following link;

Interview with Exhibitions Without Walls

In truth the questions really made me reflect on my approach to photography and feel that I have come out of that with a new and refreshing perspective.

Many thanks to Ed Wedman and EWW in general for discovering my work and providing this opportunity.

the story behind - larger than life

These images of the late Leonard Cohen hold a deep emotional tie for me. All were captured during a weekend trip to Montreal; one of those weekends you plan to get away from your everyday life and see other cultures.

Adding to our Montreal 'todo' list my wife had suggested visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art, where they were exhibiting 'A Crack in Everything' - a tribute to Leonard Cohen on the first anniversary of his death. I knew little about Cohen as I entered the museum (other than perhaps his writing of the song 'Hallelujah') but the exhibit and his life story left me deeply moved. Understanding how his battle against depression, lost love, and outlook on life shaped his words formed a deep impression. I could see why this son, poet and songwriter of Montreal was so revered and missed.

It was on a visit to another Montreal museum on the following day that I came across this towering mural. The 9-story painting covers over 1,000 square meters of a high rise building, inspired by a photograph captured by Cohen's daughter, Lorca. The weather that day was an unforgiving mix of snow and freezing rain which I feel casts a fitting and somber mood to the scene.  

These images for me act as a reminder that life is not about sitting at home but getting out there, exploring and finding new inspirations - whether that be from beauty in the world we see or the story of some old guy that speaks to your inner soul.

In parting I'd like to finish with some of my favorite poetic lyrics from one of Leonard's songs - 'Dance Me to the End of Love';

"Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love"

-Leonard Cohen

Rest in peace Leonard - larger than life, even in death.....

 

 

 

time for reflection

When traveling I like to dedicate time to exploring opportunities that may not be available in rural Vermont. In truth I just love spending time with the camera and the discovery of new and interesting elements.
Such an opportunity arose during a recent weekend trip, where a glass building caught my eye. With an exterior of mirrored windows the building offered an array of reflected imagery, the content changing with each step and through time as lighting and weather conditions evolved. 

Had I not captured an image of note I would have been happy with the quiet time spent exploring and observing the developing scenes. That said I am pleased with the results, a few of my favorites being displayed below.

I'd love comments on how you feel about the images in general, and whether any in particular catch your eye.

Thanks!

the story behind - from pain comes gain

It was not my intent to take these images that day, nor was the idea of heading to the beach at noon under clear blue skies. Unfortunately fate had thwarted plans for an early morning/later afternoon session as my son had broken his leg just days earlier slipping on a wet rock. However, at the prompting of my wife to take a break from patient care I thought I'd at least scout ideas in the hope of a chance to return before our vacation ended.

As I approached the beach I couldn't believe the conditions; a thick sea fog enveloped the beach with the glow of the sun producing a beautiful ethereal glow on those waiting it out..Foreseeing the fog lifting I rushed the length of the beach capturing what I could, some of which I present above.

So my gain comes from my son's unfortunate accident, but it just goes to prove that we never know what is around the next bend so we best be prepared