Criticism and Finding Your Vision

Criticism can be very helpful when one is learning photography. There are certain standards of focus, print quality and composition that are good to know well. If you decide to abandon them at some time it’s fine, but you should know what you’re abandoning.

I was very fortunate to have some excellent mentors when I was learning the craft and I’m very grateful to them to this day. All criticism, however, is not necessarily helpful even if it comes from experienced people who mean well.

When I was in my early 20s I worked as a freelance assistant to advertising photographers in New York City. Assisting photographers this way was a great way to learn the craft. I learned things like lighting, exposure and color balance.

Working this way produced what was a good living for me at the time and enabled me to pursue my art as a street photographer.

There was a very well-known teacher, Lisette Model, who taught a photography course at the New School. I decided to take her course hoping it would improve my work. One couldn’t just register and pay for the course — you first had to submit a portfolio and Lisette would judge if you were good enough to be in the class. I submitted a portfolio of my street shots and got in.

Although I was around studios, sets, photographers and models a lot of the time, I hadn’t considered becoming a commercial photographer, but one day I thought I would try some fashion shots. I didn’t know anything about working with models and was quite frightened, but I met a woman at my group therapy who was interested in trying modeling and offered to pose for me.

She put on a jean skirt and a nice blouse and we walked around lower Manhattan. We would stop at different places and I would photograph her.

I was very pleased with how the photos came out. I was so nervous about working with someone and I felt that things went very well. I excitedly took them to my next class with Lisette to show them. I was in for a big surprise.

Lisette totally tore them apart. She said nothing about the composition or the exposure or even how the model looked. She complained about the clothes. Even though Lisette was teaching an esthetics class, I found out that day that she also had a background shooting fashion for Harper’s Bazaar.

I tried to explain that this was an exercise in learning how to work with a model, but she would hear none of it. All I heard was how terrible they were because the clothes were terrible.

I went home feeling really bad and thought long and hard about what went down. At some point I said to myself, “Sometimes you just have to go it alone.” What I meant was that I could listen to Lisette or I could listen to myself but I couldn’t do both. I decided that I was really pleased with the photographs and would follow my own council on this.

Lissette was right in her way. Fashion photography is about selling clothes and I would learn to make the clothes look good in due time. However what I rejected was not about the clothes. It was about the photos themselves. I liked them and was pleased with them and no one was going to make me feel bad about them.

Criticism is only worthwhile if it helps you see better. I used to post on websites that had criticism, but more and more I realized that the taste and values of the people on the site were very different from mine and the criticism wasn’t helping. My best critic is my wife. I listen to her most of the time.

~ by danbaumbach on June 12, 2013.

4 Responses to “Criticism and Finding Your Vision”

  1. That is a very insightful essay, Dan. However, I think I would draw a different conclusion to “criticism is only worthwhile if it helps you see better”. If you really believe in your vision and your art, then criticism wide of the mark should bounce off. But it just might make you look at it through the eyes of another before rejecting it.

    I often get critiques of my work with which I disagree. The author’s vision is different than mine. I find it useful to consider the other vision before rejecting it. The comments might or might not lead me to a better place. But as long as the criticism is given with good spirit, I embrace it and find it worthwhile.

    • My contention is that “criticism is only worthwhile if it helps you see better”. I don’t see how what you’re saying disagrees with me. If comments might lead you to a better place, then it helps you see better.

  2. Excellent article, Dan. The accompanying photograph is gorgeous!

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