Friday, February 23, 2007

Part 2: Photography Critique

Title: "Alien Fetus"
Series: Smoke Figurative
By Nawfal Nur
Creation Year: 2007



I think that basically all of my photographs are failures... I'm not saying that as a self negation or anything like that, I just don't judge it upon how "good" it was, but rather upon how I'd fail upon what I was trying to say... I think this [Tokomo in her Bath] personally is the best photograph I ever made, it came to say what I was trying to say...” -W. Eugene Smith, "Myth and Vision on the Walk to Paradise Garden and the Photography of W. Eugene Smith" by Menning Hansen, ISBN: 9179002668 , page: 6

You can see Smith's photo here:

The Tokomo photograph is very powerful and emotional: the lighting, the facial expressions, the care and gentleness in the mother's posture and glance at the severely deformed child, and the situation seems to fill the image with tragedy and love. In Smith's own words, "It grew and grew in my mind that to me the symbol of Minamata was, finally, a picture of this woman [the mother], and the child, Tomoko. One day I simply said […] let us try to make that symbolic picture." (Source: Minamata, by the way, is a type of mercury poisoning.

Recently I saw some photographs by Ron Haviv (a well-know conflict and humanitarian photojournalist), of famine in Darfur, and his series on Torture seemed unreal. I am fully aware of how human beings are capable of such despicable crimes against others, but the people responsible for the chaos where he has photographed may be 'devils' and incapable of being humane to other people. Haviv's photos are simply gut-wrenching with emotion. His photographs are the kind that have that punch in the gut impact.

I'm not going to pretend to be a photography critic: I'm not.

But please allow me to say this, besides taking photographs, I also like seeing other people's photographs, and sometimes I may have something to say about them. Does that make me a critic? Well, if it does, I always strive to be as 'professional' as I can. I think, however, that my comments are more along the lines of friendly conversation, as if talking to a friend about a work of art.

If I do find the inclination to speak up about someones work, then I hope I can effectively say what the photograph means to me in the context of the day and time when I'm seeing it, and the emotions the photograph hits me with. If it is a 'powerful' photograph, I usually get a feeling for it right away.

The photographer can add more insight into their work by telling the viewer what they were thinking when they took the photograph, why they took the photograph and under what circumstances the photograph was taken. These comments can be added with a short Artist's Statement to accompany a photograph. Some critics say that a good photograph does not need to be explained, but I'm not convinced that is the case. I like to hear input from photographers about their work. I like to see a work and also hear what the artist has to say about it - who would know more about the piece than the artist - no one.

Brooks Jensen, Editor of LensWork Publishing mentioned in one of his podcasts that two of the worst things ('the most deadly form of comment'), someone critiquing a photograph can say is: 1) “I like” or “I don't like” this; and 2) “If it were mine, I would do it this way...”

Both of these types of critiques mean nothing.

A secundum sententia: OK, it 'means nothing' is not exactly true. Of course, it makes me feel great if another artist likes my work. It makes me feel like my work has become accepted into the fraternity of artists' work, if I get the nod of acknowledgement from other photographers and artists. This is an important feeling but a little difficult to is something that could maybe be explained within the science of Sociology-of-the-Arts-World.

However, if the artist or photographer is looking for advice that they can "use" to improve themselves and their work, then 'likes' and 'dislikes' just won't quite cut it.

Number 1) If the critic says, “I like,” or “I dislike,” a photograph it only tells their audience something about the critic's likes – it says nothing about the merits of the photograph. I must say I am guilty of this type of critique sometimes, when I've talked about other photographers' works. I'll try harder not to do this again.

Number 2) If the critic says “If it were mine, I would...” Again, that is also a meaningless statement, as the photograph is NOT theirs, and it is already finished...the work is completed.

As Brooks Jensen puts it, these two types of critiques are 'Non sequitur' and after thinking about it for some time, I would have to agree. In the past, when I have told someone I like their work; indeed, I was only stating something about myself and really had no helpful benefit to the artist or photographer.

I suggest that a more strategic and successful way of critiquing a photograph is to look at it and see it well for some time before saying anything.

I guess I have difficulty sometimes when it comes to my own work and contemplating the feeling that my work expresses. And thus, being the docent for my own work presents its unique challenges.

Typically, as you can see from the collection of images here at my blog, “Behind the Lens,” I shoot very few people, (pun, kind of intended).

In my humble opinion, a scene that includes a person's face (or whole body), capturing them full of emotion and life, and seeing that person's (or people's) connection to their environment, makes a photograph emotional and story-telling. This is my opinion...I suppose it is a fair assumption to grasp hold of, but may not be shared by everyone.

Now, in the context of what I do – my immediate response is...ARGH!

I've been drawn to taking photographs of macroscopic subjects, like water drops, figurative smoke scenes, text on pages of books, conceptual science images, insects and other such things. Most of my subjects are not 'alive', as in breathing, and they lack the 'human element'.

