Giving constructive, critical feedback

mickyatesCoursework, Critical Research Journal, Ideas, PositionsPractice, PPWeek9 1 Comment

A couple of thoughts on the use of Critical Theory in photography.

Firstly, intrinsic to any process of critique is the practice of feedback. That may be verbal or written or even visual. I have had to give literally hundreds of personal performance reviews, in business and academia, to varying levels of detail. Sometimes it is face to face, sometimes not. And sometimes it led to promotion, sometimes to firing.

One of the biggest errors in giving non-constructive feedback is to make it too personal, using ‘armchair psychology’. Another is to make the comments too fluffy (to use the word of the day), which often happens because not enough time has been spent analysing the performance and context – or because the person reviewing is uncomfortable giving feedback, doesn’t know how. And a third is to miss the opportunity of making the feedback a teaching and learning exercise.  It takes skill to help someone improve whilst firing them, but it can be done. The mindset of the reviewer is central, therefore. Do I want to praise, destroy, duck the issues, be objective? Or do I want to teach?

If anyone is interested in learning more about feedback (albeit in a business/leadership context) please check out Marshall Goldsmith. He’s a valued friend, and, when you get past Marshall’s rather unique show-biz personality, he’s annoyingly usually right on this subject!

In the [MA] group we have varying levels of comfort with giving feedback. Urging people to be less fluffy in critique is a bit like asking them to speak French. More training might be required, not just in the issues being discussed but in the process of giving feedback itself.

Szarkowski’s 5 points (the thing itself, the detail, the frame, the time and the vantage point) might be easier to grasp than Barthe’s introspective methodology?

Second, Critical Theory can be such a catch-all phrase. It has so many meanings, depending on the discipline it is being applied to and the background of those critiquing. For example, Sontag’s (in my view) rather dogmatic approach is quite different to Grundberg and less helpful to me, personally.

Most of us use aspects of CT that we are aware of and that we feel appropriate – often different to the way others do it – and then we can be surprised how our own analysis differs to others. In talking about Ansel Adams, Pierre seems to be taking a post-modernist approach, for example. He’s also using a positive-improvement paradigm in creating his feedback.

Personally, I do not think there is a right or wrong way – certainly I have never read anything which made me go “Ha, that’s how I will ALWAYS critique a photograph”.


Barthes, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

Grundberg, Andy. 1999. Crisis of the Real: Writings in Photography. 2010 3rdEdition. New York: Aperture.

Sontag, Susan. 1977. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books.

Szarkowski, John. 1966. The Photographer’s Eye. 2007 Edition. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

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