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The Art of Self Critique

Editors note: Last week our guest contributor talked about being honest with yourself in regards to your abilities and interests in photography (see post here). Today we’re taking the honesty topic a little further… guest contributor and photography teacher Melinda Hurst Frye talks about critiquing your own work, which no doubt must be done honestly as well.

Assessing your own work, or self-critique, is one of the hardest things to do as an artist. (Insert mental image of the tormented artist here). Critically looking at your own work can be emotional and maddening, especially since important reflection needs to happen when work is fresh and, gulp, vulnerable. The spectrum can range from feeling that you are creating work that is unforgettable and epic, to feeling that the same work is painfully boring and overdone.

Another pitfall in critiquing personal work can be your own emotional tie to an image, outside of the image’s content or intent. Have you ever photographed a friend or a scene on a day when everyone had a lovely time, but the subject was overexposed or poorly composed? A great challenge in that situation is to recognize when the emotional attachment is stronger than the visual success of the image. We artists can get hung up on the experience of making the image, as well as the people involved, and forget to place ourselves in the viewer’s shoes. Does the image have impact and why?

 A focused visual voice comes from recognizing what is working and understanding why, which is rooted in understanding what is not working and why. So how can you separate yourself from emotion while evaluating your work and not feeling like a robot? What we need to be able to do as artists is to lean on selected assessment methods. These methods are not intended to divorce the artist, you, from the work or eliminate any emotional ties, however they are to help you recognize what is and isn’t working in your own words and on your own terms.

You can have craft without art, but you can’t have art without craft
First and foremost, how is your technique? Technically speaking, if you can’t let go of an image that has a clear issue, then you are putting lipstick on a pig when defending the work. If your image is out of focus, under or overexposed, too low of a resolution for its application; bag it. Assessing your own work requires you to be objective and recognize when your exposure or focus may be off, or a weird, distracting element is in the frame. This can be super hard, but your work will be stronger if you can identify and do away with the technical issues.

Is the content clear?
After the work has passed your technical scrutiny and the image measures up, then it is time to move on to what the work is about. Photography is a visual language, and as an image maker you are speaking to your viewer, sharing your point of view and even acting as a storyteller. Consider distilling your intent down to the basics. This not only opens up the conversation and the viewer’s interpretation, but also frees up the artist. By having a more succinct message to deliver, you are able to explore that idea from multiple angles. The more elaborate of a message, the more complex the delivery of that idea becomes, and often times the intent is simply lost on the viewer. Thick plot lines can be tricky in the still image. So, ask yourself, ‘what is my intent?’ Is that coming through in the image? Is something watering down your message to the viewer? Or is the intent clear, and how can we recreate that in another image?

Say it visually, not verbally
Assessing your imagery for what it is actually communicating, requires that you share the image to learn how it is being received. Fight the urge to over explain the work’s intent, and allow the viewer to have his or her own experience. If you are compelled to explain and defend the direction of your imagery, you are missing the point of your own imagery. Ask the viewer questions about what they are or are not responding to, rather than telling them what they are supposed to feel. If they are not pulling out the concept that you had hoped for, don’t blame the viewer!

Go with your gut
It is important to show your work to others for feedback, and to listen to that feedback, as well as listening to your own gut. Do you have an image that is, by your definition, spectacular? If you have gone around and around, and you must have that image in your portfolio or a specific body of work, by all means, keep it. Possibly sequencing your work differently will allow the viewer to see what you see.

Perhaps you do not have another image that sets up the image in question to be well received yet. In this case, make imagery that helps to tighten up the series.

On the other side of the coin, your gut can provide valuable insight when an image is not resolved or should not be included. Does your stomach sink when a certain image pops up, and you pray that your viewer will move on soon? That may be a sign to revisit that work.

Live with your work
You need to spend some serious quality time with your work. We have entered an era when it is common to view imagery on a screen and less in print. However, this has diminished living with our own work on our walls, and assessing it throughout the day. Viewing your work in print and not on screen is a different experience; slowing down your critical eyes, allowing you to pull out details that were overlooked when the image was on a screen. Print out your images and hang them up all over your home, hang them in your bathroom, kitchen, wherever. Looking at your work in various moods and contexts will not only strengthen your self critique, but may lead to new ideas of what to shoot in the future!

Assessing work requires the artist to be honest with him or herself about technique and concept – which is the hardest part. Don’t make too many rules for yourself, just be candid about what is and isn’t working. Share your imagery with others for feedback and really, really listen. Finally, make the decision yourself.

Melinda Hurst Frye is a photographic artist and educator based in Seattle, Washington. She holds an MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design, exhibits regionally and nationally, is an active Society for Photographic Education member, and teaches photography at the Art Institute of Seattle.

all photos © Melinda Hurst Frye

One comment

  1. I love this post, and I definitely miss critiques from my school days. It’s helpful to be reminded of some of these things since I don’t have that element anymore.

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