The term vision comes up a lot in photography, which probably sounds like stating the obvious. Still, as ubiquitous as it is, the concept isn't necessarily clear. So I wanted to explore the concept a bit, which led to the following thoughts about vision as it might be applied in critiques, reviews, analysis of photographs. I'll follow it in another, shorter, post that takes on the concept of vision more directly.
Not long after I tried approach making photographs seriously, another photographer offered some feedback on one of my pictures. The substance of the comments isn't important here. What's telling is that he finished his feedback by saying that his comments were just his opinion and that my vision might be different (my emphasis). The comment left me feeling uncomfortable, although it took some time and thought before I could articulate why it bothered me.
If there's a problem with the photograph, I wanted to know what it was. Clearly speaker had an issue with one or more things in the picture and his comments were probably along the lines of what most people who understand the medium would have said. So why not just point out the problem? Backing away from the criticism after stating it suggested that an unspoken message behind the critique: "I think your picture is flawed, but maybe that's just me. Maybe your vision is different; maybe you like pictures that suck." To be fair, that's almost certainly not what the commentator really wanted to communicate. But it would have been better to state the problem, and then stop. The disclaimer wasn't necessary or helpful.
So after some thought, I concluded that two problems exist in critiques of artwork in general, and that especially seem to accompany critiques of photography by photographers who haven't had any guidance in how to analyze pictures.
First is the all but irresistible urge to say whether or not you like a photograph. Second is the tendency to view photographs from the standpoint of expectations, rather than evaluation.
That any of us likes a painting, photograph, or any other piece of artwork is subjective and unreliable as a guide to the quality of work, the market value of the work, or its importance within the medium or genre that it belongs to. Most of us might reasonably hope that our tastes change and become more refined and sophisticated as we learn more about what goes into making art, the history of the medium, and how any given piece fits into the overall body of work in that area. Many of us liked macaroni and cheese and hot dogs when we're 10 years old. By the time we made it to 40 or 50 years old, our tastes in food have often matured, become more sophisticated, and changed for the better. The same can be said for artwork. So liking a piece of artwork doesn't tell us much and doesn't give the artist much useful guidance unless it results in a sale.
A better approach involves stepping back from likes and dislikes, and paying more attention to what we actually see, and then learning to describe what we see. This is easier than we might expect. In fact, it's an easier approach to viewing artwork than trying to make sophisticated appraisal that most of us aren't sophisticated or practiced enough to make. But no evaluation can hold any value without an understanding of what the object of the appraisal actually is. The description can note the general subject of the work (landscape, portraiture, etc.), the specific subject in a specific picture (a landscape photograph of Niagara Falls), what is or isn't in focus, the background or foreground and their relationship to the main subject, the exposure and so on. If this sounds like basic stuff, it is. And that's what the starting point should be.
The next step might consider whether the work fits our expectations and if it doesn't, we can consider whether or not it's appropriate to loosen or broaden our expectations. Art moves forward when it goes beyond expectations and still makes an effective statement. It works best when it incorporates or delivers beauty in the process.
We can be tripped up by being too sophisticated for the intended function of the work. Not every piece of art needs to make a complex statement, much less series of statements or risk being inconsequential. We don't, as viewers and consumers of artwork, need to push beyond our honest reactions to the work. But the reaction will be clearer and will have more value to the artist if it's grounded on what the work is. So beginning an evaluation with a focus on description will be more informative and useful than saying what we like or getting to carried away with involved interpretation.
Moreover, keeping our initial evaluation to a description of the work opens us to the possibility of seeing and appreciating work that is unique, that carries an artist's personal vision rather than rehashing what someone else has already done. It allows us, as viewers and consumers of the work, to be open to unexpected gifts that the work might offer us as viewers.
In the next post, I'll get back to the theme that I originally wanted to explore: vision.