Photographers Should Be Criticized

There’s this perceived notion out there that just because someone claims to be a photographer, they are one. It’s a touchy subject, especially within the photography community, because photography is an art form. But hey, just for now, lets assume it’s true. Anyone who claims to be a photographer actually is one! Now that we’ve put that argument aside, you should know that that warm and fuzzy title comes with strings attached. One of those strings is called “criticism”. Art, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a subjective field. Unfortunately, this has come to mean that anyone who creates any piece of garbage and calls it art suddenly becomes untouchable. Anyone who then criticizes said art is immediately called “mean” and a “bully” if their criticism goes anything beyond giving helpful tips to the creator. Saying things like “This is an excellent try, and next time it would be even better if you used frequency separation instead of the blur tool.” are wholly acceptable, whereas “This photo is terrible. It could’ve been good in some capacity if you’d only watch a tutorial and learn how to use the right tools to enhance your image instead of burying it under a landslide of awful.” will cause a public outcry. After all, they tried, right?

Wrong. More than ever, people have every tool they need at their fingertips to create amazing images. Youtube alone has an endless supply of photography classes and tutorials that teach the correct way to create great imagery. There’s no excuse for ignorance in the field of photography in 2017. It’s not like the old days where you basically needed to be an apprentice to an established photographer to learn the higher-end secrets of the medium. If someones photos have sucked for years it means they aren’t trying, and the photography community and the people who’ve paid for objectively terrible photos should hold them accountable to that fact. And what’s the harm in tearing someones photo a new one? The way I see it, letting someone know their photos aren’t any good is a great filtering process for the photography industry. When the truly bad aspiring photographers are criticized, they usually give up and move on, which is the first real tell of an imposter. Yet, when photographers and their works are criticized, it can push them into greatness. If you look at history, some of the most talented and influential artists were born in the fires of critical contempt. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

There was a time when Andy Warhol wasn’t a critical darling. Despite winning a few awards after he decided to go out on his own as an illustrator, he lived in poverty for years. People shunned his pop style, wouldn’t pay him for it, and it drove him insane. At one point in his career he didn’t even have enough money to buy a single canvas, so he tore the sheets off his bed and painted on those. However, instead of quitting and crying about being criticized, he fought back and created even more. His critics gave him the fuel he needed to rise above them, even to the point of him creating entirely new genres of quality art.

The photographer Sally Mann has been hammered with criticism throughout her career. She’s a photographer mostly known for her photographs of young women and children. Yet, despite being an exceptional photographer, her legacy is shrouded in critical controversy. In 1988 Mann released her second set of professional photos titled “At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women”, and the set was heavily criticized in every way. Despite that criticism, she went on to create her third set titled “Immediate Family” that featured her un-staged children doing every day things while they happened to be naked. This set off a tsunami of angry response. A critic at the time said “selling photographs of children in their nakedness for profit is an exploitation of the parental role and I think it’s wrong.” Her work was so controversial that even law experts started to weigh in, one stating “Any federal prosecutor, anywhere in the country, could bring a case against [Mann] in Virginia, and not only seize her photos, her equipment, her Rolodexes, but also seize her children for psychiatric and physical examination.” Despite the controversy swirling around her works, maybe even because of it, she continued to work at being a better photographer. She was so defiant against the opinions of others that The New York Times claimed “Probably no photographer in history has enjoyed such a burst of success in the art world.” One could easily argue that it was because of the critics that Mann has reveled in her continued success in the field of photography.

Yet now, anyone who takes a photo and posts it up online has an extreme aura of entitlement; there’s this thought that photos should be/are immune to harsh criticism. This is propagated by both the “photographer” and the photography community. Any criticism of bad work almost always creates its own angry response. “Who are you to judge my work?” and “How can you say things like that about someones photo?! How UNPROFESSIONAL!” are common statements in all photo forums and portfolio sites. We’ve inadvertently created an industry that’s deemed a safe space where any and all garbage is deemed acceptable. Instead of holding the industry to any kind of standards, bad work is hailed as good, and in turn we’ve spawned an army of mediocre talent currently charging for photos that are utterly worthless.

