on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

It’s Time We Were Critical

Critic, Critical, Criticism and Critique

David Ward

T-shirt winning landscape photographer, one time carpenter, full-time workshop leader and occasional author who does all his own decorating.

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To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. ~ Elbert Hubbard

We live in an era of easily won praise. Post a photo to any of the online forums and you are guaranteed that some people will like it – your partner and your mother at the very least. Bingo! Our brains get a little hit of dopamine and our reward pathways are stimulated. Yay, we feel good! Well, so what? It’s natural to assume that this means your photograph is ‘good’. After all, likes are equivalent to a score. Right? It’s an easy leap to further assume that posting images that score better than the first will mean that you’re on the ‘right path’. You can discount those that garner fewer likes – even if it was only because your mum’s computer died.

Sadly none of that is true. More likes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a better photographer. The image above is the most liked photo on Instagram. What this proves to me is that the ability to build social networks is more important than the artistic worth of an image. More likes might also mean that you’re good at making images with widespread appeal. Popularity doesn’t automatically equate to artistic ability. It may do, but it’s much more likely that it doesn’t. Indeed many in the art world consider the opposite to be true. One of my college lecturers told me that if thirty percent of my images receive popular acclaim I would be doing really badly. A five percent approval rating would be a much better sign of success. He was making the point that we shouldn’t be striving to be liked but rather doing our utmost to be the best photographer we can be.

The question is, how? Measured against what? The answers may not be popular…

Some consider this the ‘snowflake’ generation. Most people in the self-styled First World have grown up in an age without real hardship. Wars are distant affairs, famines even more so (in the West we are many times more likely to die of obesity than starvation). Hard manual work is rare, exercise a choice. Anything we want is just a few key presses away. Political correctness guards against our fragile self-worth being dented. (Don’t get me wrong, some things should NEVER be said.) Consequently, we are thought to be less resilient, more prone to taking offence than previous generations and less able to take criticism.

Fear our work is not appreciated leads to us being risk averse. A lack of “Likes” is seen as an implied criticism, although often with little justification. Yet we can only truly be creative if we take chances with our work.

Fear is the mortal enemy of originality. Fear our work is not appreciated leads to us being risk averse. A lack of “Likes” is seen as an implied criticism, although often with little justification. Yet we can only truly be creative if we take chances with our work. These phrases may be clichés but creativity is “thinking outside the box”, “pushing the envelope”, and “risking all”! There are no easy options for innovation; no failsafe recipes exist for making interesting and moving art. Any recipe is implicitly unimaginative. At least some of the time we should all opt to explore regions unknown to us, employing techniques untested by us.

There’s another fear that’s equally damaging: the fear of explicit criticism. The fear of critical comments about what we have created is also normative. This fear is closely allied to the fear of not being liked but subtly different. They are like opposite sides of a coin with two tails; whichever way up it lands you lose. 



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