A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Criticism from a Canine Perspective.

Join the discussion with Peter J. Blackburn as he chews on the bone of criticism!

Prolegomenon: prefatory remarks ; specif: a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary

With anxious anticipation, the day had arrived for me to spread my photographic portfolio on the narrow display ledge mounted along the entire perimeter of the classroom. You see, I had enrolled in the required photographic business and practices (PBP) course where us photo greenhorns were put through the rigors of developing a working business plan, exploring marketing techniques, and preparing a portfolio which clearly demonstrated our creative ability and professional expertise. Being an aspiring, although economically challenged, shutterbug-in-training I funneled considerable cash toward first rate camera gear, accessories, and studio equipment much to the neglect of proper finishing supplies. Consequently, my misappropriated thrift left me defenseless against the venomous barbs, rabid epithets, and the general critical shellacking of my dear fellow classmates.

From a series entitled, The Italian Designers, here are two of fifteen images critiqued on my ignominious day of reckoning—in that PBP course long ago. As an aside, these images, created more than twenty years ago, were produced in a darkroom with Kodak film, paper, and chemistry as typical practice. Ah, those were the days, my friend.

For what seemed like an eternity in slow motion, I endured every chastisement, each rebuke, every verbal lashing and curse word in the book — even a few new ones invented by the more resourceful students just for the occasion. Had I simply been taken to task for my inferior presentation or did a barrel of banshees bust out from the neighboring darkroom to conduct a military court marshal having found me guilty of reckless mounting and matting? I don’t know for sure, although warily I still keep vigil for a firing squad to appear at my front door.

No, it wasn’t so much the actual photographs which appalled them as it was the less than professional manner—the downright clumsy means I had matted the work. Using an inferior low budget mat cutting tool, the bowed and crooked cuts were obvious to everyone—everyone except me. Oh, I suppose I had noticed the glaring gaffs, but chose instead to ignore them in the hope that the images themselves would carry the day. Oh, was I so very mistaken. It was an egregious blunder I would regret with gritting teeth for quite some time.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the devastating deluge of condemnation. It was par for the course. The three or four students who went on trial prior to me had also experienced a sound and sure tongue whipping leaving one overwhelmed soul slumped in a jumbled heap, sobbing. Like blood thirsty sharks engaged in a feeding frenzy, each presentation was mercilessly challenged—the order of each image, the composition, the print quality, density and sharpness, the size and format, light and shadow, tonality and luminance, processing flaws and faults. We nitpicked through each and every detail right down to the signature. It wasn’t pretty to see and quite dreadful to hear. In the days ahead the agonizing ordeal would be repeated for each and every classmate, or rather inmate—all fifteen of us. No one was spared. The residual trauma is something I rarely discuss. And yet with the passing of time, I have come to appreciate those terrifying, unforgiving days as a useful, perhaps necessary trial by fire.

When I look back at my photographic training, I can pick out at least one distinct concept or lesson from every course which has remained with me over the years. That PBP class is no exception. Those days of severe examination and testing helped to create a mindset which now automatically and ruthlessly evaluates in a systematic manner each and every piece of work I intend for public consumption. My usual regimen is to temporarily hang completed pieces on a dedicated wall rack labeled, “In Process,” before my signature is duly inscribed. I prefer a bit of time to pass, a sort of aging process to occur, which allows for continued assessment and scrutinizing before the image is finally released. To be sure, I have ever since carefully mounted and matted all my work according to strict standards without exception. Corners are never cut in the finishing department lest I heap Arabian nights of mental condemnation upon myself.

Regrettably, this rather hardnosed outlook has carried over to all my photographic viewing. It seems a casual glance can never be granted to any particular photograph, regardless of the source. Family shots emailed from my parents, party or wedding snaps from friends, the latest happenings sent by relatives all tend to make me cringe and squirm in my chair like a panic stricken Kindergarten child who just sat on a red ant nest. But I digress.

Criticism, whether from within or without, can function as either a bark or a bite. A barking dog is a warning dog. Alter your intention! Change your direction! Modify your action! Take heed or suffer the soon-to-come consequence—a vicious, nasty bite! Healthy criticism should function like the growling bark of a dog, alerting us to take notice of possible errors and misalignments in our vision, the implementation, and finishing touches. Each bark should act as both a shrewd guide nudging us further along toward new territory and as a sharpened chisel chipping away all which hinders our progress, leaving behind fruitful, rewarding work.

Poppies, 2010. Casein bichromate print. The bark and bite section of this essay is dedicated to my French bulldog, Poppies, who helped me to formulate the idea. What a pal!

Barks can also serve as an opportunity for celebration, like the greeting yelp of our dog when we arrive home from an extended absence. Happy barks can simply be a moment we enjoy some aspect achieved in our creation—the delightful appearance of a chosen hue, some unexpected, but welcome texture we have managed to produce, or relishing in the accomplishment of a complex, protracted portfolio. Indeed, our penchant for spotting the negative must be balanced with an affinity for recognizing the positive. Criticism and appraisal must be two ends of the same dog bone.

But what about the bite? Need I lament all the poor souls who self-destructed, dying slow deaths over caustic disapproval disguised as beneficial criticism, or others who simply frittered away a lifetime in a septic tank of debilitating depression as casualties of graceless, off-the-cuff remarks which left lasting, gaping wounds to fester untreated? And that is precisely the point. Whether the barbs were self inflicted or unleashed from without, offered with the best of intentions or purposely launched to exact enduring pain, you must act as your own stop gate permitting the sound of alerting barks while repelling the impact of cruel bites. It’s the bites which can devastate from within. Unfortunately, those vocal bites—perhaps inflicted by a harsh parent, a well-meaning colleague, or an abuser hiding behind academic credentials—can occur suddenly, unexpectedly.

