Sunday, September 16, 2012

How to criticize photographs

How do you criticise photographs and what does a good critical comment look like?

Food critic by Paul Indigo. Note the discarded  plate, his expression and the  piece of baguette.
Social media enables amateurs, enthusiasts and professional photographers to publish their work to a wide audience, who can then openly comment and criticize the images. I would hazard a guess that 99% of the comments are fairly superficial positive expressions of appreciation like, "good shot", "nice work", "great composition" etc. Social media is not really a good forum to give and receive criticism on your photographs.

When I upload an image I don't expect to get an in-depth critique nor do I give them very often. This does not mean that I don't look at images critically, and as with many photographers I am most critical of my own work.

Do you look at images critically? What approach do you use when analysing how good an image is?

For me the most important element is to try to understand what the photographer's intention was when they took the image. The universal standard that can then be applied is how well the image communicates the photographers intention. Every approach is fraught with problems and academics have long debates about the validity of different methods of critiquing. Looking at intention has long been called a flawed approach, see the debates on "intentional fallacy". More about that further down the page in a lovely story.

As a photographer I can't imagine working without having a specific intention and a set of boundaries that I choose to follow. Put another way, how can you hope as a photographer to communicate something if you don't know what it is you want to say and how you would like to say it?

A photojournalist can't manipulate images in any way at all while an advertising photographer may have different constraints imposed by working within brand guidelines. Understanding the photographer's intention and the constraints they work under are for me the two essential keys to being able to really evaluate an image. Of course this information is not always readily available and sometimes you have to make assumptions.

The process of making a photograph consists of hundreds of decisions, from visualising the image, to technical and compositional considerations, to digital darkroom enhancements and finally deciding on how the finished image should be presented.

For me the best way to judge an image is to think about the decisions the photographer had to make to get the image. Choices were made about composition, timing, sometimes lighting, content and so do they stack up to the final product. Does the image really communicate the photographer's intention?

A good critique will examine the decisions a photographer made, from the choice of viewpoint to the way he or she handled the technical challenges and environmental, social, technological and other constraints.

Here's a great story about the intentional fallacy:
"Actually, it was a very long time ago that I first got slapped down for brandishing the intentional fallacy. As a wet-behind-the-ears college senior, I once glibly mentioned the term in the presence of the painter Ben Shahn. ''What the hell is that?'' he growled, interrupting my discourse. ''What is what?'' I asked with trepidation. ''That fallacy of intention you just spoke about.'' As I explained, Shahn's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. ''Are you trying to tell me that I don't know what I'm doing when I paint?'' ''Well, not exactly . . . ,'' I began. ''My God,'' he roared, ''every time I put a brush to a canvas, I have an intention. And I damn well better know what it is, or else the painting ain't gonna be any good.'' He rolled his eyes. ''Intentional fallacy,'' he muttered. Then with a weary sigh: ''What do these critics think art is? Monkeys dabbling? Art is nothing but decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions.''
Published: June 9, 1986

Till soon,

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