Joyce Carol Oates once said, "Self-criticism is an art not many are qualified to practice." For anyone pursuing artistic endeavors, whether it's creative writing, photography or any of the visual arts, music and more, Ms. Oates' words are dead on.
Some people believe, when it comes to critical appraisals of their work, the only critiques that truly matter are the critiques of others; that is, what others think of their work is what matters most. Conversely, some believe what others think of their work doesn't really matter. If they, as producers or authors of the work, think it's good, bad, or something in between, that's what it is. Personally, I don't agree with either of those views. They're too one-sided and intractable. For me, valid criticisms of my work falls somewhere between those two extremes; somewhere between my own self-criticisms and the criticisms of others... unless it's a client who's doing the criticizing. In those instances, my self criticisms matter so much less than the criticisms of my clients.
But how can anyone know which criticisms are most valid? Should we put more weight on our own criticisms or the criticisms of others? In other words, which should we count on most in order to determine the relative value of the aesthetic qualities of our work or a specific example of our work? That's a tough question to be sure.
I've heard some photographers suggest it doesn't matter what others think of their work. What each of us thinks about our own work is all that matters. That sounds terrific and very reassuring even if Ms. Oates' astute observation doesn't quite bear it out in terms of it being the better way to go. Still, I'm confident there are some very successful photographers and other artists who wholeheartedly subscribe to that idea, giving it much credit for their personal successes.
On the other hand, I'm also sure there are many more unsuccessful photographers and artists who, likewise, advocate that notion. When others don't agree with their self-criticisms, they simply chalk it up to others not understanding or appreciating their art. Those people are gifted artists, leastwise they've convinced themselves they are, and no one else knows nothing when it comes to their work. Worse yet, I'm pretty sure there are more than a few photographers whose work, for lack of a better word, sucks -- leastwise, in the eyes of most others -- and they wholeheartedly believe their self-appraisals of their work is all that's important and it always trumps the criticisms of others. For them, their work only sucks when they say it sucks... something they rarely, if ever, say.
I don't believe there's a sure-fire way to learn the art of self-criticism. Unfortunately, we all have something that can get in the way of learning to become good at self-criticism. That something is an "artistic ego." For some, it can be referred to as a "wildly inflated artistic ego." Some of you might know a few people who suffer from that affliction. I know I do.
There are those who seem to have a natural knack for the art of self-criticism. I wish I had that knack. For most of us, however, self-criticism is a tough and difficult art to master, if it's even master-able. Still, there's techniques, ways, steps, rules, whatever you want to call them, which may help you become more accomplished at criticizing your own work. Here's five of them I've come up with.
1. Practice your art often. The more you do so, the better you become-- both at it and at evaluating and appraising it. Yep, the more you practice, the better you'll probably become at deciding what's good and what's not so good in your work.
2. Be honest. This is where you have to really work at keeping your artistic ego in check. Somehow, you need to learn how to remove the rose-colored glasses when you're looking at your work.
3. Don't make excuses. In other words, don't blame others (for example models) or circumstances (like the environment you're shooting in) for less-than-good work. Learn to deal with inexperienced models. Learn to shoot in less than ideal locations. Learn as much as you can in terms of how to deal with less than optimum conditions when shooting. Don't make excuses for yourself or your work.
4. Evaluate the work of others. Look at the work of other photographers and, in a sort of semi-formal way, evaluate/critique it. That doesn't mean you necessarily have to share your critiques of other people's work. You're simply doing it to practice critiquing your own work. After you've critiqued another shooter's work, compare your critical appraisals of their work with your critical appraisals of your own work. Are you tougher on others than you are on yourself? When being critical, are you more lax and forgiving with the work of others than you are with your own work? Is the level of detail in your critiques greater when you are criticizing other people's work? Conversely, is there less detail in your self-criticisms?
5. Have others critically evaluate your work. You don't have to agree with their critiques but I think you'll learn a thing or two about self-criticism when you compare your self-critiques with their critiques. This might require growing some thicker skin, but thicker skin is generally an asset when it comes to both accepting criticism, as well as developing your own skills at self-criticism.
The gratuitous pretty girl at the top is CJ from about 5 years ago. (Click pic to enlarge it.) I think she's waiting for dinner to be served.