It’s common to hear someone say, “I am my own worst critic”. The idea that we judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else, is merited. But so are that critic’s comments. The statement is rendered true by virtue of the critic saying it. That very particular critic.
The Only Right Way is the Way You Intend to Do it
As budding photographers, we’ll obsess. “It is still too yellow, ugh this image sucks”, “The aisle is just full of wedding guests during the ceremony, ugh this image sucks”. All of those statements are true.
What is this power that the critic, that very special critic, wields that they can make something true simply by saying it? Simply by feeling it? It’s the power of the artist. The artist gets to render judgement over his or her creation, whether it is good or bad. Their judgement is true and binding, if only in this limited courtroom of personal satisfaction. But the story doesn’t end there.
Artists have another power too, albeit with some caveats. When an artist declares for themselves that his or her work is good, other artists and non-artists tend to start agreeing. How does that make sense? Isn’t there any objective measure? No.
Because art, as a concept, and so photography by extension, is intimately entangled with intention. The ‘quality’ of art is always ambiguous, but the intentions of the creator introduce some clarity. And the artist's response to his or her self-assessed ‘success’ or ‘failure’ brings even more lucidity.
Photographers are artists of a particular variety. We’re a little geekier, I think; A lot of us are mathematicians and engineers, Tinkerers, problem solvers. We tend to want a universal metric to exist by which we can say that the images we are creating are good. Fortunately, a real one does not exist, or matter. What matters is the photographer’s own attitude toward what they create. Sometimes we have to rebuild the engine to figure out how to start it.
While many of us are accustomed to taking apart all that is wrong with our images, vowing never to “make that mistake again”. Or, looking for exactly the right conditions to prevent ‘errors’. But errors imply that there was a right way to do something. Nope, the only right way is the way you intend to do it.
I’ve heard photographers, and other artists, balk at that idea of the centrality of intention in the personal and public appraisal of art. But think about it.
“The image is too warm” — Try, “I really love how the warmth accentuates the sunset.”
“The aisle is too full of wedding guests during the ceremony” — Try, “I love how this image captures the excitement of the bride and groom’s community at such a pinnacle moment in their lives.”
Learning to Find What We Like
Even though it feels like we’re learning how to do something correctly, we’re learning to find what we like. Maybe there are only a few things you do need to learn in order to start producing something that you like and you’re excited about. But when you put a negative spin on your own work, you reinforce a long and difficult list of prohibitions. Don’t do this, don’t do that, watch out for this, make sure not to do that.
Instead when we put a positive spin on our own work for ourselves, we reinforce a short list of attainable desires.
Okay, perhaps you wanted a nice level shot, with soft light falling on your subject’s face and a gentle hair light from the setting sun. But, instead, you got a silhouette that’s tilted obnoxiously to the left. Yes, all of that is very frustrating. Maybe, maybe, because you had exactly the idea you wanted in your head and you failed miserably. But, more likely, that description at the top of this paragraph was more of a vague idea of the ‘correct’ photo, achieved only by the careful avoidance of fatal mistakes.
I understand why you might not like the silhouette image you accidentally created. But here’s the challenge. Find something you do like about it. Maybe the photo is interesting in black and white. Why? Maybe the high contrast created some really interesting shapes in the shadows on your subject’s hair. How did that happen? How can I do it again?
When we start looking for what we like in an image, rather than what we ‘messed up’, we start building that short list of things we want to do on purpose. Things we’re excited to do again. Can you remember a time when you or someone around you did something cool, or almost did something cool, totally on accident? Like, throwing playing cards into a hat. What happened next? I’ll bet you or someone else tried to do it again.
The more we focus on the things we want to do, the list of prohibitions starts to get shorter and shorter and shorter. Eventually that list turns into a list of tools we can use whenever we need them.
Create the Things No One Knows They Love Yet
Something else happens too. When we’re courageous enough to say “I like this thing I created, even though some of you don’t like it. Here’s why”, others start to agree with us. And when we say, “I like this thing I created, even though some of you don’t like it, and here’s what I learned while trying to do one thing, but coming back with another”, we reinforce our intention. We get better at being intentional. Moreover, we make ourselves explorers of art and creativity. We can create the things no one knows they love yet.
The attitude we have about our work influences the work we create–and the work we do not create. We can choose to take on a positive attitude toward ourselves, our photography and our artwork. And, we can look for the things we like, in what we otherwise might believe to be the abysmal waters of ‘failure’.
Of course, none of this is to say that we don’t learn from one another. Of course we do. But good critique seeks out and expands the intentions of the artist. The critique is “that tree should not be right behind her head”, but this is not very helpful. The same critique made useful to the artist is, “Did you consider the tree behind her head? If yes, why did you choose to leave it there? If no, how do you feel about it now?”.
Starting out, we don’t have to be good, we just have to find what we like. Then start doing those things on purpose, and push out from there into other things that perhaps we don’t yet know how to do on purpose. Perhaps when you thought about that wedding photo positively, you really started to like those wedding guests crowding your aisle shot. And funny enough, when you told the bride how much you liked that photo, she totally agreed! And the more you thought about all of that, you suddenly found yourself knowing just where you wanted to stand at your niece's Bat Mitzvah.
Get ready, there’s going to be a lot more of that coming!