Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Internet Critique

Its safe to say that measured by volume, internet forums and image posting sites account for a sizable majority of the photographic criticism taking place in the world today. While in-person critiques in schools and photo clubs are still important, a large percentage of photographers young and old are now far more influenced by websites like and These sites and others like them have contributed to a major acceleration of the dissemination of ideas and the progression rates of new photographers: their existence is a blessing to the art-form in many ways. However, the benefits created by such sites should not cause us to turn a blind-eye to their limitations. What follows is an examination of some common shortcomings of internet criticism. This is not intended to discount this mode of learning! Rather, it is my intention to encourage individuals partaking in this process to think critically as they assess the value of the feedback provided.

The Woman in the Red Dress:
All of us are familiar with this concept: the bombshell vixen in an eye-catching wardrobe who attracts the attention of everyone in the room. There may have been a number of attractive women in more demure costume with better conversational skills, more varied interests, and greater achievements... But alas they are overshadowed by this showy creature who may lack their substance. An internet forum is not unlike a singles bar: every photographer showing his or her stuff and trying to attract the attention of the crowd. I'm deeply suspicious of anyone who does not admit that in posting their images, they hope for a large number of positive responses. It is undeniable that the more showy flavors of photography tend to attract the attention of the crowd. Attractive subjects and extreme stylization achieve the best response, and thus this response conditions photographers to create and post ever more stylized images of only the most attractive subjects. Power overshadows grace, contrast overshadows tonality, vibrancy exceeds subtlety, and only the sexy folks get posted. This ultimately can affect the sort of images we seek to create: we may begin to shoot to impress the crowd rather than to create meaningful images for our clients!

The Strawberry Jam Experiment
Its no secret that internet forums are frequented by anyone from accomplished artists and professionals to neophytes and hacks, many posting more-or-less anonymously. Stop me if you've heard this one:

Photographer 1 posts a handful of images
Photographer 2 slams the images on a variety of technical failings
Photographer 3 jumps to photographer 1's defense and questions the authority of photographer 2 to pass judgement.
Photographer 4 pontificates that one doesn't have to be a good photographer to offer valid critique.

Along the way, photographers 1-4 all pick up adherents to their particular points of view and acrimony ensues until the thread is locked.

So who is right? Does one have to be an expert to provide valid critique of a photograph? The answer is yes-and-no.

In Malcolm Gladwell's fascinating book Blink, he details an experiment in which both experts and laypeople evaluated various brands of strawberry jam. Consumer Reports had taken all 44 of the major varieties of strawberry jam and given them to expert food tasters for evaluation and ranking. The experiment involved taking the first, eleventh, twenty-fourth, thirty-second, and fourty-fourth ranking jams and giving them to two separate groups of college students. The first group was simply told to rank the jams from best to worst, while the second group was asked for written explanations of their rankings.

Here's the interesting part: the group that was called upon simply for rankings produced results that showed an extremely high correlation to the expert's opinons. In general, the experts and the general public liked the same jams in the same order. However, the group that was being called upon to explain their ratings produced markedly different results from both their peers and the experts. It is the author's hypothesis (supported by other case studies discussed in the book) that while most of us possess a remarkable ability to intuitively evaluate a wide variety of subjects, only training and experience can enable one to quantify and explain his or her "gut feeling." Asking a layperson to evaluate a subject in technical terms frequently causes them to alter their preferences as they over-think their response. The second group of college students did not only disagree with the experts: statistically speaking they almost certainly got their own preferences wrong!

One of the fundamental differences between a traditional critique and an internet forum is that a traditional critique is usually at least moderated by individuals with established ability and stature. Internet forums provide far more democratic feedback. The experiment above suggests that one should value the snap-judgements of the average Joe, but when seeking detailed critical feedback one should be leery of the value of statements provided by those without the training and experience to quantify their gut feelings appropriately. They may in fact be distorting their own natural view of an image in an effort to apply a critical evaluation that they lack the capacity to provide.

Photography Idol
In a 1996 paper entitled "A Disconfirmation Bias in the Evaluation of Arguments," Kari Edwards and Edward Smith explore the extent of and manner in which individuals tend to be more receptive to facts and arguments that favor their preexisting beliefs, while seeking to undermine those that run contrary to their opinions. One relevant passage:

"When one is presented an argument to evaluate, there will be some automatic activation in memory of material relevant to the argument. Some of the accessed material will include one's prior beliefs about the issue."

In photography, no one evaluates an image in a vacuum. One of the most important preconditioning factors is the source of the image. When one is confronted by a Man Ray image in a museum, the validation conferred by his name and its presence in a gallery of stature causes us to seek out reasons why the work has merit. In fact, when the stature of the artist or of the third-party validation is great enough, one is tempted to find reasons to distrust one's own judgment if it is not in accordance. Alternately, when one is presented work from a relative unknown, or perhaps someone who is an acknowledged "newbie," one is far more likely to ascribe deviance from expected norms to faulty technique than to artistic choice.

This issue is exacerbated in photography forums, where one's status and acceptance into the group is dictated by both one's own ability and by the "correctness" of one's pronouncements on the work of others. Anyone who has spent time on these forums will recognize that new participants' work will commonly pass without comment until an established member of the community will set a baseline evaluation. Only a forum participant with a secure stature on the forum is willing to risk being "wrong" in their evaluation of the work.

This same effect causes many posters to become excessively nit-picky for fear of being branded ignorant for missing a "defect" such as missed focus or "incorrect" portrait light patterns. Technical minutia tend to become emphasized out of proportion to their true importance when images are subjected to internet critique.

