I am one of those weirdos who has always loved image critique. In college my favorite times in photography class were when we hung our work on the walls, and the instructor walked us around the room to comment on every image. My peers and I would remark on what was good, what was bad, and what could be improved. Some students would get totally discouraged, even defensive. A few, including me, would take notes. Any advice the professor provided would simply energize me to shoot again. Positive feedback made me feel like I was on the right path and validated my desire to be a professional photographer. What some perceived as negative feedback, I saw as constructive criticism, and it fueled me to try harder or attempt a new technique.
Toward the end of my time at the University of Alabama, I was riding high. I was an A student, a key-holder to the darkroom, and a photography assistant to my professor for university relations assignments. I was on an upward trajectory, and I was loving every minute of it.
What I learned about myself that day is that I need and value feedback to grow as an artist. I had always received some form of critique on my work; indifference left me without direction.Kira Derryberry
Until I was knocked off that pedestal in my senior year. We had been working all semester on our senior photography projects. I had spent hours and hours perfecting my images. I had gone the extra mile to hand cut my own mats, mount every image, and frame them myself. During the last week of school my photography professor, Chip Cooper, announced he was bringing in a guest artist, a friend of his, to review our work. I can’t remember this woman’s credentials, but she sounded important and talented, so I very much wanted to know what she thought about my project.
The day came, and we all displayed our work on the classroom walls. The guest artist slowly walked around the room, observing every image. She stopped at some and commented. She moved toward mine, said nothing, and kept walking. I was devastated. I waited for her to circle again. She did not.
The classroom cleared, and I retreated to the darkroom. In true, dramatic art student fashion, I sat on the floor in the corner, and I cried. I had invested so much time and energy in this project. I thought it was the best work I had ever done. To my surprise, Chip walked into the darkroom. He found me a mess on the floor. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Well, she didn’t like my work.”
“Did she say she didn’t like your work?”
“She didn’t say anything about the work. I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, you can start by getting up off the floor!”
Putting our work up for review can feel like asking people what they think about you. But with feedback we become better artists. It’s important to embrace conversation and critique.Kira Derryberry
I picked myself up, feeling embarrassed for coming apart. What I learned about myself that day is that I need and value feedback to grow as an artist. I had always received some form of critique on my work; indifference left me without direction.
Twenty years later, I still seek feedback to guide me in my work. With my PPA master of photography degree already in hand, I still submit images for critique in PPA’s Merit Image Review. I do it because I never want to get into a place of neutrality. I never want to stop asking myself what’s next. Indifference is the death of improvement.
As photographers, we often attach something of our identity to the work we create. Putting our work up for review can feel like asking people what they think about you. But with feedback we become better artists. It’s important to embrace conversation and critique.
If you haven’t done it yet, take a leap and submit at least four images for Merit Image Review this year. I hope you earn merits toward your degree, but more than that, I hope the feedback you receive inspires you to make changes and try new things. Put your work out there and watch your image making evolve.
Kira Derryberry is a studio owner and portrait and headshot photographer in Tallahassee, Florida.