Nevertheless, I know why I enjoy the things I photograph, and the pleasure I get out of it, but does the viewer of my photographs understand what my photographs are all about, and can they conjure up a story to accompany my photographs? I guess that is another question I have no answer for. Maybe my photographs can be analyzed more profoundly from a scientific standpoint? ...It is possible. Perchance, my photographs are more illustrative of physical laws and showing the beauty in seeing 'small things' and 'moving subjects' for which most people do not give a second, or a third thought about. Whatever my motivation is for what I photograph, I must keep the following quote in mind, as stated by photographer, Manuel Alvarez Bravo:

The word 'art' is very slippery. It really has no importance in relation to one's work. I work for the pleasure, for the pleasure of the work, and everything else is a matter for the critics.” -Manuel Alvarez Bravo

So, let me wrap this up with Manuel's quotation: Many people will have something to say about photographs, but I believe that as a Photographer, I should be more concerned with the work and enjoying the work – Manuel's comment was very wise. In addition, to help me grow as a photographer, I am grateful for helpful and meaningful critiques; however, as for Non sequitur statements about my work, I weed those out, brush it off, pick up my ego, and then carry on.

One-Fifth Full!

Title: "Blue Surface Tension"
Series: Alien Water
Creation Year: 2006

Part 1

* Please Note: Because I wrote these entries in order and posted them in order, and, because I don't see a way in my dashboard to rearrange the order of these three posts...get to the will be seeing Part 3 first above, then Part 2 and then this one, Part 1. Sorry! Maybe, if arranging individual posts the way the author wants is NOT a current feature, then it should be. *

This is a multi-part blog-entry, and please bear with me, hopefully you find it informative and interesting. If you are an artist or a photographer, you may fully understand where this is coming from and appreciate its message.

A few days ago, I received an email from a Fine Art photography consortium (of sorts), for which I had submitted some of my Fine Art Photographs for consideration. They sell Fine Art photography for various artists to their network of art buyers, museum curators and gallery owners - that is their target market. Of course I thought “cool,” I'll give it a shot.

As they only wanted a small sampling, that is what I gave them. There was no maximum number mentioned for the submission requirements, but they wrote somewhere in their website text to only send a few samples first.

I entered into this with hopeful, yet cautious optimism. I emailed five samples of my Fine Art work: I wanted to test the waters, so to speak, and see what they liked in a small sampling of my work. I didn't really have any reservations about submitting my work, and maybe over confidently I was thinking that all of my work would be accepted for their marketing endeavors.

A couple of days passed, maybe three, and I kept the submission in the back of my mind not trying to speculate what the results would be and just let whatever may be, be.

I think it was actually three days later that I got their email in response to my submission, and I soon realized that I was sorely mistaken about my submission. I was quite taken aback when I read the email and it said that they like my work, but they only approved one out of the five images for inclusion in their library. Of the items not approved, they believed they could not picture these particular images framed and displayed on a wall – and they may not sell well.

Upset...I was not.

Perplexed...yes I was.

I should know this by now: anyone in the art's game knows they will receive bad news, lukewarm news and sometimes, even good news. Rejection letters are standard medicine for photographers and artists. It is a good sign if a rejection is accompanied by positive feedback, which this was. They said they liked my work but did not believe they could visualize it up on a collector's wall, thus, making it a difficult sell. That's kind of positive, right!

Because I “needed” to make some sense of this “mostly rejected submission,” I spent time analyzing their response, and I finally came up with this conclusion: “We can not personally visualize your work selling well to OUR clients; however, we like your work.” That seemed more like what they were telling me, at least that is what I want and must believe.

I am not distressed by this incident – there are many other fish out there in the Fine Arts' World who will like my work better and who have clients who will love my work. I not only believe this, but I MUST believe it to be true.

If you are not believing in your own work, then what is the point of being an artist? There is a lot of madness in this life as an artist and at the end of the day, weather it was a productive or a nonproductive day; a good day or a bad day, you will need to still believe that your work is meaningful and has quality. You must also believe that there is a market for your work and it is your job as Artist/Photographer and business person, to find your market.

Anyway, this particular group's critique & decision that 80% of my submitted work was not suited to their purpose, is OK with me. I just have to consider that after my first submission, that my cup was still 1/5th full – they accepted one of my pieces!

For some reason though, as the darkness fell along the equator, so did my spirits – not sure why. That night I was kept awake by those nagging Gremlins-of-doubt. I tried to sleep but it was hopeless: I was pestered by a phrase that was painted on the side of Chiggy von Richthofen's spacecraft (from the TV show, SPACE ABOVE AND BEYOND): “Resistance is Futile!” Resistance to over analyzing, I think.

My mind raced with thoughts that my work may not be as good as what I believed it was. I worried that I was careless someway in my presentation or “the look” that my photographs had as introduced in digital format on a screen that may not be 'color spaced' and fine-tuned like mine.

Were my blacks showing up as muddy gray tones on their screen? Were my reds showing up like sickly pinks on their monitor? Were my shots just boring in their eyes? All these hazardous thoughts burned into my brain that night: how could I sleep – YES - resistance to these nagging thoughts, somehow, became futile!

Over the years, after dealing with various folks, I have developed a fairly medium to thin-thick skin when it comes to critiquing (criticism) of my work. I still run through the many ruminative questions I have about my work...over, and occasionally, over again. More about this later...I will get into the world of “Critique” in another part of this multi-part blog entry.

I think the main thing that kept me awake was thinking: “What could I have done better?” “What could I have done different?” And of course, the next question is a big concern of mine as a Fine Art Photographer, “Is this organization a good fit for me?” Finding good and trusting art partnerships is not easy and takes a strategic plan, a lot of patience, endurance, and some time to succeed. Sometimes you know that a business partnership is just wrong, like a five fingered hand trying to fit into a four fingered glove – it just feels BAD!