Embrace Critique—Critically

Why do we not take more changes in our creative endeavours? Why do we stay on the safe and narrow instead of straying off and explore the territory along its sides? The number one reason why we don’t take creative risks is because we are afraid. We are afraid the critical voices that will always be encouraged by any straying off the straight and narrow. And we are afraid that these voices might be right, afraid that we aren’t good enough. Not the least, we are afraid we will look like fools.

The result is that we stop taking risks instead of pursuing them, as we always should—as being creative is nothing but exploring new territories. In addition, we get conditioned to think that critique is bad, that it will only hurt us. But think about it for a second. If we get no feedback on the things we create, we never get a perspective on what can help our creative development. Critique is not bad, not when it comes from someone who has our best interest in mind, and at the same time is honest and constructive in his or her feedback.

Thus, even though it can stifle us, critique isn’t inherently bad. It can be corrosive, but it can also sharpen the edge. Critique is indispensible to our creative growth. Without critique, the quality of one’s creative output can collapse. For everyone, whether you are an artist or an accountant, critical feedback can help. Too much critique and it will crush, but just enough and the pressure can refine, strengthen, and be a catalyst for growth.

So embrace critique when you can—and when it’s appropriate, when the critique can be helpful for you creative growth. Just make sure you choose the right critical voices. And that it happens in a safe environment. Let someone you trust play the devil’s advocate, when he or she does it out of respect for you and your work, certainly not because they want to take you down. Choosing critical voices to trust is a double-edged sword, on one hand you don’t want those who go after your gut; on the other hand you don’t want those who care too much for you to be able to be critical at all. Blind appraisal is just as bad as slander and mocking.

In Seattle I have a group of colleagues and friends—all professional photographers. Every so often, we gather to discuss each other’s work. We each bring our latest project, which we then show to the others. The feedback and critique we receive is indispensible for all of us and often bring the projects into new and more convoluted directions. We trust each other, we are honest and we encourage each other all the same.

Most of the critique we encounter we don’t really ask for. It comes from right and left when we stick the head out—and even if not, it comes anyway. The best way to deal with this kind of critique is simply being critical ourselves—of the critique. See the feedback in perspective; if it’s helpful take those parts to us that we feel is relevant, and if the feedback is all but malicious, just ignore it. I know; simple right?!

I remember when I was in fifth grade. I had just moved from Denmark (where I had been raised and lived until then) to Norway and was starting in a new school. We had drawing lessons each week, and after each class, we pupils voted on each other’s drawings, paintings or whatever we had done, to be exhibit as the week’s best work. In my first class, the first week after having moved, we got the task to draw a troll. Coming from Denmark I had no idea how Norwegian trolls or ogres were perceived or supposed to be, so I draw a green devil-like figure. Used my imagination. My classmates voted it to be the week’s best work. I was proud and happy. That was until the teacher demoted my drawing, saying it’s not what a troll should look like. Some other pupil’s work was exhibited instead. Some weeks later the same thing happened, when I once again didn’t comply with her preconceived rules for artistic expressions. Was these incidents maybe the reason I became a photographer?

The Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has sold millions of copies of his books, but still there are critics who tear his work to shred. When asked, do the critics hurt him, he said: «No. Writers are lampposts and critics are dogs.» Coelho had adopted a view that safeguards his creative role. Every creative act begets criticism. If you want to become more creative, you have to adapt a view that accepts, but doesn’t overinflate, this truth. You have to be selective in what critique to listen to.

Not long ago I wrote a personal and, I have to admit, critical piece about postmodern photography, my point being that too often it’s very much like the emperor’s new clothes—if you know the tale by H.C. Andersen. I posted a link to the piece on a Facebook photography group. I was taken aback by the response, and I won’t even repeat the harsh words and scornfulness that the article gave rise to. It was quite ugly. Of course I knew this would somewhat be the result, but was really surprised by how many people attacked me personally. I was still OK with that, as it was easy to distinguish between repulsive and sincere critique. More so, when I looked up the fiercest critics and saw what kind of photos they were taken themselves, there was no reason to take their critique serious any longer. It’s all a matter of perspective and being critical—to the critique. In this case, it was very easy to shrug off the critique as oppose to what happened back in fifth grade when I had no methods or means to fend off the response by the teacher.

