We are very fortunate to be part of a small group of photographers and friends who gather every six weeks or so in one of our homes for an informal print review. Each of the photographers is talented and expressive, and while our stylistic and subject preferences overlap, each has a unique style and photographic “voice.”
Print reviews, especially when the participants comprise a group of very talented and perceptive photographers who are also friends, are very, very useful. They tend to force me to switch out of the regular ongoing “flow” of making a lot of photographs, and towards a more directed task of choosing work worthy of showing and then making decent prints of the work. This switch is another element of the “discipline” component of photography. Even more important, I hear diverse responses to the work, which range from the purely emotional (very important) to technical observations (also important).
It is interesting to see the range of responses — sometimes they are pretty much what I expected based on my own relationship to the images, but at other times I’m surprised. I had two of those surprises last night, and each of them came in the case of sets of related prints that I shared. One was a small group of three street photographs from my recent visit to New York City, photographs of dense and busy spaces that feature intense and wild color palettes. I had originally preferred one of the images to the others, but was beginning to gravitate to a second one in the set that included many more people. To my surprise, the group responded most strongly to the third, and their reactions to it made me reconsider my own feelings about the images in several ways.
The second group of photographs included five high-key black and white photographs, all of which belong to minimalist thread in my work that is about luminous atmosphere, usually from fog, that is so brightly lit by sun that it almost hurts to look into the scene. In order to get prints to somehow suggest that quality, I push the luminosity levels up about as far as possible, and the resulting images are somewhat minimal and often contain large areas of gentle tonal gradation. Among the five I shared were four that I made in California’s Central Valley. One of these is truly minimal, with a nearly invisible and diffuse horizon dividing an extremely luminous foggy sky from its reflection in still water below, and the only clear details are a few scattered birds in the water. I had almost chosen to not include this print, thinking that it might just be too minimal for other viewers. Much to my surprise, and without any prodding from me, the group preferred this image over the others. Live and learn!
Finally, it is a wonderful and useful discipline to hear my work critiqued and mostly adopt a learner’s attitude about what I hear. It is in my nature to try to persuade others of my point of view, but that is usually (but not quite always) the least useful way to deal with critique. The best and most useful thing is to hear and understand what others are seeing in the work, and to a consider it even if it doesn’t mesh with my own perspective. In the end, I can choose to accept or not what I hear, but hearing it is incredibly useful and important.
If you are fortunate enough to have perceptive, knowledgable, sympathetic photographer friends, I urge you to try to get together and try this, and to stick with it long enough to allow the process and the relationships to grow. (And thanks to any of you in the group who are reading this!)
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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