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An Analysis of Critique Content

In an upcoming paper, I will argue that Deviant Art provides for a better quality critical discourse. I argue that certain formal characteristics along with use qualities create a particular style. This style is then affected and made sense of through social structures such as photography culture. This style leads to better quality critiques, even though it has weaknesses.

What makes for a quality critical discourse?

According to Carey [1] a quality photography critique talks about both objective elements, such as exposure and composition, as well as subjective elements such as artist intention and expression. Whittington [2] says that effective critiques talk about some formal elements of the photograph, unity, rhythm, balance, and communication. Abrahmov [3] talks about common criteria for a quality critique saying that quality critiques should talk about the focal points, the quality and direction of light, composition, depth of field, as well as the relationship between the foreground and background. So, according to these authors a good photography critique should talk about both formal elements of a photograph (those intrinsic to the photograph itself), as well as subject elements of a photograph. By providing both objective and subject elements in a critique, a criticizer can talk about the technical elements of a good photograph while still discussing the viewers aesthetic and emotional response to particular elements within the photograph.

What makes for a weak critical discourse?

When quality critiques talk about formal and subjective elements of a photograph, they quite usually discuss elements in a fashion of good elements, elements that need improvement, and usually conclude in talking about the overall affect of the photograph. So then, weak critiques would talk about either just formal elements, just subjective elements, or neither. I’m leaving out ‘critiques’ that simply demean or put down a photograph without talking about good elements within that photograph or with mean spirited comments about what needs improvement within that photograph. In fact, I’m not counting this type of commentary as a critique at all, as they provide no real discourse to the subject.

When a critique focuses on only formal elements within the photography, they fail to address the interpretation and intentions of that photograph and photographer. As photography is used for many different purposes, it’s important to speak to the artist’s intention to understand how a particular photograph will be used. Similarly, focusing only on subjective elements leaves no real basis for objective comparison between photographs. This style of critique tends to be an “anything goes” critique and normally fails to add to the discourse of photography. Furthermore, this style of critique normally fails to provide elements of improvement for the photographer. In simply saying “This photograph is beautiful” or “This stinks”, a criticizer isn’t saying much about the photograph at all, but rather speaking of their own personal opinions. When adding discussion about particular elements, such as “the exposure, light, and shadow of this photograph work well to create a beautiful composition” a criticizer is speaking to what creates, helps, or hinders their aesthetic experience.

Content Analysis

In determining what makes a quality critique, I looked at two large photography websites that allow for some sort of critique; Deviant Art and Flickr. I conducted a content analysis of both sites using 70 photographs from each respective website. Each photograph was picked at random. Comments and critiques were read and then coded. These coded results were then grouped according to the type of element being discussed or the type of discussion happening. For each site I grouped my analysis according to artist expression, color, composition, detail, emotion, exposure and lighting, and focus. While Deviant Art allows for 4 ratings to be given to a photograph, I also looked at how criticizers referred to or used those given terms within their textual critique. Within Flickr, comments are used for critique but also for leaving praise and awards to artists from the community (which is a form of critique itself).

What kind of critique is given on Deviant Art?

In looking at Deviant Art, I found that over half of all critiques talked about compositional elements (perspective, background, foreground, framing, etc) as well as exposure elements (lighting, contrast, tones, shadows, highlights, etc). Furthermore about half of these critiques also referred to the artists intention and the emotional affect of the photograph. About twenty-one percent of critiques also talked about Deviant Art specific keywords (Vision, Originality, Technique, and Impact) giving meaning and discussing how they interpreted these keywords within the photograph and critique.

What kind of critique is given on Flickr?

In looking at Flickr, I found some very interesting results. Overall, ninety-seven percent of photographs I studied contained comments simply offering praise or praise in the form of ‘awards’ (graphic icons stating greatness). Within these Flickr comments as critiques, only 30 references to formal elements were made, compared to 145 references on Deviant Art. Furthermore, only 4 references to subjective elements such as artist intention or emotional affect were made, while 32 such references were made on Deviant Art. It’s clear then that most of these comments were praise only not talking about any formal or subjective elements of the photograph. So, what did these praise only comments talk contain if not talking about formal or subject elements of the photograph? Most of these were contained of small three to five word phrases like “I love it”, “gorgeous”, or “this is the best!!!”. Exalting comments like may help the photographer feel better, but they do not provide a quality critique.

Why does this matter?

In all arts, critique is important in that it provides discourse and learning opportunities. Photography critique brings forth a discussion of what makes for quality photography in a non-arbitrary fashion. This provides knowledge and learning opportunities for other photographers.

