Monday, September 30, 2013

The Critique Echo Chamber

I am on the record as being something of a fan of having people critique your pictures. Increasingly I am thinking that having a bunch of photographers do so is less valuable in some ways, since photographers bring a lot of prejudices and ideas to the table which can get in the way. These present remarks are about one of the more irritating ways this can occur.

It will from time to time happen that somebody who knows what they are talking about will periodically mention some flaw. "This photograph suffers because of X" where X is some feature, technical choice, whatever. If photographs are regularly harmed by X, whatever it is, this expert may mention it fairly frequently. This is important: X is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just that X is something that's not working in these pictures. The expert has at no time made any universal claim about X.

This is where it gets irritating. People in the audience, as it were, will reason as humans are wont to reason, from the specific to the general. They may tend to conclude that X is universally bad.

Because of the nature of critique, we usually get a litany of flaws with, perhaps, a token positive note here and there. In particular, we may never ever see the factor X mentioned in a positive light. It is in fact not completely unreasonably to conclude that X is universally bad -- every single time it is mentioned, it is mentioned as a flaw, after all.

The underlying problem here is trying to convert Art into a set of rules and algorithms. The people who reason that X is universally bad are making a reasonable deduction, but their entire approach to photography and pictures is flawed. They want, as camera enthusiasts, to have a set of rules they can follow to make Good Pictures, and "don't do X" is clearly a rule they can add to their little Manual Of Art.

Then, to everyone's amusement, they begin to trot out "don't do X" as critique of their own. Less amusingly, entire communities can take up these rules, reinforcing one another. It's a bit like a School of Art, only even more stupid and annoying.

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