The Art of Giving Constructive Criticism

I have a very thin skin. I don’t take criticism well, personally or professionally. Over the years though, as a photographer, I have learned to deal with it.

When you live in a world where you are constantly being judged by your work, you cannot expect that everyone will like what you do. Sometimes criticism can be beneficial, helping you understand yourself and your work from another’s point-of-view.

Negative criticism is everywhere, and the Internet is crawling with it. “Your work sucks,” “Boring,” and “I don’t relate to it,” are all examples of absolute statements that do not invite a response and are not intended to be constructive. They are intended merely as put downs, and probably have less to do with your work and more to do with the ego of the critic.

In most cases these statements do not even address what part of your work is displeasing. The simple truth is that these people are not interested in viewing your work as much as dismissing it.

There’s a Reason It’s Called Constructive Criticism

When someone asks, “What you are trying to say?” or says, “I don’t see the relationship between your images,” or “It’s interesting, but … ,” they invite interaction. The critic is puzzled, curious or ignorant of what you are doing but still is leaving room for dialogue. It is not a closed-end statement.

Often a response on your part is all that is necessary to explain and clear things up. That is what communication is all about.

In some cases people may not like your work and tell you why. There is nothing wrong with that, and it can be a valuable learning experience. Actually, I like such comments the best because they tell you something you may not already know. People can look at the same image and have different opinions.

If someone doesn’t like my photographs it is interesting to me to know why. I may not agree, but I have a devilish curiosity how another set of eyes views my work.

Four Rules for Critics

Every now and then you may be a critic. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Take your time. Nobody is interested in a critique based on 3 seconds of looking at the photo.
  2. Be honest. If you do not like the photograph, say why. If you like it, say why.
  3. Be positive. After saying why you did not like an image, mention something you like about it. Most bad photographs are not 100 percent awful. Nobody wants his or her ego crushed.
  4. Learn the language of photography criticism. Gallery owners, reviewers and collectors have a language of their own. Learn it so you know what they are talking about. It will also prove helpful when you are the critic. Miscommunication can be hurtful.

The most important thing to remember is this: Not everybody is going to like your work. I often go to galleries to see exhibits that I hate, and wonder why that particular artist was selected. Obviously, the curator of the exhibit would not agree.

I look at winners in online exhibits and prefer an honorable mention to the grand-prize winner. I don’t like Picasso, and think Matisse was a much better painter.

That’s my opinion. Of course, it’s all personal. Opinions always are.

7 Responses to “The Art of Giving Constructive Criticism”

  1. all true i hate Fluffy critics.

  2. This article sucks.
    (Sorry, couldn't resist 🙂 )

  3. Criticism of any artistic object is subjective, even for those educated in the subject. I often finish a critique of an image with a disclaimer such as, ''...but then, that would be my image:'' Not only does it soften any negative impact, but let's the image author know that my opinion is my interpretation and not necessarily theirs.

  4. Constructive Criticism.. is useful in Many ways for eager Photographer...

    Once a Photo enthusiast replied to a comment like this "I share my photograph to this Facebook group for self satisfaction not for anybody's comments/criticism". .. What to say!

  5. Well after some time on the net it is obvious where you should park criticism and where you should keep comments to yourself. Most people who post pictures would love praise but hate anything that says it's not the best thing since sliced bread. Most constructive criticism is often time ignored. It does not help that too many people believe the lie that art is subjective. Maybe in the wild fringes but in the middle belt a seasoned eye can assay the worth quite readily. Older eyes do constructive criticism as a form of giving back, to keep in practice of seeing, well to stroke their ego.

  6. @Ellery - not always obvious. I recently saw a Flickr image with a subhead something like "Please comment and help me develop my photography" which I took to heart and commented (I liked the image or I wouldn't have bothered) suggesting, with some praise too, that the photographer might crop slightly and straighten the tiny off-kilter in the horizon. The next comment (NOT the author of the image and entirely unconnected AFAIK) tore into me for daring to offer an opinion, suggesting the author "follow his own instinct and not listen to fools". An innocuous remark over a crop? The images author emailed, thanking me for the comment, evidently embarrassed. I mention it only because I see this more and more; 3rd party offence, wanted or not. I've always sought out and taken on board reasoned critique of my work, but the net in general and Flickr in particular seems to rebuke anything short of gladhanding, attracting a type of especially weird proprietorial individual more concerned with being the loudest to praise than do anything useful. Weird.

  7. @Mark - well I guess this a trend there are people who are trying to stand taller by cutting down others. Or it could be a fine art student who really thinks he/she/undecided is God's gift to the world artwise. At the end of it all, we do what we think is right not how other people's reaction to what we do.

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