Before getting started, I should warn you that Critiquing Photographs is a complicated process. This article will be a little longer as I fully need to explain and show how I go about providing a formal critique. This page essentially serves as the foundation for my critique blogs, and understanding this will make the analyses much more informative and meaningful.
In the critique posts, I will endeavour to critique work submitted by paid members properly. Every two weeks or so, I will select a member-submitted image to use for a proper formal critique, which I will post for all to see. I think you deserve to be recognized properly if you are brave enough to submit your work for analysis, so as part of the critique preamble, I will give full credit to the member and provide a link to their other work if one exists.
Hopefully, someday there will be more images submitted than I can reasonably critique and I will try and make my reviews broad by selecting different styles of work like abstract, street photography, landscape, etc.
Why Critiquing Photographs Critiques of photography serve several vital purposes, all of which ultimately make us better photographers. From the artist's perspective, it provides feedback about their strengths and weaknesses and gives proper justice to the work beyond just a cursory glance. Research indicates that people will decide whether to look closer at something in less than 13 milliseconds. And from the audience's perspective, we learn more about the artist, their work, their vision, the art of photography, the visual language, and ultimately ourselves. In short, to become a better photographer, we need to be able to have meaningful conversations about a photograph that goes well beyond Facebook Yikes!
Problems with Criticism I think most people have a hard time providing a critique of a photograph with the reason for this falling into one or more of the following categories:
We are afraid to let our opinion known in front of others.
We are not sure what to say.
We want to be nice
It is hard work, and it takes time to do it correctly.
We feel we need to say something profound.
We want to provide advice.
We tend to rely on value judgment.
Of all these, providing advice and value judgment is where most people get off track when providing a critique. A value judgement is when an analysis includes words like; love, like, adore, hate, detest and so on. When this happens, a critique becomes about expressing personal taste as part of the review, which is not helpful because your personal preference is not persuasive and never edifying. It only serves to inform the artist, and the listeners, about your likes and dislikes. Sometimes you hear this referred to as the banana debate – I like bananas, you don’t, and no matter how much I tell you to like bananas because I do, you won’t – personal tastes are not something that can be argued.
The other fallacy in a photography critique is to offer advice about how you, the critiquer, would have made the photograph. I especially hear this from professional photographers when they critique the works of amateurs. They like to point out how they would, could, or should have, made the image. Unless you believe professional photographers are above the rest of us and are prepared to take everything they say at face value, advice critiques are generally not helpful as they do not constitute an actual critique of the submitted work. It stops being the vision of the artist in question and instead becomes the vision of what the person offering the critique would have done. The advice critique is just a more subtle form of value judgment.
Critique Format In the beginning, I talked about a proper formal critique, and it is time to describe what I mean by that. First, the word formal refers to the fact that I critique images based on a framework that will allow me to explore the photo in progressively more profound ways. The process I follow goes through three stages, from Description to Interpretation, to Evaluation (DIE for short.)
Description The Description phase is a description of what is in the image. It helps gather facts about the photo while ensuring we look at everything. A description generally will answer questions such as:
What is here?
What am I looking at?
What do I know about this image?
What are the organizing principles of design?
What are the elements of design?
What is the format?
What are the subject and the subject matter?
What is the framing?
What is the Media?
While this process, and the associated questions, may seem obvious, it is surprising how something evident to one person is not apparent to someone else. The idea behind the initial description is that if you can describe it, you can also better judge it. Taking time to describe also allows judgment to be deferred, solving the problem of “Quick to Judge.” The key to the description is that it provides factual information about the image. It avoids using words like feel, suggest, like (as in resembling), associative and comparative words like makes me think of… and reminds me of.
Description Example (What is yours? Click to see mine)
A Colour 2 by 3 candid portrait image of an older portly man sitting outside on a concrete bench on a small leather pillow with a handle
The image is shot from slightly below, looking up at the man from about knee height. The background features a rising lawn with some trees and a bicycle, which is well out of focus. A retaining wall runs through part of the background well out of focus. A heavier line in the retaining wall runs parallel to a grove cut in the concrete bench.
The man is dressed in casual clothes sporting short white socks with black shoes and pants at least 8 or 9 inches too short, exposing about 5 inches of white legs. His cane is resting on the ground and kept between his legs, and his hands are resting on his legs.
He is wearing a plain white baseball cap and glasses, and although we cannot see his eyes directly, it appears as if he is far away with a vacant expression on his face. Although his facial expression is mainly relaxed, there seems to be a sour or sad note in it. Did the description point out anything new to you?
Interpretation After the description is done, I will move on to Interpretation.
Interpretation - to give voice to signs that don’t speak on their own Hans-Georg Gadamer.
