July 11, 2014

Why I Don’t Critique Other People’s Work

Minneapolis Power Lines

People often ask me if I would look at their work and critique it. And while I would love to accommodate, I am uncomfortable critiquing another person’s work and here’s why:

First, I’m unqualified.  All I know is what I like and what I don’t like, and that should be irrelevant to you. Many think that because I create images they admire, this qualifies me to comment on their work, it does not.  I am only qualified to judge my own images.

Second and most importantly, I believe that your opinion about your work should be the only one that matters. Your opinion is more important than mine or any other and it is the only one that can help you achieve true satisfaction from your work.  

I used to ask others about my work, but in truth I was really looking for validation. I wanted the person to say “these are wonderful images, you are a wonderful photographer.” But even if they said those words, it didn’t make it so. Perhaps they were just being kind, and even if they were sincere, it was still just their opinion.

At the end of the day I need to respect and love my images and If I don’t, then it doesn’t matter how many people tell me that my images are wonderful.

How do you learn to trust your opinion over others? I think it starts with having a Vision of your work. Once you know how your images should look, then it becomes irrelevant what others think. Having a Vision of your work gives you great purpose and confidence.

When you don’t have that Vision, then the opinion of others is the only tool you have to gauge your work. And because you can never please everyone: true satisfaction can never come because you are subject to the changing whims and fancies of public opinion.

People frequently tell me what’s wrong with my images or what I should have done differently, but it doesn’t phase me. I know what I was trying to accomplish and only I know how close I came to fulfilling that Vision, they do not.

Tonight I was printing a copy of The Angel Gabriel and as I held the image in my hands I thought: this is beautiful, I love this image.

That satisfaction cannot come from another telling me how wonderful the image is, and it cannot be taken from me even if the image is unpopular.

My opinion is the only one that matters to me, and yours should be the only one that matters to you  And that is why I don’t critique other’s images.



36 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Critique Other People’s Work

  1. Thank you Cole.
    Critique has an extremely limited place in the photographic journey and ultimately may fail an artist’s walk.
    It fosters plagiarism if viewed as the ultimate goal director. (in the sense of style and vision)

  2. Thanks Cole.
    Your thoughts bear repeating… and repeating… and repeating. “Why I don’t critique other people’s work,” should appear on our computer screen every time we visit a photo website.

  3. I agree completely. For me, the flip side is that I need to be my own harshest critic. When working on an image, often I’ll see an aspect that I really like, which will tempt me to overlook things that I know aren’t quite working. It takes a lot of self-discipline to put into the world only that which I think is the best I can do. The freedom of self-critique comes with the responsibility of self-editing.

    As always, just one guy’s opinion 🙂

  4. Very thought-provoking as always. Whether I agree or not, your presentation of in-depth subjects like this is so well done – clear, concise, very readable and extremely well thought out. Best photography writing I have ever come across – you need to do a book. When you do so, will you use an editor? Is writing analogous to photography in this regard? I wonder.

  5. How brilliantly insightful this is – wise words that deep down, I already know, but sometimes need reminding of. And The Angel Garbriel is one of my all time favourite images. I love it.

  6. I couldn’t agree more!!
    It took me a while to finaly realize that my opinion about my work is the only one that matters. If you can look at a image you created and say: “this is beautiful, I love this image”, then you have succeeded.
    To me, art is the ultimate form of freedom. As an artist you can create whatever you want; you are free to show the world as you see it, through your vision.
    So: be free, creat and listen only to yourself.

  7. On the mark, Cole, bullseye! Like Gabriel, I have certain images of mine that I love, caring not what others think of them.
    I am going to copy this post to a sticky on my desktop and when someone asks me to comment on their photograph I will reply with your post.

  8. Hey Cole !
    critique is not simple from the both point of view – professional point of critique and more ethical point of another photographer. everyone has his vision, the mood of some specific moment and perception.
    thank you for the post

  9. I do not agree. The critique process if done properly is a very good way to learn and improve your work. Getting insight from those you trust can bring new direction. I believe many of these anti-critque beliefs are a manifestation of the “it’s all about me” reality of the online world

  10. I’m not with you on this one, Cole. There are many reasons to get images critiqued by a professional, a very valid one is indeed validation. Validation is not a bad thing. However, most people are looking for thoughtful, helpful comments. Critiques by an educator with the best intent to improve the work and advance the concept of the “student” can be at least helpful, and can be an invaluable and even paradigm altering experience. Of course, after a point one should consider aspiring to less mimicry and more original interpretations.

  11. Explain: professional, validation
    Being an artist, you do not need validation, you do not need educators. I have said befoure: art is the ultimate freedom. Only one voice count: your one!!!!!

  12. “professional” and “validation” are in the dictionary. Sure, art may be the ultimately freedom, not unlike as a child flinging crap onto the wall. It can also be the ultimate prison.

    There may be a bit more to it than that. If only one voice counts, Jan, enjoy buying your own art work.