Above I have discussed what makes for a quality critique, and what makes for a weak critique. I have shown how that Deviant Art has quality critical discourse, while Flickr offers a mostly praise only environment. In coming posts (and in my paper), I will show that the interaction style of Deviant Art is what allows for these quality critiques. By teasing out the details of the interaction style of Deviant Art, I will bring forth principles for designing for critique.

  • 1. Cary, Rick. 1985. A Structure for the Critique of Student Photographs. In Annual Meeting of the National Art Education Association.
  • 2. Whittington, J. 2004. The process of effective critiques. Computers & Graphics 28, no. 3 (June): 401-407. doi:10.1016/j.cag.2004.03.007. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0097849304000330.
  • 3. Abrahmov, Shlomo Lee, and Miky Ronen. 2008. Double blending: online theory with on-campus practice in photography instruction. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 45, no. 1 (February): 3-14. doi:10.1080/14703290701757385. http://www.informaworld.com/openurl?genre=article&doi=10.1080/14703290701757385&magic=crossref||D404A21C5BB053405B1A640AFFD44AE3.

The Interaction Style of Flickr

In looking at exemplars of photo sharing and critiquing sites, I’ve attempted to list out the formal qualities of each particular website. In this post I’ll be specifically looking at Flickr. I’ll list out the formal qualities found throughout most of Flickr, focus in on a photo page, look at Flickr groups, and finally try to draw out an interaction style of Flickr.

Formal Qualities of Flickr

Through Flickr the following formal qualities can be found, in no particular order:

  • photos
  • sets
  • groups
  • galleries
  • contacts
  • friends
  • family
  • tags
  • maps
  • titles
  • description
  • technological detail (ISO, shutter speed, etc)
  • rss feeds
  • thumbnails
  • sharing
  • slideshow
  • editor
  • lightbox
  • favorites
  • statistics
  • comments
  • license
  • privacy controls
  • send to a friend
  • bookmark via delicious
  • thumbnail navigation
  • hieroglyphic navigation
  • explore (random photos)

In particular the following features help to enable critique of some fashion:

  • photos (obviously)
  • groups
  • galleries
  • sets
  • tags
  • favorites
  • comments
  • technological detail

While many of these features permeate throughout most of the Flickr website, particular formal qualities are present on both main image page (example) and a flick group page (example).

Image Page

Screen shot of http://www.flickr.com/photos/purefinder/5086449389/ on 10/17/10

The main portion of Flickr deals with showing individual images. Each image represented on Flickr has it’s very own unique page. These individual pages together make up the bulk of Flickr’s website, so they are worth exploring. Each of these image pages contain a large image (around 500-700 pixels wide), photographer information, photographic title and description, a stream of thumbnails, some basic navigation, some basic statistics, group information for which the photo belongs, tags, licensing information, privacy information, comments, and favorites.

The comments themselves are the most interactive feature of the page as they allow you to interact with the photographer and with other commentators. Each comment contains a comment author, author avatar, time of comment, Flickr membership status (Flickr pro), and the comment itself. Furthermore, and usually listed at the top of the comments are the ‘favorites’. This is a small section detailing what other Flickr members have marked this photograph a favorite.

Flickr Group Page

Screen shot of http://www.flickr.com/groups/photographycritique/ on 10/17/10

Flickr groups are another main feature of Flickr. These groups are a gathering place for like minded photographers and a place to gather and display similar photographs. Groups range from anything as basic as Portraits to something more granular as Indiana University’s Photography Society. Each of these Flickr groups is made up of many formal characteristics. The groups contain a ‘pool’ of images (usually displayed in a thumbnail grid), basic group information (title, number of members, etc), and administrator message, links to discussion topics (title, author, number of replies, time of last reply, a basic search (for photographs), a group description, and additional information such as rules and guiltiness for the group.

Interaction Style

In the above paragraphs I’ve detailed out most of the formal qualities of Flickr, especially concerning Flickr’s two main sections, the image page, and Flickr groups. When putting together these particular formal qualities within the Flickr website, an interaction style begins to emerge. In this section I’ll put together the formal qualities of Flickr and show an overall interaction style. I’ll then make a claim about how that particular interaction style creates a very particular user experience.

In looking at image pages we can see three major sections: the main image itself, along with its title and description; the image’s extra information such as statistics, tags, etc; and the comments and favorites area. Within the comments section we can see some clear interaction styles springing from formalist qualities.

