Fine Art Photography

How a Critique Group Can Change Your Photography

July 6, 2019

By Tira Khan

© Tira Khan

Members of the author's crit group, from left: Julie Williams-Krishnan, Astrid Reischwitz, Charan Devereaux, Claudia Gustafson and Gail Samuelson.

I once spent hours on working on a collage, fine-tuning its colors, combining photographs, and assessing the image’s visual impact against the subtext of its meaning. Finally, it was perfect. I was ready to bring it to my class at a local photography museum for critique.

I placed the eight-by-ten print on a folding table surrounded by my classmates and waited for them to commend my masterpiece. At first they were silent. Then a few suggested some tweaks. And then I saw it. The image did not need tweaking. It was perfect indeed. It was perfectly disastrous: perfect for a 1970s romance novel—not exactly the look I was going for.

When you work for long stretches alone, it’s easy to lose perspective. As photographers, we know making pictures can be mentally stimulating, and emotionally exciting, as we discover the camera’s—and our own—possibilities. Yet we don’t always acknowledge the flipside: that photography can be isolating. In our picture-making process, we are often the observers of people and events, rather than part of the action. Editing our work, too, can be a solitary task.

Once we have created our images, however, we shift out of our interior world and seek external experiences: We want to see our photographs in context, join the proverbial conversation. We share our work in classrooms, on social media, in exhibitions.

The first place I share my work is with my critique group. I want my peers’ gut reactions to the images, and to hear their other thoughts. Their feedback helps me make that transition from creating work to presenting it to the world. Who else is going to tell me that my photograph doesn’t say what I want it to say? Nicely? What a luxury to have others equally fascinated by photography take the time to look at images and offer their insights. As a bonus, I find listening to others’ criticism of my work thickens my skin and prepares me to speak about the work with curators, collectors, and other audiences.

Why the Crit Group Started

Three years ago, I approached photographer Astrid Reischwitz about starting a critique group. I didn’t know many photographers at the time, and I was flailing alone. I met Astrid while taking classes at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA. We both enjoyed the museum’s Atelier photography workshops, which emphasize peer critiques and creating portfolios. But the classes would inevitably end. We wanted a group that was smaller than a class, and more consistent.

We asked a handful of photographers—many of whom we’d met through the Griffin—if they would be interested in joining a photo salon that met once a month. We aimed for five to seven members—enough people to make meetings worthwhile in case of absences, but not too many, because we needed enough individual time. We decided to ask only women because we thought it might create camaraderie and encourage discussions of shared experiences.

Now, once a month we travel to each others’ homes around the Boston area. The salon is about sharing ideas, resources, connections, and whatever else comes up. It’s also about mutual support and growing artistically. Photographer Claudia Gustafson secured a teaching job through one of the salon’s members. “This group is like my compass,” she says. “It keeps me focused and motivated with my practice. I am allowed to make mistakes and not be judged.”

Julie Williams-Krishnan, a new member, finds the salon gives her photography practice structure. “It’s a place where projects evolve. It motivates me to have something to show that has moved forward since the last meeting.”

By meeting at each others’ homes, we bridge the personal and professional realms. The intimacy of the setting makes us more invested in the group, and it’s another way of getting to know the person behind the work. To keep it simple, the host provides coffee, tea and snacks. Modern day living is so frenzied, it’s a nice, casual way to entertain.

Part of what makes the group interesting is the diversity of the work we do. Members shoot landscapes, portraits, and their own families. We use historic memorabilia, create diptychs, embroider prints, and collage. The variety of genres was not by design, and sometimes our projects do overlap, but the appeal of our work lies in the diversity of perspectives, and artistic courage, rather than the objects or people we photograph. Still, the breadth of perspectives keeps the conversation flowing and the person receiving the critique on her toes.

How the Crit Group Works

So what do we do in the group? The first half hour we reserve for chitchat and catching up. Then we get serious. We set the timer for 14 to 18 minutes per person, depending on how many attend. Each photographer chooses her agenda.

Some will bring up to 40 photographs and ask for general feedback. We discuss the images and a photographer might turn the less successful ones face down on the table. Sometimes subtracting photos reveals an interesting point of view, and it may give the photographer more clarity about her project, and what ideas to pursue. Other times, someone may not show any photographs, and instead choose to discuss whatever is on her mind.

Astrid often asks the group specific questions about one or two photographs, and may bring variations of an image to discuss color, concept, or placement. “Feedback from people you respect and admire is crucial for developing my photography,” she says. “I not only enjoy our discussions about photography, but also the chatting, the laughing.”

Is our salon perfect? No. Sometimes we give the wrong advice, or perhaps we are too critical of ourselves. But somehow, right now at least, it works.

It helps to meet regularly with a group of people equally committed to photography: People who understand the process behind the photographs, as much as the product. Those who enjoy attending gallery openings, and photography talks, when your family says—politely of course—that they would rather not.

Tips for Creating a Crit Group:

1. Set a Consistent Schedule: This seems to be our biggest challenge. It’s best to be clear in the beginning by choosing a day and time to meet. We meet every month on the same weekday from September to June. In December we move the meeting to the first week, to avoid the holiday rush. In April and February, we move the meeting if it conflicts with public school holidays. We try to be flexible when possible. There is a fine line between consistency and chaos.

2. Find Fellow Art Lovers, Not Art Stars: It’s important to get people you get along with, and who are open to giving and receiving feedback. Our salon is not a place to grandstand or prove yourself. It’s a place where we show early drafts, listen to each other, question ourselves, and toss around unfinished ideas. To work well, members need to be open to others’ ideas. Hearing criticism can make people feel a vulnerable. Workshop-style photography classes are the best places to meet potential members. You get to know classmates in a similar setting, and everyone is used to giving and receiving critiques. Word of mouth is great, too.

3. Limit Your Numbers: We have five to seven people at each session. We choose not to expand because we need to have time to devote to everyone. Having sufficient time to focus on each person’s work is key to the group’s success. For me, the salon is successful if members look forward to meetings, feel that the group is helping them advance in their careers, and enjoy a sense of community in competitive world.

4. Keep Time: Perhaps the secret to our attendance is the timer. We are very strict and make sure to allot everyone the same amount of time. Each of us gets 12-18 minutes, depending how many attend a meeting. Even if someone says they don’t need their allotted time, we give it to her anyway. You’d be surprised how quickly it goes. If we are in the middle of a conversation, we may go a couple minutes over, but it’s not ideal. I have been in many photo classes where the person who talks the most in class gets the most time and attention, and I did not want to replicate it here. Our meetings are always 2.5 hours, and we try to finish as close to that time as possible.

5. Try to Use Prints: Whenever possible, we prefer to view prints. Easier to spread on the kitchen table, view up close, and move around.

6. Keep Hosting Duties Easy: The host is responsible for coffee, tea and a few snacks. It’s hard enough carving out time to attend the meetings so we wanted to make it easy. This is one setting where no one has to worry about a hostess gift.


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