"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change."
Are you intimidated by critiques and reviews of your work, whether solicited or not? If so, you’re not alone. Sharing creative work—especially when we are emerging artists or the work comes from a very personal or emotional place—requires a great deal of courage and vulnerability. Art is how we give voice to our thoughts, ideas and emotions. And so we tend to take it very personally. It can be hard to separate our creative work from our identity, though we should always keep in mind that they are not the same thing.
During my recent photography workshop, we spent a lot of time reviewing work. In fact, a good hour and a half of every day was devoted to doing so as a group, plus I met with each student individually. We also had a few discussions about the critique process itself—in particular, about how helpful it can be when done right and how intimidating or even detrimental it can be when done wrong. That’s not to say that there’s only one way to do a review; there’s not. But I do believe there is an attitude that we (both reviewer and artist) can bring to the process that will allow us to be more inquisitive, more creative and more open to artistic growth.
Of course, feedback on our work doesn't just come through formal critiques. Learning to listen openly to the comments of others—whether a reviewer, teacher, customer, another artist or someone who casually strolls through our booth at an art festival—can give us unique insight into what others see (or by lack of comment, don’t see) in our work. Sometimes, especially with teachers and reviewers, those comments may be technical in nature and can lead to better execution of our concepts. Or perhaps they help us clarify our concept or focus our direction. They can help us better recognize our strengths and areas for possible improvement. They can give us a nudge in a more promising direction if we’re feeling uncertain about our work.
We can also learn why people who enjoy our work are drawn to it. By engaging in a conversation, asking questions and listening to their answers, we can often discover things about our way of seeing or expressing ourselves that somehow eluded us, yet rings a strong bell of recognition when we hear it. Such conversations also give us an opportunity to practice talking about our work, learning to tell the stories that give the work more meaning or help others connect with it in new ways.
As someone reminded me recently, we can’t hit a home run every time. Every shot we take (painting we make or poem we write) doesn’t belong in our portfolio. As photographers, we may shoot many thousands of images in a year and add only a few to our portfolio. What is it that makes these images special? Can we perhaps approach the review process by trying to imagine what might have kicked our recent work into that portfolio category, so that we can be more prepared to create or capture such images when those opportunities come along?
As a reviewer, I like to address the following questions about an individual photograph or body of work:
What is my first impression or emotional reaction to a piece? (Often I share this; other times I may keep it to myself as I continue to mull over why I feel a certain way and work through the remaining questions.)
What is working well, showing potential, or demonstrating artistic growth? After all, often the point is to try something new, not to create a great work of art.
What small, but significant changes might improve the existing work? These are usually technical or compositional in nature—having to do with exposure, depth of field, or eliminating distracting elements such as bright spots or unwanted objects creeping in from the edges of the image.
How else might this subject be photographed? Has the subject been fully explored? What potential does this image suggest?
In the end, it is not another person's comments on your work that matter. It’s more about how you interpret them, learn from them or let them go. You should sift through any comments with your own filter—keeping in mind what you found helpful, meaningful or worth further consideration and throwing out the rest. After all, the work is yours, not theirs. They are seeing it through their own eyes, life experiences and visual preferences.
What's the hardest part of sharing your work? What positive things have come from critiques or sharing your work with those whose opinions you value?