Armchair Critics

Crap Visibility in Cornwall

I’m just wrapping up 2 weeks of shooting seascapes in Cornwall. Perhaps it’s the less than ideal conditions I’ve had during this time but I’m going to post one of my rare rants. It’s one I’ve been holding back for many many months but now the time is right to let fly. Hours ago, the honour roll for Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice was revealed and I’m pleased to announce that “Starfish Swirl”, was highly honoured. It’s been a highly successful image for me; this week it will be exhibited in the Natural History Museum as part of the Veolia/BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year events.

What does success in photography competitions mean? In my opinion it just means that on a particular day, a panel of judges have chosen a select few images as being noteworthy. Obviously art is subjective and to say one photography as being ‘better’ than another is simplistic and facile. What I’m happy to take away from competitions (apart from a nice cheque) is the fact that the judges (usually notable photographers themselves, editors and artists) have felt my work is worthy of distinction. Even though I shoot for myself, it is nice to feel that my peers think that I’m on the right track.

I’ve received a lot of helpful guidance along the way. Submitting image for critique on Nature Photographers Network, Naturescapes and Photo.net were particularly helpful early on when developing my craft. Even now 6 years on, fresh eyes and a dose of constructive criticism often add clarity to the evolution of my work. I’ve also learnt to take comments with a grain of salt. Many of these are well-meaning but often are heavily affected by sensibilities and biases of the critic. At the end of the day, it’s your vision. Nobody is going to understand the limitations of what you’ve had to work with, what compromises have had to be made and what the image means to you.

Now that “Starfish Swirl” has been commended in two of the most prestigious international nature photography competitions, I thought it interesting to read some of the comments, mostly made when it was selected as photo.net’s “Photo of the Week” last year. To my mind, many of these were made neither well-meaning nor well-credentialled photographers. The worse kind of critic is the one who has no body of work to show despite an often disdainful attitude towards others who are willing to put their images out there. The bitter armchair critic. Here’s a choice selection of comments and I’m not counting the personal emails I also received.

“Tired of the same ole same ole.”

“Honestly, I am not that excited about this photograph. I guess I am a bit tired of the near-far compositions, seascapes and long exposures with water–3 strikes! I really don’t find the composition all that strong and actually, very pedantic.”

“Sometimes less is more and more is too much and this is too much.”

“This just doesn’t do it for me. Sorry. There’s a very bland sky, the swirl appears to have been processed in. There seems to be too much filling the frame, especially the many starfish. The star at lower left is out of focus as well.”

“What is the subject? Where is something interesting?”

“The image is TOO balanced, cluttered, too pretty, and in my opinion, uninspired. It’s a good start, but I can’t help but wonder what else you might have that might be better.”

Anyway, as a parting shot, a big F.U. to all those armchair critics out there!

This entry was posted in Awards, Landscape, My 2 cents, Rants and musings, TCBlog. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Armchair Critics

  1. HAAA!!! I was trying to figure out where you were going with this, but just let out a big laugh at the last sentence. Good for you. I try to stay only positive online and keep my negative thoughts mostly to myself, but I can assure you that I have a lot more to say on this matter next time we are able to get together for a drink. Does it really matter if you have any criticism one way or the other? Do the number of comments you have validate you as a photographer? The only opinions that do are your own and the people/clients that are interested enough in your work to help you pay your bills. Here’s a big FU to all the haters! I am happy for you.

    • kahkityoong says:

      Thanks mate. I’ve had a number of promising shoots thwarted at the last moment so was feeling a little negative. I had a little trouble with about whether it is FU or FY. Technically it should be the latter but the former sounds more correct. Congrats on making the list too.

  2. Dylan Toh says:

    I loved that picture of the starfish (I’m trying to make time to head out to Motukiekie as a result!)
    Couldn’t agree wtih you more about armchair experts , in fact, so much so that I wrote a blog post of similar tone a while ago too lol.

  3. Good on ya, mate! Now uncork it properly and tell us how you really feel! :) I know what it’s like to get relentlessly doused in Cornwall (when I was there with Mr. Clapp), and there’s nothing like a well-deserved rant to restore a little equilibrium…

    I really liked your Starfish Swirl the first time I saw it, and I really like it now too. (I guess a few other folks came around to my way of thinking.) It takes me back to a school field trip to the small islands off the coast of Vancouver Island when I was a kid, exploring the tidal pools and whatever could be found in & around them. I’ve not experienced anything quite like it since then, something I’ll need to rectify.

