Photo Salon: The Value of Critique

by Justin Black

 

The lone-wolf photographer is a concept with which we are all familiar. Many of us like to think of ourselves as self-reliant and passionately free-spirited, driven only by an innate creative vision. In my experience, however, most of the people I know who have mastered anything haven’t done it on their own. They’ve done it through interaction with others.

One of the most important experiences in my formative years was in George Washington University’s small but excellent photography program, founded by a landscape photographer named Jerry Lake. Professor Lake treated his students like family and regularly joined us on weekend photography outings, an act of “above and beyond” generosity to be sure. Back in the studio, students and professors alike would regularly pin up prints in a common area and critique each others’ work. The atmosphere was open and supportive, and everyone felt free to share their work and honest opinions. We all benefitted tremendously from the process of peer review and constructive critique.

One of the many prints that benefitted from critique by my peers in the GWU Photo Dept. "Dawn at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harper's Ferry, West Virginia." © 1994 Justin Black

 

In the early days of my photography career, I began to miss the honest and constructive feedback of other photographers, so a friend invited me to participate in Photo Salon, an informal group of serious photographers who met each month at a photo studio outside Washington, DC. Work prints were spread across a huge table, everyone would circle around, look them over, ask questions, share impressions, and offer suggestions.  Each of us would have the opportunity to say a little bit about what we were working on and what challenges we faced as we developed our body of work. There was a documentary photographer following the stories of cancer patients, a portraitist doing a book project on transvestites, a fellow who created beautiful abstracts in abandoned industrial sites, and my landscapes among several others. With so many different genres coming together in one place, we each left our comfort zone and benefitted from the insights of professional peers who were all sophisticated visual communicators despite coming from differing interests and backgrounds.

These experiences taught me the art of constructive critique that I regularly apply to this day as a workshop instructor, and they drove home the tremendous value of gathering with other serious photographers in a spirit of camaraderie to discuss aesthetics, themes, techniques, ethics, potential outlets and markets, and myriad other topics. As much as I value creative independence and cherish solitude when I can find it, it seems to me that engaging with a community of passionate and insightful peers is one of the most personally and artistically rewarding activities any photographer can undertake. It is with this knowledge that I look forward eagerly to every workshop critique session and the happy déjà vu experienced every time a participant tells me that they learned far more from the critiques than they ever imagined possible. I have indeed been there before.

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