The fact is that too often, we let those critical voices get to us. As valuable as constructive critique can be, we have a tendency to let the wrong critics hurt us. We do so, because they touch a chord in our unconscious mind. They resonate with own our critical voices that we carry around in our heads—being the harshest critics ourselves. So, when others’ unfair and unwanted critique gets to us it’s because we let them. These voices distract, scratch, bite, and nag—whether it’s your mom’s disappointment, a teacher’s demotion of your work, or the judgement of a colleague or a friend. We give these voices more credit than they deserver.

It is important to find those people or those circles of people that have our best interest in mind, but still don’t hold back on necessary and valuable critique, even if it ends up no being an appraisal as such. Good colleagues can be such a resource, or good friends, as long as they are able to give you an honest feedback. Workshops are another excellent resource that offers a safe and sensible environment for feedback on your work. Like I do in my workshops, whether in situ somewhere or through my eWorkshops. In fact, a new round of my eWorkshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» is coming up in mid May if you are interested. You can find more information on the website of Blue Hour Photo Workshops—and even an offer for receiving the first lesson for free.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX-7 and the lens set at 4,7 mm (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Exposure time was 1/1600 of a second and the aperture f/2.8. It was processed in Lightroom and the app Snapseed with the Drama-filtet.

About Otto von Münchow

Photographer based in Norway
This entry was posted in Creativity, Photographic Reflections, Photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

71 Responses to Embrace Critique—Critically

  1. Thankfully, thinking for yourself was not replaced by your particular teachers expectations and thankfully, you recognize criticism has so many origins, most of which have no foundation in the one being criticized. I love that you just keep doing what you’re doing, as that’s exactly what you’re meant to do. Grin.

  2. anyfidelity says:

    Here’s some critique: this is a very valuable post. You’ve said a number of useful things from which readers can draw inspiration. In addition to the main point of embracing critique in order to grow, I particularly like that I am reminded to try new creative avenues, to put away the hesitation and just go for it. Thanks.

  3. YellowCable says:

    Very good suggestions! I have not heard of Google Colleagues. That sounds good. I only heard of one place 1x.com that seems to have good critique platform for people. I have not experienced with them though.

    Your picture is awesome by the way. Good job for little able camera!

  4. Anita says:

    If you feel inspired to create I think that is all that matters. Keep up the good work and do what you love to do. Others will always have an opinion, but really who cares? One way or another do not let it stop you from doing what you love to do.

    • I agree with you, other’s critique should not stop your creative endeavors, and at the same time relevant critique can help you grow. Thank you, Anita, for you thoughts on the subject and the encouragement.

  5. Vicki says:

    I like critique but so few people can give it constructively. I guess it all comes down to the wording (of that critique), as well as being able to judge human character (as to whether the recipient is genuine in wanting to hear a different view to their own).

  6. Alli Farkas says:

    I have just added your “grade school teacher bad critique” to my collection of same. I have heard such stories many times and would love to have had the opportunity to ask these “teachers” what credentials they had that authorized them to crush creativity, sometimes forever, in their young charges.

  7. Anna Spanos says:

    After grad school, I and a group of women from our writers program held a regular workshop for nearly ten years. Because we had all been schooled in the same approach to criticism and the same aesthetic philosophies, we continued to grow enormously as artists thanks to the thoughts we were able to offer on each other’s work. Eventually, though, we found there just wasn’t much more to say – we kept retreading the same ground in our critiques, and as a result, in our work. It was time to set aside everyone else’s thoughts and just work.
    Thanks for getting me thinking about the value and the limits of criticism again, I really enjoyed this piece!