    As much as you practice your craft and make art for yourself, the pleasant surprise always waiting just around the corner is what the viewer brings to the experience of your work. You never know when you’re going to hit somebody right where they have that “a ha!” moment. Constructive criticism is all well & good, but part of the equation in giving good feedback, IMNSHO, has to be the ability to simply view a photograph with child-like wonder and interest, and a good dose of imagination. This is what I see lacking in so many internet photo comments… there’s no emotion to it, it’s like reading the journals of a bunch of disgruntled Mr. Spock photographers. I’ll take a sincere & gleeful “like it, cool shot!” over a clinical vivisection of Design 101 principles any day of the week.

    Meanwhile, success is the best revenge. You can’t stop narrow-minded and unconstructive people from unloading their peanut gallery commentary, nor the occasional legitimate practitioner from simply being rude and unhelpful. Not if you participate in social life on the net, anyway. I’ve experienced that firsthand since the earliest forms of social networking (before Al Gore invented the interwebs), and if anything it has gotten worse since then.

    But what you can do is go on about your business, doing what you do best. Stay true to your goals and vision, take your work seriously but not yourself, and don’t let them grind you. And, on those occasions when you find a measure of broader recognition, as now, then perhaps cheerily wave a digit in the direction of the armchair critics.

    I do kind of agree with one part of the above comments, though. “It’s a good start, but I can’t help but wonder what else you might have that might be better.” :) Keep getting out there and doing better, amigo!

  4. kahkityoong says:

    Thanks for your comment my articulate friend. Funny thing is that “Starfish Swirl” has never been a personal favourite of mine either, but I can differentiate between a reasonable comment and a spiteful one.
    You sum it up the best approach so well : “what you can do is go on about your business, doing what you do best. Stay true to your goals and vision, take your work seriously but not yourself.”
    Cheers

  5. Ken Beath says:

    I think you have photos that are much better composed, but starfish swirl has the starfish and the swirl, which are unusual and would have differentiated it from the non winners.

    • kahkityoong says:

      Hi Ken, as I alluded to, it’s not one of my absolute favourites either. Not because of the composition though, finding a pattern that leads the eye through the stars was the key to making it work. I just wish for more emotional impact.

  6. Steve Shuey says:

    I happen to really like that photo (as well as many, many others of yours). As to those who critique you in ways that offer no help at all, why give them the time of day? It takes away from the more important things in your life that you can do. Even though your rant is spot on, no need to waste the finite precious moments we all have on 1) things that mean nothing to us and 2) things we can’t control. You know who you are and you are the final judge of whether your photos are worthy or not. Just my two cents.

  7. nate parker says:

    HAHAAAA! Yeah Man! Love that last line- i mean like really how Dare they- those comments were ridiculous, i can’t believe people actually wrote those offensive thoughts- i was immediately struck by your starfish image in question as one of the most amazing seascapes i felt i had ever seen, and the comments were not constructive feeling but rather trite sarcastic remarks that i wouldn’t want to endure in any community. here’s to you sir and your continued great success!

  8. Margaret says:

    I guess these critics haven’t heard of the old saying “if you can’t say something nice…”. I definitely like a good critique on NPN, but take even those with consideration and don’t always agree. Like you said, each photograph is very subjective, and noone else was there when you took it. I think starfish swirl took some thought and prep, and that’s one thing that the armchair critic has no inkling of.

    Congrats! on your recognition. Well deserved!

  9. Bwahahaha, this is right down my alley, Kah Kit. Waiving middle fingers in the air, shouting curse words at the mostly self-acclaimed pros and experts. I think I once more than clearly stated my opinion towards your “Starfish Swirl” image and the ridiculous commentary it received on photo.net, so I will not go into that again.

    The best kind of commentary is not represented in the posts on photo.net though. The ones displayed are just bitter and result from pure jealousy; my favorite kind, however, is the what I like to call “Comp Police”. The people who have never been to a particular spot (In all honesty, I doubt they ever got out of their home studio, which isn’t a bad thing if you, as you pointed out, have the body of work to back up your commentary.); yet, they are so well-advised they tell you, your image would have been much stronger if you shot it from 20 inches higher and about 3ft. to the left…

    I KNOW, I have been THERE but I was balancing on instable rocks already, I sure would love to see YOU move 3ft. left!

