In his 30+ years as a photographer, David duChemin has been on both the receiving and giving end of critique: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And his experience has led him to understand the importance of meaningful critique. Oftentimes, the effort to get THE image leads us away from our core—the thing that made us want to pick up a camera in the first place. In his new book, The Soul of the Camera, duChemin says,"When we look at our photographs and find not the slightest reflection of ourselves, it's a good sign that our images have lost their souls." Critique from a trusted voice is one way to find your way back. This article is an excerpt from The Soul of the Camera.
There are few things better than qualified critique to help the photographer grow, by learning to bridge the gap between what we believe about our work and how others experience it.
Critique itself is no rare commodity. Everyone has an opinion, and if you share your work online you will eventually be subject to all the unsolicited critique you could ever want. Rarely is it the type of critique that moves us forward; much of it is offered up by photographers who have barely had a camera in their hands long enough to achieve proficiency with the tools, never mind master the medium itself. Much of it is offered up in jealousy or envy, and much of it is offered up, even good-naturedly, in the spirit of, “Well, if this were my photograph….”
There are also the people who love you and will, therefore, love your work separate from any considerations of craft or art. They will fill your heart and give you confidence, as well they should. But don’t mistake those good things for the good of moving forward in your craft. If you want to move forward, seek critics instead of fans. Or rather, seek both, but choose carefully which voices you listen to, and keep in mind that the only thing worse than listening to the wrong voices is listening to too many of them.
A well-chosen critic is one from whom you feel you can learn. Someone you can trust. Someone with something to bring to the table. And preferably someone with skin in the game; in other words, someone with credibility. You want someone who knows what it’s like to create, to wrestle with the movement toward authenticity, and to struggle with bringing her craft into alignment with her vision. And you want someone who will give your work the attention it deserves. It’s hard enough to trust another person with your deeply personal work; the fewer barriers there are to being truly vulnerable and open, the better.
When you choose a mentor or any other person to weigh in on your work, you are choosing not only who you will listen to, you are choosing who you will not listen to—specifically, everyone else. That doesn’t mean you don’t remain open to all kinds of input from all kinds of sources. It means you listen to one voice at a time or risk the paralysis that comes from too many options. Weighing one opinion at a time allows you to give that opinion a fair shake, and weigh it against other opinions or ideas you’ve heard in the past. It also gives you the room you need to be truly open. You can only be so vulnerable: better that you be wide open to one thing at a time than fractionally open to multiple ideas, some of them conflicting.
Receiving critique is easy. You allow someone else to look at your work and gaze into your soul. It does, however, take humility and a willingness to truly listen, two traits that come naturally to few people I know (myself included). But we need them if we’re to see our blind spots.
Some of us need to hear where our work is weak. Some of us need those voices to tell us where our work is strong. We resist one voice or another, and sometimes both, for all kinds of reasons. But if our art is to contain as much of us as possible, and also have the chance to be something more than that, we need to not only be open to a qualified outside perspective, we need to seek it. If part of our job is to see the world in new ways, that should include our own work. Receptivity is not reserved only for the times when it is easy.
I also believe that giving critique is important. This craft has given me so much that it is a joy to give back. I love to teach and to be part of someone else’s creative path. But my desire to look at and discuss the work of others is not purely altruistic. I learn as much from teaching, and that includes critique, as I do from any book. It deepens my own understanding, challenges my own biases, and galvanizes my own growing ideas.
There is little discussion in popular photography about how to give meaningful critique. I’ve formed my own ideas about how to give critique in a way that serves the recipient rather than my ego, and that is honest without hurting the recipient and forcing them to react protectively by closing their ears. So I was surprised when I found an echoing voice in poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe suggested three principles of criticism, in the form of three questions: What was the artist trying to do? Was the artist successful? Was it worth doing? I think these questions are helpful not only in guiding our critique of others but in our own self-critique.
What Was the Artist Trying to Say?
This is about vision. You probably aren’t surprised to hear me say so. I still believe that vision is the beginning of the photographic process. It's the thing inside us that makes us put the camera to our eye in the first place. And it is the thing against which we’ll measure our work to determine whether the photograph succeeds or is merely a sketch image that gets us one step closer.
No critique—by others or by our own inner critic—has anything to contribute unless it first considers this question. If others are unsure what it was you were trying to express, what thing you were trying to point to, or what question you were trying to ask, they have no business telling you if the resulting photograph works. If you yourself don’t know those things or are not willing to discover them with your camera, you will have a hard time evaluating your own work, much less making the photograph to begin with.
Was the Artist Successful?
This is about execution. Of the many choices the photographer could have made, did her decisions bring the photograph closer to expressing her initial vision? These are questions not only of craft but of preference. Some will prefer one framing over another, one perspective over another. Some will prefer the spontaneous feel of a little blur introduced by a slower shutter, others will prefer a sharper image.
These are matters of taste. Critique doesn’t seek to say one is better than the other. Critique seeks to discuss possibilities and choices. Do the choices made bring the image closer to, or further from, the intent of the photographer? What other decisions might have been made? The word “should” has no place in these discussions.
Was It Worth Doing?
I ask myself this question in other ways: Does it matter? So what? Who cares? I want my work to resonate with others; I want it to express something within me; I want it to preserve a thought or feeling, and in some cases to magnify those. Life is too short, and at the same time, too beautiful and important, to make photographs that do not move me. I don’t have the time to make all the photographs I long to make, let alone the ones I consider trivial.
In the context of offering criticism, the question I ask is this: Does your photograph move me? Did it open my eyes to something new, remind me of a memory, give me goosebumps, make me laugh or cry? Or did I struggle for something nice to say, or—worse—just turn the page?
The answer to this question is helpful because the answer to the previous question (“Was the artist successful?”) is not always yes. We don’t always succeed; in fact, if we’re honest we probably truly succeed far less often than we like to think we do. But that isn’t necessarily failure. The vision may be true, the questions interesting, the subject worthy, but our expression may be off, uninspired, or uninspiring. Asking ourselves if it’s worth doing, while we’re still making the work, helps us know whether it’s worth re-doing.
Critique keeps us honest—if we let it. It keeps us asking questions instead of clinging to answers we think we know or would rather hear. It is not a substitute for listening to our own voice; it’s a tool for honing that voice, seeing our blind spots, and escaping ruts we weren’t aware we were in. A well-chosen critic can open us to new possibilities, help us see our strengths, and allow us to become more honest about our weaknesses.
Want more? The Soul of the Camera is now shipping from Amazon.
David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.