During this phase, we start looking at the Subject and Subject Matter. Subject Matter is what the photograph depicts or shows (denotes), whereas Subject, sometimes called subtext, is what the photo means or implies (connotes.) In this phase, we use denotation and connotation first to describe (denote) and then go deeper and look for the underlying meaning (connote.) Interpreting is about telling someone else what one thinks a photograph is about. It is about the point, the meaning, the sense, the time, or the mood of the picture. During this stage, it means answering questions like:
What does it mean?
How does it inform?
What or how does it denote and connote
Denote and Connote Example
This image denotes (shows) five people, two male and three female, sitting in a row on a concrete wall next to a boardwalk. The younger and older males - perhaps father and son- are seated at either end, and the females in the middle (possibly the mother and two daughters.) Possible connotations (Suggest/Imply) could be:
Males, similarly dressed and, like bookends, striking up the same position protecting the females also striking up similar positions as a group.
Perhaps an Immigrant family with strong predetermined cultural roles - the men protecting the women.
Think of a photograph as a metaphor needing to be deciphered – an implied comparison between unlike things. If you are aware of your feelings about an image, that is an excellent place to start. Think about:
What is the Cause for the Pause?
What part of the image do you continue to come back to? Why?
How does the picture make you feel? Why?
What are associative and imaginative responses being evoked?
It looks like, reminds me of, compares to and so on…
Remember no value judgements, so leave words like Love, Hate, Adore etc., out of the picture (pun intended). Although you may love or hate an image – we are looking for the WHY at this stage.
Interpretation Example (What is yours? Click to see mine)
The Subject Matter is a man sitting in the park.
The Subject is about growing old and lonely.
The distant look on his face suggests he is lost in thought – perhaps reminiscing about his past.
Sitting alone suggests he does not have a mate and that few care or even know about him.
The pillow he brought suggests that this is a familiar ritual for him to come and sit in the park alone.
Thoughts about loneliness and the end of life come to mind – fewer days ahead of him than behind him.
Hard not to think about one’s mortality and what one’s end will be like
Did you have a similar interpretation, or did you interpret this image differently?
Evaluation (Judgement) The Evaluation phase is where we make statements about the worth or value of an image – is it good, bad, etc.?
A judgement is a what that demands a why.
At this point in the critique, we have fully described and interpreted the photograph, and we should have a much better understanding of the work. All there is left to do is to evaluate what it all means. Remember, judgements depend on reasons. Just saying good, bad, original, remarkable etc. is to jump to a conclusion and is not illuminating or helpful – include reasons to provide support. Previously I brought up the tendency to rely on value judgement when I talked about problems and critiques, and it is essential to understand the difference between judgements and preferences.
Preferences do not require reasons and cannot generally be argued. Statements of preferences say more about the person making the statement than the photograph. In criticism, we seek to find out about the object and a personal preference, i.e., whether someone likes the picture is not particularly relevant (It becomes an unsubstantiated value judgement – (Facebook Yikes.)
What is relevant is a judgment based on the reasons why a photograph is good or bad. Interpretation and Evaluation are based on an accurate description, which must come first. If the description is inaccurate, neither the interpretation nor the evaluation can be. A Critical judgement features three aspects:
Appraisals. This is about the merit of the work, such as remarkable, strong, weak, good, lacking, etc.
Reasons. Are statements that support an appraisal
Criteria. Are rules or standards for greatness upon which appraisals are based
Critical Judgements are Appraisals that are based on Reasons that are founded in Criteria." To judge means to answer questions like:
Is this a successful image, and by what criterion?
Does it support the intended meaning?
Does it cause harm?
Is this good use of photography?
Is it a cliché?
What belongs and what doesn't. y?
Does the subject matter support the subject?
Does the interpretation seem plausible?
And so on.
One Possible Judgement
Here is one possible judgement of the example photo to better illustrate the process. I use different colours in the text as a legend to refer to the Appraisal, Reason, and Criteria parts of the Judgement.
The image of the older man on the bench makes us think about the frailty of life and how we all eventually die and become forgotten. The distant look on his face, the daily trip he seems to make to the park by himself, and the odd way he dresses all suggest a very lonesome existence while waiting for the end of life, with a soft background and no other people anywhere to be seen. This image captures so well those achingly lonely moments many of us eventually come to experience as our friends and spouses pass away, leaving us with only the memories.
Appraisals. This is about the merit of the work, such as remarkable, strong, weak, good, lacking, etc.
Reasons. Statements that support an appraisal
Criteria. Are rules or standards for greatness upon which appraisals are based.
Did you have another judgment?
I'm pretty sure most people by now would have a very different view of the image I used after taking the time to go through the critique and seek to understand better what is going on. By skipping the cursory glance and spending the time, the formal process greatly helps us gain a much deeper appreciation for the work.
My future post critiques will work through each image I critique using the framework I've outlined in this article. I hope this level of detail will help my paid subscribers improve their technical critique language and image-making abilities.