When I first started out in photography I had zero self confidence. I was completely new to the art form, hadn’t a clue what I was doing and had no idea if my pictures were any good or not. I joined my local camera club in the hopes of receiving help and advice and to learn more about how to take good photos and, for the most part, achieved my aims but was totally unprepared for some of the brutal criticism which came alongside.
Several years later, some of the particularly harsh comments I’ve received still ring in my ears:
- “Someone’s got too much time on their hands”
- “I have nothing to say about…….er……..this, next image please”
- “What on earth have you done that for?!”
- “You’ve ruined what would otherwise be a pretty portrait” (on the stitching together of my lips to represent the silencing of women during the #MeToo era)
- “I prefer actual photographs in a photography competition”
You get the gist, and leaving aside whether any of these points were valid the manner in which they were said is completely unnecessary.
There is a difference between criticism and critique. When an image is skilfully critiqued the artist learns from the experience. One of the great things about joining a camera club is the learning opportunity gained from entering competitions and the helpful points made by judges reviewing your pictures. I’ve been taught all of my most fundamental photography lessons from competition judges and have been particularly grateful when a judge has pulled me aside after a competition and said things like “this image would go from good to great if you just did x, y or z”. But I have also left events upset and crushed after negative comments from unskilled judges, particularly when I was just starting out.
When you enter the world of galleries and exhibitions the situation gets much tougher. Despite the fact that the job of Curators is to find emerging talent, there are some who are so hard-faced and snotty it’s enough to put anyone off trying to find representation for all eternity. This is particularly true when trying to find a gallery which will exhibit a photographer as opposed to an artist, and a creative fine-art photographer to boot!
Over the years I have learned the following about criticism of my work:
- Constructive criticism is vital for me to develop and learn as an artist.
- The most valuable criticism is objective. Asking the opinion of friends who will only say nice things because they don’t want to upset you is nice for your ego but will not help you grow.
- Not everyone is going to like your work and that’s OK. We all have different likes and dislikes (I personally struggle to appreciate nudes) and this doesn’t mean that your work is poor.
- It is your choice whether or not to take constructive criticism on board. If I am truly happy with a picture I will stick with it and ignore all advice to change it. Have the courage of your convictions.
I have also learned:
- Not everyone is good at their job. Some people in influential roles have zero interpersonal skills or are just plain rude. There are also those who are in positions of authority simply to boost their own ego and self-importance and their unhelpful comments are a reflection on them, not you.
- Not everyone has your best interests at heart (more on that in another post!).
- It is vital to find another club, gallery or representation if your current one is not helping you learn and grow.
- Surround yourself with people who lift you up.
I’m not going to tell you not to take harsh criticism to heart. If you put a part of yourself into a picture of course you are going to take it personally. It is personal! What you have to ask yourself is: was it necessary? And from experience, I’ve found that negative criticism usually wasn’t. There are ways to critique images constructively and now I’ve had experience of judging competitions I can honestly say I’ve never been negative about a picture in my life – I can always find something positive or helpful to say.
Rejection, on the other hand, is part and parcel of any artist’s life. JK Rowling’s first ‘Harry Potter’ book was rejected by 12 major publishing houses and Walt Disney was told by an editor that he “lacked imagination”, which just goes to show that lack of representation does not mean lack of talent! Galleries often only represent one genre of art and aren’t open to experiencing other forms. Or if a gallery snootily tells you, as a local gallery did to me recently, that your work is not suitable for them just accept that some Curator’s motives are simply to make money from the same trusted artists and you need to find a gallery which is more open to representing new talent and genuinely looking to discover the next “big thing”.
Keep the faith. If JK Rowling had given up at rejection no.11 she’s still be on welfare and living in a council flat!