For established members with a reputation for excellence, forum members will be both more likely to be looking for things to like about the posted images and be more likely to be willing to risk posting these positive opinions as the previous acceptance of the artist's work makes it more likely that this praise will be viewed as "the right response." Thus, forums have a tendency to create "rock stars" whose work is evaluated far differently from less established members. At the opposite end of the spectrum, this tends to explain the "dog-pile" effect when large masses of forum members descend on a thread to denounce the many failings of a piece of work.

I Am Wondering... Why Are You Here? (in Yoda Voice)
Why do so many of us devote so much time to internet forums? There are a multitude of reasons to be sure. Some enjoy finding a larger aggregation of like-minded individuals with identical interests than would be possible in our geographic vicinity. Some feel liberated by the greater anonymity offered by the internet, or feel more comfortable dealing with others by proxy: through text on a screen rather than face-to-face. Many might seek to create a mutually supportive learning environment. However, most photographers on an internet forum have at least an element of one of the following motivations at work:

1. Seeking validation of one's work and abilities.
2. Marketing one's business by establishing a professional reputation
3. Feeling like an authority on photography and hopefully making others respect you as such, by assigning value to other people's work, and contributing to the education of others.

Ultimately, ego and self interest are at least factors in the participation of most forum members. This is not mutually exclusive with elements of altruism or a desire to foster a mutually beneficial environment, but it needs to be understood as a factor as to why so many individuals give so much of their time to criticizing the work of others. There is a power dynamic at work. In a more traditional critique environment, typically the social heirarchy is more rigid (IE established student and teacher roles), thus there is less incentive for power plays in the evaluation of others' work.

I would hazard to say that a significant portion of the critique offered on internet sites is given with less earnest desire to foster the development of the artist than from the enjoyment of feeling like an authority, and the desire to be seen as one by the larger group. This is particularly true when the feedback amounts to little more than denouncement of an image or set of images without any constructive elements to build on.

This is not to say that internet feedback does not have value. However, a series of questions may assist one in filtering and evaluating the feedback one receives on such a forum:

1. Why am I posting my images? Am I looking for validation or growth? Is this an effort to learn or an effort to market myself?

2. Where do I fall in the existing social hierarchy of this forum? Am I a rock-star? A journeyman? A newbie? How does this status condition people to respond to my work?

3. What is the balance of style and substance in my work? Is my work the sort that reaches out and grabs the attention of the crowd, or are its merits more subtle and substantive? Does my work feature attention-getting subjects and locations?

4. What sort of person is evaluating my images? Do they have a body of work or qualification from which I can ascertain their relative knowledge-level and artistic preferences? Is this person providing expert critique or a layperson's impression?

5. What is the motivation of the person offering the feedback? Are they more interested in helping me or in looking cool to everyone else?

By asking these questions, one can increase the value of internet feedback. I'd further encourage anyone participating in such a forum to seek out more traditional critique and mentorship environments where one might temper internet feedback with that from a trusted authority or colleague. By combining the benefits of this modern vehicle for growth with the best of traditional methods, one can ensure the best opportunity for real education in photography.


amydale said...

"I would hazard to say that a significant portion of the critique offered on internet sites is given with less earnest desire to foster the development of the artist than from the enjoyment of feeling like an authority, and the desire to be seen as one by the larger group."

i have an analogy to this i meant to tell you last week. i'll send it to you.

good essay too. all your thoughts on this came together nicely. i especially like the jam experiment.
my thoughts after i read it:
sometimes there is just good and bad, we just know it instinctively. when we are asked to explain things that are instinctive our mind has a tendency to fabricate reasons and explanations. i can't remember what that is called, but it can happen too when we recall memories.

"back in the day" when there were profs and artists doing the critiquing did they really explain every "why" something was bad or good or did they stretch the learning artist to find it themselves first?
does the internet critique make us lazy artists?

4Honor said...

Instead of Terms of Services that people have to read before registration, they should be required to read this instead. Nice article, I subscribed to your blog, keep posting!

BTW, I came from FM. :)

Deb said...

Evan, I still love this post.

I am finally realizing that my architecture background gave me an understanding of critiques, good and bad. We were required to work hard on our projects (40 hours per week, at least), then present them to a large group of architects that came in from New York City and Philadelphia. Presenting a project to a group like that is very intimidating; learning to put faith in my work and take criticism was one of the best aspects of my education - EVER. I worked with a teacher before those critiques - coming up with my own ideas, but bouncing them off someone else and getting mini-critiques. Then I presented this project that I had put so much time into. I learned a lot from seeing what my fellow students came up with, and I learned a lot from listening to their critiques. There are many things I learned in college that have helped me today. Few of those things I learned in the classroom.

All that to say that there is an artform to giving and accepting critique. Understanding critique is an artform as well. Amy Dale made a fantastic point - that perhaps we have become lazy - searching for an internet critique rather than learning to critique ourselves. On the other hand, it is difficult to learn to critique yourself without having first heard a genuine, well thought out critique from an expert. Learning about what you should look for and how you should think about something is important to learn.

I'm still learning. But right now? I'm enjoying the learning process. I'm learning to slow down - and I think that will help me in the end.

Can't wait for your next post!

Zenza said...

Excellent article!

Chris said...

I found your blog via yahoo answers. I am a complete hack with my first DSLR and have no ambition to be anything more than a good amateur photographer one day.

I love your assessment of this phenomena. Especially pulling in from Blink (great book....I need to get Tipping Point too). I liked the example in the book about the faked art too.

I love reading online critique on others work, just to see what thoughts are. I am learning a lot from those, but have started taking them with a grain of salt, specifically because of the things you wrote about.

I'm looking forward to learning from your blog, you've got some great stuff here.