My first reviewer looked at a picture of a barber shop in the Washington Heights district in Manhattan. It’s a multi-layered image, with a lot going on. She pointed at a bright blue video game in the middle of the frame, and said: “It could be a good image, but that blue box right in the center just ruins it for me. Look, you can read the letters on the side of it. It draws your eyes away from the people.” Nobody mentioned the blue box until the next day, when a reviewer waved his hand at it and said: “I love the blue box. It adds specificity to the image. The fact that it’s in a barber shop says something about what goes on in there: it’s not just a place to get your hair cut.”
Those two statements make concrete what seems to be a basic fact of reviewing: different people see things differently, even though they are anointed as experts. There is no unanimity associated with expertise in this endeavor. It’s up to the photographer to figure out what to take to heart and what to ignore. I’ll have some ideas on that in a later post.
In the halls of academia and in museum settings, if you ask an expert to comment on a work of art, she will usually give you the conventional wisdom, and then tell you what she, personally, thinks. These reviewers seem to skip the first part. Maybe the difference is that they’re looking at the art produced by aspiring or emerging photographers, and there is no conventional wisdom about that particular art.
I’ve heard photographers talk about reviewers who raked them over the coals, but everyone I’ve talked to has bent over backwards to be nice to me and gentle with their criticism. I’d welcome a little more pointed discussion. I’ve had reviewers apologize before they made a negative remark, as if they expected me to run back to my hotel room and cry afterwards if they didn’t prepare me properly. I think it’s fine if they preface a negative comment with, “Well, I’m not a fan of motion, blur.” It tells me that they realize that there are people who do like the effect, or at least think that there’s a proper use for it.
I’m not saying that I’d like reviewers to be rude, or dismissive, or confuse criticizing the photograph with criticizing the photographer. I’m glad that the review is a civilized process. I’m pleased that the reviewers don’t take advantage of their position of power (more on that in another post) to make photographers feel small.
As I write this, something in the back of my head is saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” I don’t want to be criticized because I expect to like it, but because I think it might help me grow. And, to be frank, I don’t really know if there are negative things that reviewers are leaving unsaid to spare my feelings.
One place where you will notice an almost total lack of criticism is in the informal photographer-to-photographer showing of work. It’s nice in a way; it fosters camaraderie and builds a feeling of community. Still, I think it’s a missed chance for growth.
I never went to art school. It seems that most of the photographers here did. I have heard many stories about abusive criticism in that environment. It is possible that the extreme civility of the reviewers is in reaction to the art school criticism dynamic, and, given the reported destructive nature of that process, it is quite possible that their forbearance is a good thing.
There’s another possibility. Did you ever notice that when Jim Lehrer interviews the Syrian ambassador to the UN after some international incident that he treats the guy with kid gloves, and when he gets the President to sit down with him he’s pretty darned tough? It seems that Lehrer reserves his penetrating questions and insistent follow-up for people who a) are important, and b) can give as good as they get. Maybe my work didn’t engage the reviewers sufficiently for them to want to vigorously engage me.