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Critiquing photography: A different perspective

23 Feb

When I built The Photographicalist, I chose to constrain myself to 1-2 posts a month as a realistic goal for essay style posts.  It is all I have time to write, and all you have time to read. But every once in a while I get a hankering to offer something of value outside these boundaries I set myself.  To meet this desire, I decided to take up photo critiquing.  I thought I might create a page just for photo critiques that I could do and add ‘on the fly’ when the mood struck me.

There was just one little glitch.  I didn’t know how to critique photos.

But not knowing how to do something rarely stops me so off I went to investigate the world of online photo critiquing education.

photocritiquescore

Details of score

The first site I visited was Darren Rowse’s Digital Photography School and his post The Photo Critique: Portrait Edition.  In this post he displayed two of his wedding photography works and critiqued them.  I carefully reviewed the photos, then his comments, and then scored myself against his list of critiques.

I gave myself 1 point for everything I noticed that he discussed, 0.5 points when I kind of got it, and 0 when I missed it altogether.  I scored 3.5 out of 8 for photo 1 and 1 out of 8 for photo 2.  Total of 4.5 out of 16. Not very good. However, as I didn’t necessarily agree with everything Rowse noted (a critic’s prerogative I’m sure Rowse would admit), I didn’t worry too much about it.

My next port of call was wikihow’s How to Write a Photography Critique: 8 Steps. Wikihow described photo critiquing as following this process:

  1. Examine the photography
  2. Decipher what you like and dislike about the photograph
  3. Describe the photograph in terms of your general feeling or impression
  4. Address the technical components
  5. Assess the artistic elements of the photo
  6. Explain what you like about the photograph, and why
  7. Elaborate on elements of the photograph that could be improved upon
  8. Summarize your general perception of the photograph

I’ll get back to these steps in a moment. Because like Rowse’s critiquing advice, these steps seemed to be missing something. Already I was getting the idea that either I didn’t understand photo critiquing, or else photography generally.

I started scanning a number of sites about photo critiquing: Expert Photography‘s 10 ways to Critique your Photos,  Click it up a notch‘s How to Critique, and examiner.com‘s How to write a critique of a photographWhile I found wonderful wisdom on inspecting and commenting on the photographic image, there was something missing, something that to my mind was the most important aspect of a photo.

At last in photoSIG‘s Guide to Critiquing Photos and silberstudios.tv‘s How to Critique Photographs in 3 Key Steps I found allusions to this concern of mine. As photoSig put it, consider if “the photographer succeed[ed] in telling his/her story with the photograph.”[2]

Now we were getting close to ideas that I think should be central to a photo critique: What does the photo mean? What is it for? Why should we care?

It seems to me that extant rubrics on photo critiquing focus on technical, impressionistic and stylistic aspects of the photograph. Emotion, yes, ambience, yes, camera angles that add semantic value, yes. But nowhere in the sources listed above did I see questions designed to interrogate the content and meaning of the image.

too_obsessed_wordsNowhere did I see a suggestion that the critic reference the photographer’s actual (not inferred) intent. Nowhere did I see “refer to the accompanying information or metadata about the subject and context.”

The photo appears to be an orphan that must stand or fall on its technical, emotive, and aesthetic merits. The content the photo has captured, together with its potential impact on local, social, historical and/or global issues seems of less interest than whether the focus is a bit off.

And like a question columnist Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City would formulate, I had to ask myself, “Are we as photographers becoming too obsessed with the image at the expense of the reality it is meant to illustrate?”

To test this idea, I chose one of my own photographs, to ensure maximum access to answers to questions of provenance, factual detail and intent for the critique.  This also means that, as I subscribe to a minimal-interventionist policy with my photos as has been outlined in earlier posts [3], there may be much to criticise.

For this exercise, I will use the 8 steps outlined by wikihow above, first, as it stands, and second with two additions: a) the insertion of an additional step in between steps 3 and 4, which is “Describe what you understand of the content and meaning of the photograph with reference to any available information from the photographer” and b) expanding step 7 so that it reads “elaborate on elements of the photograph that could be improved upon particularly in light of the content and meaning.”

A favourite photograph I have chosen is this:

Melbourne_DSC04109_med

Applying the 8 step logic above without my suggested changes I wrote the following:

The photo is of a cityscape lit by morning sun. The feeling is of a clean, beautiful city. The light is luminous, throwing highlights onto the light colours in the landscape.  The image is well composed, with a balanced vista in which many binary oppositions –  old and new, historical and modern, land and sky – fit comfortably side by side.

There are a few faults. The exposure might have been a bit longer to emphasise the light effects of the morning sun on the building and to lighten the darkness of the gray and black buildings in the center mid ground. Whether the effect of a wide angle lens or simple over-rotation, the photo seems to be just a tiny fraction over-rotated towards the left. This can be corrected with post-processing.