    Here’s to a big Eff You post! Cheers!

    David

  10. Leasha Hooker says:

    Way to go! There are just too many haters out there! I really love the comment about the starfish in the lower left corner being out of focus! I truly think that starfish makes the photo!! :)

  11. Anil Rao says:

    Firstly, congratulations on your success in these two competitions. Your work is beautiful as always.

    Here is a thought on your rant. You begin by saying that a win in a competition means nothing more than a given set of judges taking a liking for a photograph. They could very well have not liked your entry and for the same reasons that some of the critics wrote about on photo.net. The thing is that in most cases, you’ll never know why a competition judge didn’t like a photograph because they are not required to provide this information. Lets say you submit the same photograph to comp-A and comp-B, but it doesn’t get anywhere in the former but wins the latter. Do you then say FU to the judges of comp-A. Something to think about, when we receive negative comments on an on-line photo forum.

    This is the first time I am visiting you blog. Loved many of the past entries…

    Regards.

    • kahkityoong says:

      I’m very happy to see that you’ve discovered my blog Anil. While it is great to have your work validated by the general public and even more so by your peers, I shoot for myself and I’m the only one who needs to be satisfied. I’m very much in favour of the power of feedback to keep us on our toes and sharpen our vision.

      Not so long ago, many photography competitions gave feedback from the judges. Unfortunately now that the number of entries are often in the tens of thousands this is no longer feasible. However I’m quite sure that if a judge didn’t like the photo, the feedback would have been given in a different manner to that above. There’s a difference between people giving good honest feedback and those who are just being snide and belittling. After 3 years as a moderator on NPN, I know the difference and the digital finger I extended no doubt shared the same sort of sentiment from which those comments came.

      Just to be clear I’m not knocking those critics who are not skilled photographers themselves. As in any art form, you don’t necessarily have to practice it to be extremely knowledgeable. However there are a subset of self-proclaimed experts who make caustic remarks without any credentials and often who their ignorance in their field. Case in point being the number of people who thought the starfish or swirl were photoshopped.

  12. Sam Waldron says:

    Ahhh… it does happen from time to time, the old armchair critics, and you’re right, they invariably have nothing to show to back up their offhand remarks.

    I find they often come from delusional street shooters (i.e. hurried snapshots of strangers from 50 metres away with a telephoto) who are inherently against nature and landscape photography and like to think of themselves as Henri Cartier Bresson incarnate!

    Keep up the good work mate!

  13. Alain Briot has some good thoughts on this topic in his latest essay at Luminous Landscape, Understanding Criticism. One quote: “Skepticism and cynicism have nothing to do with us or our work. It has everything to do with the person who is commenting on our work. In fact, they are not really commenting on our work. They are commenting on themselves and of their view of the world.”

    http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/understanding_criticism_part_1.shtml

  14. Graham says:

    Those comments should be taken on board as valid personal perceptions of your work. Why should they not be? They do not look bitter to my eye, they look like personal opinions. If you are going to put your work under everyone’s eyes then accept everyone’s valid opinions. In fact, LEARN and GROW from these opinions.

    • kahkityoong says:

      A good point Graham. However everyone has an opinion and not all of them are correct, helpful or even given in good faith. And every opinion cannot be equally valid to one’s work. Royce’s link above is a good reference to understanding criticism. I believe growing as an artist is about know when to take on board advice and at other times knowing when to stick to your vision. That is the most important point to my article here.

  15. John Mulholland says:

    Brilliant self-promotion. It is like filling a chicken breast with water so you can charge more for it.

  16. Yeah, weeks of gray skies will do that to you. ;)

    Some Internet photo forums are filled with people who make themselves feel bigger by bashing others. A good FU once in awhile must feel nice, but nicer is knowing the quality of your work speaks for itself.

    Cheers,

  17. Pingback: Expose Yourself - CXXV - Page 32

  18. Gavin Owen says:

    Well said! I armchair critic’d an old photo of yours once and you took it the right way and since then my respect for you and your work hasn’t taken a backward step. It’s funny how ludicrous their criticisms are! Underwater starfish being OOF – seriously WTF? :)

  19. Bravo :) Well said, and congrats on a fabulous image :)

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