This morning I read an interview with photographers Alex and Rebecca Webb (you can read it HERE). The first question the interviewer asked was what Alex and his wife look for in a photographer’s portfolio. The answer is fairly pat:
“Both Rebecca and I look for something unique, something that suggests that the photographer is discovering something different than that which we have seen many times. It can be a different way of perceiving the world, it can be a different subject. In a world in which we are all assaulted by all kinds of images, we like to see photographs that are unique and different, that express that which is unique about that photographer.”
If you’ve ever heard someone who reviews work talk about what they look for, it probably sounded something like this. But the reason I took the time to write about this quote is that I think there is some insight here for photographers who have had, or are hoping to have, their work viewed and criticized by someone.
Essentially, what can be gleaned from this comment is the fact that no matter who is looking at your work, you are going to get a biased critique. The bias is based on where the reviewer has been, what they’ve seen, what they like to see, what they hope to see, and so on. That “something different” is completely dependent on the extent of that reviewer’s experience looking at other photographs. Thus, it is a largely innocuous premise for judging photography.
There is plenty of work out there, some of it getting a lot of attention, that is banal and hackneyed. Meaning, there is a lot of work that gets attention for being unique that has certainly been done before. But, it gets attention because the person responsible for showing it feels that it is unique work to them. It is something that they personally had not previously been moved by (or recognize as a style that is currently popular so they’re jumping on the bandwagon). This is going to be true of anyone critiquing photographs. Whether they’ve seen a lot of photographs or not, the fact is, they are going to have a bias based on their personal experiences with photography.
What matters in making photographs, then, is the ability of the photographer to infuse “that which is unique” about themselves into their work. This means really thinking about why you are photographing this subject, in this way, at this time, with this camera that you are using (this is not an exhaustive list of questions you should ask yourself, just a starting point). What does it mean to you to make this work, and how does that affect your approach? Maybe the style of photography that you are working in has been done; maybe the subject has been shot a thousand times over; maybe the general idea behind the work is cliche; but what really matters is putting yourself (your thoughts, feelings, attitudes, etc…) into the work, somehow. Making it personal will make it more profound.
This is certainly not the final say concerning the experience of photographic criticism. It is just an insight based on witnessing photographers, including myself, face the intimidating table of the reviewer. Criticism is not something to shun. It should be embraced. It helps give you a perspective on what you’re doing that you may be too close to your own work to see. But it is always, and necessarily biased. Which means, the more criticism you get, the greater the pool of advice you have to drink from.
Finally, the amount of criticism you seek should probably be in proportion to the size of the audience you hope to reach. With greater audiences come more varied perceptions about what your images convey. The more criticism you seek, the better idea you will get as to what those perceptions may be.
Whether the feedback is positive or negative, the greatest armor a photographer can wear is the knowledge that what they made was made for, and uniquely of, themselves.