    • Sounds you have something great going on back then. But, yes, from time to time it’s necessary to change the acts, ins’t. Or find new ways to develop. Thank you for sharing your experience, Anna.

  8. Elaine- says:

    oh how i dearly love YOUR critiques of my photos, so much so that i wish i had the ability to take your eworkshop… i hear what you are saying about powerful negative voices, they have been the source of much pain in my life.

    i wish i had the courage to explore one weird photographic love that i have… BLUR… i love blurry photos! but any onlooker would surely call my photoblog ridiculous after an onslaught of blur lol

  9. Chillbrook says:

    A really excellent article as always Otto. Some really valuable advice. I sometimes wonder why some teachers take up the profession the way some of them behave around children. Thankfully you rose above it Otto but it must have been very painful at the time, and whilst trying to settle into a new school too. Your get togethers in Seattle sound brilliant, so very valuable to all of you I’m sure.

    • I am glad you enjoyed the post. And yes, it’s a puzzling questions, isn’t it, why so many teachers decide to become teachers when they are not able to encourage their pupils or students in the learning process. As always I very much appreciate your feedback, Adrian. Thank you.

  10. I like what you say here. I like to receive negative criticism when delivered constructively. This is why I willl occasionally offer critiques that l hope teach. I got dumped and told I was a nasty bitch by one person and their friends. Usually peple take what I say well. People are often afraid to give negative comments and only dole out praises. I notice that in the comments on WordPress there are usually nothing but praises. That. can’t be the whole story.

    • I agree. WordPress is not necessarily the place to post or receive critique that can be challenging. You touch upon and important question here, that critique is always best received when its asked for. Thank you for your feedback on the subject, Sherry.

  11. Sue says:

    Wise words, Otto! The value of constructive criticism…..too many people have no idea how to do this effectively! But I do think we should be embracing critique in order to grow in our creative endeavours – or we can get stuck in a rut.

  12. Mary says:

    It is hard to find a true critical eye that can tell you what you’re doing wrong, or even right I suppose. Friends are just to quick to praise, and maybe they are holding back what they really think. Many times I have just wanted a truly honest opinion on a photo or two. Maybe I am unsure about it, or i think I pushed the limits a bit too much. Constructive criticism, is good for everyone I suppose.

  13. LensScaper says:

    Well written and entirely true, Otto. Constructive criticism is valuable, negative criticism can be very destructive especially to developing photographers. We need the opinion of others, and out of all the many reasons why we need that is that many of us (and I include myself) find it very difficult to be objective about our work. Our images always will have sentimental attachments, but sometimes they can blind us to the flaws in our images that we need a trusted outsider to notice and point out to us.

    • This is a very good point, that the it’s very hard to be objective with our own word. For that reason a second or third opinion can be very valuable. Thank you for commenting, Andy.

  14. I have really much enjoyed to read your most appreciated opinion about critics, Otto, and I agree with you that too many people, who criticize us do not really deserve to be listened to and we shouldn’t let them hurt us, but for me, this difficult!😀

  15. paula graham says:

    Very good article Otto…it is a difficult subject.

  16. An interesting article Otto, as always🙂 For me, the moment an artist puts his/her art in the public domain, he/she loses authority over how it can or should be perceived. Different people interpret in different ways. It is important to understand that criticism of ones work could stem from the critic’s own unique interpretation or misinterpretation of your work.
    I agree with you that one should be able to tell constructive criticism from the negative ones. Also, it helps to be self critical of your own work.. constantly asking questions and pushing the boundaries of your sense of aesthetics and creativity.

    • You are right, as soon as something is published the artist or the author has let go of control. Of course my point is how we ought to react to critique that come our way, not how to stop it or control it. And, yes, being more critical of our own work, is always good for our development, as long as we don’t kill ourselves with doubt and self-mutilation.

  17. themofman says:

    A double edge sword.

