The most useful thing I learned during my time at RISD pursuing a continuing education degree in print design, was the art of the critique. In photography the critique comes into play once you have returned home after a nice day hiking around snapping photos. There are some pictures you are pretty sure turned out just the way you want them, and there are often many, many, more that you took because something in them looked interesting at the time, but you’re not sure whether the shot was going to be worth keeping.
The art of critique is the art of knowing what your goal is, reviewing the work in context to the goal, and deciding clearly and definitively whether or not the piece has successfully achieved what you were intending.
Most people do not like this phase because it often seems like a process of focusing in areas where things were not successful, and thus the idea of “being a critic” or “being critical” have come to take on less than positive connotations.
Every time I come back from a shoot there is a wonderful mix of excitement, tinged with just a bit of dread. I can’t wait to see what I got, but secretly I am worried that I didn’t get anything, that all of my shots will turn out to have been unsuccessful.
When looking through images with fresh eyes it is easy to see the winners. When a shot works it usually grabs me, thrills me, and stands out clearly from the rest. These are the shots where I can’t always explain what is going on, but I know it when I see it. Likewise, there are shots that clearly don’t work. These might be out of focus, poorly framed or underexposed. I don’t need to spend much energy looking at these either. Disappointing to be sure, but clearly not worth hanging on to. The art of the critique isn’t to identify the shots I know are winners. The art of the critique is there most often there for me to help weed out the shots that are worth my time and effort, or can teach me something.
I find it is also helpful to think about putting together a portfolio of work. Everything worth keeping should be something that you would be proud to put in your portfolio. Is the image something you feel represents the best of what you have to offer? Would you be proud showing it to strangers? Would you want to hang it on your own wall and look at it daily? Does it represent what you find interesting? If, after asking myself these questions, I say “no”, then what is it that I am doing hanging on to the piece? If I am not happy with it enough to share it with others, or to stand beside it on the wall, then why keep it?
There are many images we take which spark something, but are not that thing in and of themselves. I have taken, and will continue to take, photos of interesting trees, but more often than not they fail to capture what I find interesting in the tree as I see it in person. I can learn from these images, learn from what was not successful, learn from the pieces that were. I can continue to try new ways to frame the shot the next time.
What I cannot do, is hang on to images that I am not planning to use later on. I don’t to post-processing or photo-collage. I can’t see any use for maintaining a generic library of images for reference, and I wouldn’t have the time to maintain it either. For me, either an image is worth keeping, or not, and that is a matter of staying true to what I value and not letting myself feel sentimental about hanging on “just in case”.
It isn’t much of a stretch to see this playing out in other areas of my life as well. One of the most important things we do is make choices about where we spend our time and what we end up doing with that time. Obviously we have work and family commitments to take care of, but within that we have so many choices about how to go about them.
I have been editing the portfolio of my life as consciously as I can during the last few years. Choosing to spend my time outside as much as possible, reading more, eating clean, travelling when I can, spending time with my children and wife, and pursuing a hobby are all core values that drive me and need to be prioritized in my time. I have had to decide to get rid of some things, though I haven’t missed any of them. When taking a moment of reflection I take stock of my time just like I am reviewing new pictures on the computer. How have I been spending my time? Have those choices proved to be positive and beneficial, or have I been frustrated? Are there activities I need to spend more time doing, or activities that I need no longer partake in?
Setting my life up more like a portfolio has had many benefits. I am proud to stand by my activities as my works of art and the time I spend doing them allows me to be more of myself, which allows me to be there for others as well.