The photograph is purposeful. Despite the dense packing of elements, the whole is orderly and balanced. There is a great sense of space. A longer exposure might also have brightened the colours but there is still some lovely colour effects. The red trim on the building at the far right is picked up in the reddish-brown of the central building and the thin red line of the skyscraper at left. A quirky ad for a sports car adds a little fillip of yellow.  Very pleasant to view casually and offers more to see upon further scrutiny.

Now here is a second version of the critique, taking note of the advice of the photographer (myself) as to the content and meaning:

It is a cityscape lit by morning sun. The feeling is of a clean, beautiful city. The light is luminous, throwing highlights onto the light colours in the landscape.  The image is well composed, with a balanced vista in which many binary oppositions –  old and new, historical and modern, land and sky – fit comfortably side by side.

The photograph is purposeful. Despite the dense packing of elements, the whole is orderly and balanced. There is a great sense of space. A longer exposure might also have brightened the colours but there is still some lovely colour effects. The red trim on the building at the far right is picked up in the reddish-brown of the central building and the thin red line of the skyscraper at left. A quirky ad for a sports car adds a little fillip of yellow.

The dark pillars of PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Crown Casino background the yellow-brown brick and copper domes of Melbourne’s central transport hub, Flinders Station. To the right, the main spire of tawny brick that is St Paul’s Cathedral rises to the sky. The eye travels the spire towards the heavens, then travels across the cumulus clouds to the imposing Eureka Tower whose bold lines direct the gaze down to the historic and chic Langham Hotel and from there, back to Flinders Station and the two, more modest spires at the South end of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The sky is an uncertain blue, dotted and streaked with grayish white clouds that seem to suggest Melbourne’s weather this day would be as mercurial as ever. The Yarra River that bisects the city is full and reflects the colours of the city and the tree-lined banks. In the distance the waters of Hobsons Bay provide tiny splashes of gray-blue. The immediate foreground shadows mute the blocky rooftop utilities.

The photographer has entitled her work  Every morning another opportunity, which suggests the bustle of the city and the renewal of hope that comes in the morning. She also intends it as a representation of the actual Melbourne cityscape as seen from the Hyatt Hotel on 9 May 2009.

There are a few faults. The exposure might have been a bit longer (say 1/125 rather than 1/200) to emphasise the light effects of the morning sun on the building and to lighten the darkness of the gray and black buildings in the center mid ground, especially since the intent was to capture this ‘golden hour’. Whether the effect of a wide angle lens or simple over-rotation, the photo seems to be just a tiny fraction over-rotated towards the left. This could be corrected with post-processing, but the photographer is known for her minimalist intervention in her photographs so it is likely this fault will remain uncorrected.

But overall very pleasant to view casually and offers more to see upon further scrutiny.

Yes, the second critique is longer, but the critic needs only to ask the photographer a couple of simple questions to elicit valuable information about the text, context and intent of the photograph to constructively inform the critique. I find the second critique much more satisfying, as well as more illuminating for photographer, critic, and readers of the critique (both now and in the future).

I believe that tutorials and lists for photo critiquing such as wikihow’s 8 step process above could be usefully amended to incorporate an element of understanding the story being presented, with reference to the photographer, the title of the photo, the metadata, and any other known information (within reason) to and how this greater photographic construct might operate in the world.

And lest critics crybut meaning is different for everyone, this is such an unreasonable and subjective element to include in a photo critique,” I would point out that at worst it is no more subjective than “describe … your feeling or general impression” [4]

For me, having investigated approaches to photo critiquing and considered my own concerns about modern photography, I think I will focus my critiquing on images where other information such as titles, metadata, and artists’ statements are available. And my approach will be:

  1. Examine the photography
  2. Decipher what you like and dislike about the photograph
  3. Describe the photograph in terms of your general feeling or impression
  4. Describe what you understand of the content and meaning of the photograph with reference to any available information from the photographer
  5. Address the technical components
  6. Assess the artistic elements of the photo
  7. Consider if it is a photograph or photoART or both
  8. Explain what you like about the photograph, and why
  9. Elaborate on elements of the photograph that could be improved upon, particularly in light of the content and meaning
  10. Summarize your general perception of the photograph

I would be very interested in other photographers’ critiques of this approach and/or this post and the example photograph I chose so that I can learn more about the fine art of photo critiquing.

—————————————————————-

References
[1] (from scorecard) In Australia we don’t really use the term ‘bangs’ but rather ‘fringe’
[2] photoSIG Guide to Critiquing Photographs. http://www.photosig.com/go/main/help?name=tutorial/t10 Accessed 22 February 2014
[3] Great Expectations and Communicating Photographically, 10 Feb 2014 and The magic of the ‘plain and ordinary’ photograph, 20 Jan 2014
[4] http://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Photography-Critique (step 3) Accessed 22 February 2014
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6 responses to “Critiquing photography: A different perspective

  1. Capt Jill

    December 2, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    really informative post, thanks for sharing!

     

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