  18. Dalo 2013 says:

    Such a meaningful post. You mention how a critic can touch a chord within the soul, within the subconscious and how those words can wrap themselves up within our own critical voices…and then objectivity can get lost. A very insightful post, and how powerfully good criticism can be to help expand our photography (as well as other areas of our life). Wishing you a fantastic spring Otto!

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  20. seabluelee says:

    “Writers are lampposts and critics are dogs.” I loved that Paul Coelho quote! For myself…I have to watch out for the “dogs” in my own head, and I know I’m not alone in that. They can be crippling. I do think it’s important not to offer critique of someone’s work unless they ask for it, especially if that person is someone – a blogger, for example – who may be putting their work “out there” for the first time. Mostly my blogging friends and I offer each other encouragement rather than criticism. I definitely agree that it’s important to find someone you can trust to seek critiques from, someone who doesn’t have an agenda (or an ego problem) of their own. An insightful article as always, Otto.

    • I agree with you that the most valuable critique will often be that which is asked for. Furthermore, I have the same approach in the blog world, not giving critique as such besides some encouragement. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  21. rangewriter says:

    There is an art to giving critique. Good critique involves a degree of subject matter knowledge and a large amount of empathy. When either of those is missing, the critique will be either facile or brutal, neither of which is helpful. I have a difficult time providing good critique. But I love receiving it. It is a rare commodity and one of the things I love most about your workshops and writings.

  22. Nandini says:

    Great thoughts and very well put, Otto! Thanks for writing them. We need to remind ourselves regularly about these things. We often tend to forget.🙂

  23. shoreacres says:

    Two things come to mind. One is that developing our own critical eye is crucial. Objectivity about our own work can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. One technique I’ve found helpful is to take multiple photos of the same subject, choose the best, and then compare it with another that’s “almost best.” By looking at the camera settings, the choice of perspective, and so on, and by asking “What, specifically, makes this better than that?” it’s possible to really speed up the learning process.

    Another lesson I’ve learned is not to trust easy praise. “You should publish this,” or “this photo belongs in a magazine” often is simply another way of saying, “I like this.” To take it as critique is to follow a dead-end path.

    And, despite the protestations of the post-modernists, the truth is that bad art and good art both exist. We could go on forever about that one, but it seems to me that unless the artist and the critic agree on which standards they’re discussing, the value of critique is lessened.

    • You are so right in everything you write in this comment. Developing a critical self is always good, and you approach—comparing photos to find out what makes the best of them stand out—is a great learning process. Thank you for sharing your poignant thoughts on the subject, Linda.

  24. Lisa Gordon says:

    Yet another fantastic, and very, very informative post, Otto.
    For each of these, I thank you, truly.

  25. Incredible!
    I started blogging this month, and it is a pleasure that I came across your blog.
    It has inspired me to start my third article.
    Thank you:)

  26. Louis says:

    Without constructive criticism it is difficult if not impossible to make progress. Few people resent criticism if they respect the credentials and intentions of the person offering the advice. My concern lies with unqualified peer assessment.

  27. Truels says:

    I like the positive atmosphere here in the photo-blog-world. In fact it’s a bit surprising if you consider how much negative response there is in the world around us……..
    But yet I miss more feedback and in-depth criticism of my photos. It must be sought in other forums. This summer I have decided to take a week at a Danish Højskole on a “Photo course” (Grundtvigs Højskole: http://www.hojskolerne.dk/hoejskoler/hoejskole-soeg/grundtvigs-hoejskole/kursus?id=20025685&st=true ). Something I have long wanted to do. 30 years ago – before I had children – I was often at the Højskole in Denmark. It was ALWAYS a great and very rewarding experience!

    • You have a good point. I also understand that most people would not give an in-depth critique without knowing that the recipient really wants it. In addition most people are not used to talk about what makes a photo good or bad. It takes some practice and knowledge. So I think signing up for a course or a workshop is a great idea. I am sure you will enjoy it.🙂

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