  13. well I agree and don’t agree. I believe it depends on where you are in your journey as a photographer. many people are helped by an experienced eye to hone their skills and provide insight. but an experienced photographer, I agree, does not need to be critiqued. I think we know inside when we have reached the point of not caring what others think and are satisfied with our artistic creation. that said, there are still times where I will seek the advice of a person I feel is my superior.
    it’s part of the growing process.
    The value you might offer those seeking your opinion is that you are a trusted photographer. we all know not to ask our family; for good and bad reasons.

  14. To me a requested critique is different from unsolicited or unwarranted criticism and ones reaction to and/or perspective on either is what is really important. As Cole indicates ultimately (for non-commercial work) it is the photographers perspective that is most important on his work. However if this vision is meant to be shared, it may be appropriate to understand how others see it. Understanding others views on a photograph as subjective offerings rather than objective judgements may be of help when either receiving or giving a critiques. I suspect this can be applied as readily to the artistic merits of a piece as it can be to technical aspects.
    There is an old saying that “offence cannot be given unless it is taken” that fits in here someplace.

  15. >>>Art is not what
    you see…but what you make others see – Edgar Degas<<< How can you make others see anything, much less beauty and/or beauty in art?

  16. There is no doubt that everything is different when you are creating to sell your work versus when you are creating for yourself.

    My perspective comes from creating for myself.

    Some create to sell.

    Some do both.

  17. I have to put my photography in front of judges to get into shows. I have to brace myself for their criticism and rejection, and have to have a thick skin. Often I think they don’t get it. On the other hand I do not wish to judge or critique other photographers work. If I like it I like it, if not, I move on without comment.

  18. I do believe there is freedom and happiness in creating for only yourself. For if we start creating to please others we loose sight of our own vision.

  19. As an artist I totally agree with you Cole. As a human living is a social environment (some question the human aspect), I tend to see things more as expressed above by Chere Pafford. I also view art/photography contest much the same way. It all boils down to if you have that vision and how strong your conviction for that vision is. That may be the difference in being an artist or a photographer. You can be good as one and maybe still not so good as the other, but that is OK.

    May you always find the light that you are looking for.
    Don Grant

  20. Last week I attended a presentation by John Barclay. It is evident he admires your work as he mentioned you twice in his talk. One thing he mentioned was when someone critiqued your Gabriel image suggesting he shouldn’t be in the middle. I agree that you have to think about what you want to achieve and feel with your work and go your own way.

  21. Jumping into this morass with some trepidation… I was one of those people who did ask you to view my work, & graciously you did offer comments, similar to what you expressed, & I do not disagree. But I do consider some of the above comments (solicited vs unsolicited, how others “see” it, being one’s own harshest critic) relevant to the point that they encompass views beyond “critique.”

    Personally I find comments by other beings who also ponder such matters occasionally assist me to “see” alternatives (some maybe to avoid, others for future consideration to see if/how they fit me), & to become a better critic of myself. Also sometimes “validation” is really just a confirmation that one has succeeded in communicating one’s own vision effectively enough so that others can share it.

    All this is based on having enough confidence in one’s vision (as you emphasize) & to filter out what’s off base, or it all can go astray very quickly. I suppose my point really is while I agree, some aspects of communication about our “work” can be positives.

  22. Thank you for these words. I found you from the interview in Click. Looking forward to hearing you speak at Click Away.

  23. Paul Strand produced a wonderful body of work, including the following observations that appear to agree and part ways with you Cole.

    “The material of the artist lies not within himself nor in the fabrications of his imagination, but in the world. The element which gives life to art is the relationship between the artist and the world. It is in
    the way he sees this world and translates it into art that determines whether the work of art becomes an active force within reality, to widen and transform man’s experience.

    “Above all, look at the things around you, the immediate world around you. If you are alive, it will mean something to you, and if you care enough about photography, and if you know how to use it, you will want to photograph that meaningfulness. If you let other people’s vision get between the world and your own, you will achieve that extremely common and worthless thing, a pictoral photograph. But if you keep your vision clear, you may make something which is at least a photograph, which has a life of its own, as a tree or a matchbox has a life of its own.”

    Thank you for your sharing your observations and encouraging me to take them to heart.

  24. As artists, we’re continually reminded that the only critic we have to please is ourselves. This would seem to be sage advice.

    I would caution, that even THAT opinion… only comes from one person.

  25. Once again, Cole, you seem to have nailed my feelings on this. I find that when I critique someone’s work, it’s a lose/lose situation. I’m more interested in judging my own stuff and deciding what I like or don’t like about it.

    On the other hand…I must admit I like it when someone praises my images!! haha

  26. I have shared this numerous times…it is much needed in the world of Facebook critics. So many out there seeking opinions and affirmation of others, all the while spinning their wheels and never truly developing their own vision. Excellent article!

  27. Thank you for your wise words. It took me a long time to come to that realization but once I did, my photography has become so much more meaningful despite the opinions of others. Thanks again and your work is inspiring (not that my opinion matters in the slightest!).

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