The way I see it, if you’re any kind of real photographer, you welcome being blasted by criticism. You should know it can only make you better if you’re actually willing to learn from it and navigate it accordingly. As professional photographers, we should have no time for this “one love” approach that the photography industry seems to revel in. Accepting any and all photos from a bad photographer is a job for their mothers, not us. If our work sucks, we should be told accordingly, and do everything we can to fix it. Shielding those who aren’t willing to do the same is silly, and our industry is suffering because of it. After all, if telling someone their photos are awful either leads them to quit or makes them better, isn’t that a good thing?

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Comments (0)

  • I enjoy all the comments that seek to deflect the jist of this article. The point is made and it’s a good one. Couldn’t agree more. BTW, if you want someone to take your comments seriously, learn to spell.

  • Poorly written article for several reasons.

    Besides Its display of grey text on a wite backdrop that makes it a task just to read.

    The author is Confusing graphic design, photo retouching and photography as all One in the same.

    Confuses prefference with talant. Brilliant artist develop prefference and choose to purposefully develop thier art in a specific manner, as well as the clients who hire them have a say in how they want the picture.

    Auther above all forgets in common decency, most artists are subject to criticism and recieve thier fair share of it, the reson its delivery is in the form of great try here is a suggestion and not "you’re a peice of shit and should kill yourself for making me see such garbage" is because humans have the desire to no be complete trash torwards oneanother

  • The problem with this article is a subtle one: it is desperately stupid. Mann was not criticized in the aesthetic sense but accused of child abuse. So she is in no way an example of an artist benefiting from criticism and using it to improve her work. Nor is she an example of how an artist should ignore aesthetic criticism to work on her style – her style, as opposed to morality, was never in question, and she immediately quite benefited from the publicity…

    • I think what’s desperately stupid is thinking that there wasn’t a storm of criticism about her work aesthically in the time of controversy. Sally Mann herself stated in her memoir that she received thousands of letters telling her that her work sucked. Specifically her work, not just the topic. I wanted to outline this point in the article but, as you can see by the rest of these comments, people are already so retarded they can’t even read an article that takes one minute and twenty seven seconds to read.

      • >>I think what’s desperately stupid is thinking that there wasn’t a storm of criticism about her work aesthically in the time of controversy. <<

        Well, firstly I can only answer the stupid thing you wrote rather than what you wish you had written.

        Secondly, I think most people would prioritize perceived child abuse over aesthetics.

        Thirdly, Mann’s work seems to me to vary between the awful and the haunting. I looked at her work yesterday and images stuck with me. I looked at yours and all I’m left with is a general impression of ow grade mediocrity – you’ve learned to use an AF camera and basic flash set-up, but you’ve not gone beyond that in any way. You have no ideas – you no distinctiveness except your abuse of skin tones in post, which seems to have no purpose other than to be different, because it isn’t communicating anything. (Unless you are trying to say "I really HATE my clients and think they are UGLY!") And I don’t think that will change because I just told you so.

        …So I can’t imagine who in the world would benefit from hearing your opinion of their work. And I can imagine a sensitive person with real talent being deterred by your abuse.

        • Out of the hundreds of comments I’ve received on this article through social, the one above is by far the best/funniest. Your assessment of our gear/process is entirely incorrect. There’s no such thing as an "AF Camera", 90% of our photos were shot using at least three lights, we use manual lenses, we don’t even own an on camera flash, and we don’t alter skin tones or texture at all beyond using basic frequency separation. It’s hard to learn and adjust based off of comments from someone who makes assumptions and critiques that are entirely incorrect. It’s also telling that the only one here who’s trying their hardest to directly criticize someone else’s work is you. Odd, since you’re obviously quite outspoken against criticism and abuse…

  • I agree with the premise of this article, however, comparing Sally Mann, a controversial but highly acclaimed artist, to someone who has no skill or point of view, is ridiculous

  • ad some good points but really lost me at the beginning when he confused being a digital retoucher with being a photographer. Photoshop skills does not in any way a photographer make and the fact that he not only doesn’t recognize the distinction but tried to make his point by blurring it makes me question whether he really knows what he’s talking about to begin with.

  • Oh, bubba. You’ve tread on sacred ground now. Your critique is gonna come into a lot of criticism. Especially from those who think you’re asking them to give back their participation trophies that they earned by just showing up. Late. But still…

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