So, let me post a familiar warning sign right here for all to see—Beware of Dog.

Sadly, I have learned that artists, as a species, exhibit a tendency to eat their young. Therefore, my advice to you, dear reader, is to listen, take note, and act accordingly as you discern the source, the intent, and the value of each howl of criticism. Learn to place criticism on a tight leash by never permitting judgments to seize control of your heart or wander aimlessly through your mind.

Let me propose, too, that some of the most precious and prized admonitions be sought from within—let them come in the form of guiding, directed questions and evaluative self-examinations rather than knee-jerk reactions. Do you take time to spread your work on the table or floor for honest assessment, performing vital editing decisions? Do you feel comfortable with culling inferior, substandard, less than desirable work from your portfolio? Do you have a standard for what is inferior, substandard work? Is the standard workable? Is it realistic? By what means did you establish your standard(s)? Are you able to bring a critical eye to every detail of every image and take positive, corrective action? Here is a short list of specific questions I find helpful to ask of myself as a work is in progress, from conception right up to exhibition. Perhaps you might find some or all of these questions helpful to you.

Is the format I have chosen for my image, i.e. horizontal or vertical, the most appropriate for this piece? What is the relationship of the area occupied by one shape to that of the others? Is the relationship clear or implied? Does texture play a role in this image—should it? Do elements appear rough or smooth, hard or soft, flat or glossy? Do the colors harmonize or provide valuable dimension to the overall work? Are the tonal values effectively rendered? Is the work balanced? Are there effective changes in size and direction of elements, or transitional changes which add interest to the image? Are elements repeated for visual effect? Is there effective diversity or variation between colors, textures, and tones? Do one or more elements seem to govern the remaining elements helping to bring interest and focus? Does the placement of the elements coincide with the idea being expressed by the piece? Do my visual components work together to bring about a cohesive whole? Am I bringing my highest level of skill to the work? Is the creation executed in a manner which is unique to the idea expressed? Can evidence of creative thought be recognized in the piece? Does the piece intend to provoke thought or encourage passivity from my audience? Finally, has this piece brought me further along toward a deeper understanding of both the physical process at hand and of the concept(s) expressed in this particular print and the overall portfolio?

In a broader mode, do you take time to think through cohesive projects? Do you keep a record of those thoughts, building upon them, discussing them with trusted friends and associates, engaging in related research, creating smaller works to serve as guides for larger or more complicated pieces? Is questioning, learning, and dreaming an intricate part of your modus operandi?

I close once again with a noteworthy quote from Oscar Levant, a musical phenomenon whose life was cut short, in part, as a result of depression caused by cavernous wounds inflicted through imprudent critical thinking. He said, “It’s not what I am that bothers me, it’s what I failed to become that hurts.” As living beings, each of us is in the midst of personal development—growth which, I trust, is advancing in a positive direction. Will the creative work yet to come only reveal repeated, persistent failure? Is the reluctance to engage in measured self evaluation setting you and me up for future suffering, regrets, and second guessing? Or will our efforts manifest original, imaginative labor, a worthy struggle, an evolution of vision? I believe an affirmative answer to the later will require, in part, regular spoonfuls of supportive, nurturing criticism. So—here’s to your creative health and all best in the New Year!

Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments. Quick, can you think of a nine letter word for art? Join the discussion next time as we include that provocative term among the concepts addressed in this continuing prolegomenon series.


4 Comments

  1. Posted January 5, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Touchy subject, and an important one, so I’ll have to read it a second time to get around to addressing what YOU are saying. Right now, all the old good and bad critics through my career are echoing in my head.

    Being a summer camp counselor has taught me many great teaching tricks. The best trick, which seems to apply to any academic scenario is to be sure to point out the good with the bad. At a basic level, it says that someone’s work it not entirely useless. It may, in fact, be poor work. But, most of the time, there is something that is good, and I don’t want to run the risk of having a student assume that some good aspect is bad, and change direction for no reason.

    In a nutshell, when asked for a real critique from collegues or students, I have a loose formate of:
    I like this this and this (for this reason), and I don’t like this this and this (for this reason). I don’t understand this. Can you explain it to me?

    More later. As I said above, I need to read this again.

  2. Peter J. Blackburn
    Posted January 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Scott, for your comments. Yes, criticism of student work should be age appropriate. Children are still developing in eye/hand coordination along with brain development. Positive, sensitive direction and instruction should be the norm in art education for children and young people.

  3. Posted May 24, 2012 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    You make many excellent points, Peter! (Your harrowing report of fierce criticism gave me unfortunate flashbacks to design school…)

    I especially like your suggestions for developing a personal method of evaluating one’s own work. I’d add that it is often valuable to set new work aside, and revisit it later to evaluate it again. Often, interim experience casts recent work in new light, and can provide new insights into past choices.

    External criticism has its uses, and its limits. I appreciate being able to see work from a new perspective. However, the same print may be loved by one and scorned by another with equal zeal. I attempt to glean some detail that can help me evaluate an image differently from everyone, but ultimately, I rely more heavily on critics who seem to like work by others that I also like.

    Elizabeth

  4. Peter J. Blackburn
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Hello Elizabeth:

    What an honor to have you join the discussion. First, I must say I enjoy your suburb work found on the web. And, the instructional leadership you bring to this site also helps raise the knowledge base bar even higher. Kudos to you for your many outstanding contributions!

    Thank you, too, for your comments to this particular blog topic. They seem to underline and expand upon my written commentary quite well.

    Peter

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