The First Gate

Some time ago, I received an email from someone I didn’t know out-of-the-blue asking if I’d provide some feedback on an attached photo. I like to help out photographers by providing feedback on their work when I have the time. I had the time, so I looked at the photo and replied with some detailed comments.

Artists, regardless of the media worked in, need feedback to improve. It’s extremely difficult to know if your work is appreciated if nobody gives you feedback about it. It’s hard to improve your skill if others don’t comment on your style, technique, materials, and other aspects of your work. Artists put their work “out there” in art shows, galleries, informal and formal exhibits, contests, clubs, associations, on their personal websites and online forums like Flickr and Facebook. But, the feedback you receive from those outlets and forums is not always from qualified sources or of any real use. How many comments of “I Love It!” does it take for you to believe you’re the next Ansel Adams? So, it’s not unusual to seek out someone whose work you admire (or at least they appear to know what they’re doing) to ask their opinion.

The next day, I received a very gracious thank you email from the person. They greatly appreciated my thoughtful comments and wondered if I’d look at some other photos. Attached to the email were about 30 identical variations of the same photo previously sent.

My first reaction was, honestly, “Are you kidding me?” and a bit of a laugh. My next reaction was a little angry that this person thought I didn’t have anything better to do than look at a pile of similar photos of the same subject and compose an essay of critique for each of them. I wondered if they even comprehended what I wrote to them about the first photo (which was a better photo and the comments I wrote applied to this second set as well). I could have reacted like I’ve seen others do, in a condescending and overbearing, “holier-than-thou” response full of wisecracks and veiled (and not-so-veiled) put-downs, asking them in certain terms if they thought I sat around all day responding to requests for free reviews of buckets of similar photographs. Responding in such a way doesn’t do anyone any good, neither the reviewing photographer nor the requesting photographer. And, it furthers a stereotype of the condescending professional who thinks everyone “below” them is unworthy, even though that person started out on the lowest rung of the ladder sometime in their life. We tend to forget that. Even if I chose to ignore the request and just not respond, I would be essentially doing the same thing.

So, I composed a friendly reply explaining, that while I’m happy to provide feedback on the occasional photo, I have other duties required for maintaining my business and I’m unable to review and comment on such a large number of photos outside a formal, paid, session. As a professional artist I understand the desire for feedback, validation, a kind word, a helpful hint, etc. from someone who appears to know what they’re doing. I was there once and I’m sure most, if not all, artists of one stripe or another have been in the same boat….nervous and eager to approach the “local pro” to have them peer at your work and pronounce their judgment, either letting you pass through the “First Gate” or send you back to try again.

I hope I wasn’t a pest as I was starting out. Getting through that “First Gate”, the first time you have someone other than family or friend evaluate your work, is a first step to moving forward with your work. Asking a stranger to look at your work is a request for validation as much as it is for actual constructive feedback. “Am I good enough?” you’re asking. Am I good enough to keep trying?

My first formal request for a review was to a local photography gallery owner. I’d been in the gallery a few times and the guy seemed to know what he was doing, so I gathered up my courage one day and asked him if he’d look at some of my photos. We set an appointment and I brought back a book with some prints and slides (back way before digital). His review, as I remember it, wasn’t detailed. He didn’t give me suggestions for improvement or tell me specifically what he liked or didn’t like. He did tell me he liked my work, though, which was enough incentive at the time to continue making an effort. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my work, didn’t know what I wanted my work to be (fine art or stock), or what to expect from the review. I figured this guy who had his own business would know what to tell me. He’d obviously reviewed other work, right? And, he was good at what he did so he must have some sense of what a good photograph is. That was my First Gate.

Some First Gates are large, ornate, sturdy, with an intricate lock; difficult to get through unless your work is the right “key”, and more like a “last gate” than a first. Others are similar to a rickety garden gate; most of the time propped partially open so you can walk through with little effort. The rest in between pose varying challenges. Your task is to select the First Gate that will do you the most good (at least how you perceive that to be at the time. You may actually pass through several First Gates throughout your artistic career, especially if you change your style, media, or artistic or professional focus. If you change from an editorial photographer to a commercial photographer, you might need to pass through a commercial First Gate to move forward. So, how do you get to, much less through, the First Gate?

How best is it to approach someone to ask for their feedback/review? It’s simple, really. I tried to do as much research as I could first. I found a photographer that did work similar to mine and lurked around his gallery for a while until I was more or less sure he was “qualified” and until I had enough guts to ask. Now, I would be more specific, and suggest you be, too.

Research the people you’re interested in getting feedback from. Do they do similar work? An architectural photographer might not be the best choice to review landscape or wedding photography. Is there any indication on their website or other materials that they’d be willing to review work? One indicator might be that they teach. Call, stop in, write a brief email, introducing yourself (briefly), get to know them if possible, and when you’re ready ask if they would be willing to review one or two (only) pieces of work before you dump a portfolio on them. Remember, this is your First Gate, not your 4th or 9th or 20th. You can always go back to them later and ask if you could arrange a more detailed review.

I must stress something here. If you’re going to seek out someone, a professional, to review your work, you must show the best work you’ve done to date. This is work you’ve spent time with, and used your equipment and skills to the best of your ability. I can honestly tell you if you aren’t presenting your best work you will likely only get a brief and perhaps brusk response, although only somewhat encouraging, to “keep trying”.

But, I must also stress something else. Don’t take unfavorable feedback (in your opinion) personally. You have to distance your attachment to your work to receive feedback properly, so that it’s beneficial to you. Because you’re going to get feedback you don’t want to hear, no matter how good you are. The feedback about your work is not about you, but about the work. Receive that feedback with the same enthusiasm you would receive praise because it will help you grow. Be respectful of the person’s time and willingness to help you. Don’t make excuses about your work. Don’t berate the reviewer or you won’t get any more help from them.

Getting through the First Gate is a big step. You’re announcing to yourself and the world your intention to be serious about your work. Challenge yourself and avoid the propped open garden gates.

I also encourage professionals who are asked to review work to do so (or decline to do so) with respect. If you aren’t comfortable giving feedback, tell the person. Recommend someone you know who might be willing. If you respond like an asshat, regardless if it makes you feel superior, it only makes you look like an asshat. And the world could do with less of those. Reviewers as well as reviewees learn from the experience. And the world could do with more quality art and artists.

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