Favorites

image courtesy of Scott Maxwell

The favorites feature is a way for other Flickr members to mark a particular photograph as something they would consider their favorite. Flickr members can mark as many photographs as they wish as a favorite. However, there is no means which allow users to mark a photograph as unfavorable. This contrasts starkly with many viewers behavior when thinking about how people move through physical image galleries at places such as museums and exhibits. A viewer could easily walk past a photograph in the physical real and dismay the photograph as something that they do no like (‘mark’ as unfavorable), but in the Flickr-verse this is impossible. This one-sided dichotomy, coupled with the infinite ability to favorite photographs, greatly weakens the meaning of marking a photograph as a favorite.

Comments

The comments feature is probably the feature with the greatest capability within Flickr. With this quality Flickr members can say anything they please about a particular photograph, and indeed many (if not most) of Flickr members comment on many photographs leading to a sometimes dismal number of comments for a particular photograph. However, the comments section is very linear. It allows only for comments to come in line one after the other. While this produces a pleasing visual line, it cuts of inter-communication and replies to other comments. When a photograph is critiqued in verbal form, often commentators will bounce off of each other and have a back-and-forth type of conversation. That is to say that if commentator A said something in particular, commentator B would likely first comment about what commentator A had to say before adding in his/her own comment (if any). But, in the Flickr-verse this simply isn’t realistic. Comments are not threaded in any fashion and it becomes quite tedious to attempt some sort of conversation, especially when lots of comments and commentators appear. This means that comments can easily get lost within the sea of other comments and that all comments have virtually (though sometimes not visually) the same ‘weight’.

When looking at individual commentators it is also hard to lend more credibility to one person over another. Indeed within the Flickr-verse all users are created equal. However, when receiving a critique in person, it is often noted who is giving the critique and some background is usually given, be it a professor of photography, a widely known photographer or critic, or an amateur of hobbyist photographer. This credibility is important because it indicates experience within photography which allows the photographer being critiqued to more fully trust the critique that is being given. Without this credibility within Flickr comments, it’s very hard to trust a commentator especially when that commentator is being critical of your own work while countless others are praising it to the high heavens.Furthermore many of these comments are simply “awards” and “badges” which come from different Flickr groups. These awards are a way of saying that a photograph was particularly special and are usually merely a graphic of some sort. These awards quite often clog up a comment stream where they quickly loose any meaning that they were intended to have. Furthermore, because these awards come from the general Flickr public, there is no real merit in how they given.

Technical Information

image courtesy of Mondays Child on 10/18/10

Technical information of a photograph is often heavily cited when critiquing a photo. This technical information, such as exposure, f-stop, etc, helps ground the critique in something that can be talked about by any other competent photographer. Within Flickr image pages, this technical information is hidden. To get to it a user must click a drop down menu, and then look for photographic jargon entitled “exif info”, which opens an entirely new page. Without this information being present given the time of the critique being given, it is lost and generally not brought up.

Flickr Groups

Because of the above, many critiques given on Flickr are often held within Flickr groups. A photographer must be seeking out this critique, and it is often hard to find and receive the critique. Normally there are many technical hoops through which one must jump in order to get your photograph to the proper area when it might, or might not, receive a useful critique. This walled off garden of Flickr groups means that there is a separation between whatever critique might have occurred and the original photograph’s main image page. So, even if a photographer jumped through the technical hurdles of getting a photograph into a Flickr group for critique, and then received a useful critique, this critique is now hidden away within the Flickr group (and not searchable) where it can be of no use to anyone else; and without so much as a link form the original image page, the critique is easily buried within a group never to be found or seen again.

Summary

As we can see above, there are many individual formal qualities working against helpful critiques within the Flickr-verse. Meaningless favorites, one-way linear commentary, no reliable credibility, an over abundance of meaningless “awards” and badges”, and hidden technical information all coupled with the walled off gardens of Flickr groups where some good critiques do happen lead to a lack of serious critique within Flickr. The sugar coated comments and meaningless favorites and awards are likely the biggest culprit in creating a glorification of the photographer instead of building up a helpful and useful atmosphere in which honest and serious critique could occur.

In summary, Flickr’s formal qualities build together to create an atmosphere of sugar coated comments instead of serious critiques. Flickr’s walled off gardens further push any helpful critiques outside the normal bounds of users. These formal features create an interaction style for users that actively work against providing serious photography critique.

Futuring

My hope is that by understand Flickr’s specific interaction style, via formalist theories, that I can better inform my capstone design. By closely studying Flickr I have found interesting patterns that work against serious photography critiques. Many other photo sharing/photography sites have very similar formal qualities and likely suffer the same fate as Flickr. By looking at several different example designs I believe I can better understand how to design a system that allows for serious photography critique.