The Photographer and the Inner Critic
Learn to quiet the inner critic
The inner critic is a concept that originated in pop psychology that refers to a sub-personality that demeans and criticizes. The theory is that all of us play host to such a personality. This part of ourselves is generally considered to be a negative influence and in extreme cases can all but stop an individual from functioning. An alternative view is that the inner critic is beneficial, and when properly contained, can be a positive influence.
Either way, many of us have to do some work to stop the inner critic from becoming too overbearing and leading us into long days of inaction and procrastination. This is especially true of those of us in the so-called creative sphere, as we have to deal with the inner critic with respect to both our daily lives and our art or craft.
There are two different approaches that can be adopted when dealing with the inner critic. The first is to attempt to ignore it entirely and the second is to work with it and turn it into an ally. I have found that ignoring it doesn’t work, period, which leaves us with the second alternative, making it work with us rather than against us. In a nutshell, I attempt to utilize the inner critic by forcing myself to think quite deeply about what it is saying.
In this essay I look at various themes that my inner critic likes to run with and how they have actually strengthened my own reasoning with regard to the visual arts and the practice of photography.
My inner critic seems to focus on several three main areas:
Compositional elements of manmade design
Work is imitative
The photograph is boring
Composition contains elements of manmade design
My inner critic goes into overdrive whenever I am dealing with such subject matter. The broad nature of the criticism is that the work came from a mind other than my own, which can do two related bad things. It can make me feel like a fraud, a cheat—taking credit for work that is not my own. It also feels secondhand—someone else has already solved the compositional problems involved.
This is actually where my internal critic is useful, making me think harder and deeper, as this issue is full of nuance. Taking a square-on photograph of a sign, for instance, is very different than trying to find the photograph in a building. In the case of the former, the work is likely to be too derivative to be considered primarily the photographer’s—all the important elements were already in place. With the latter, though, things are very different—every time the photographer moves, every angle and the length of every line changes. The issue in this case is dimensionality. The photograph of the sign is, to all intents and purposes, a two-dimensional reproduction of a two-dimensional subject, reproduced in two dimensions so nothing major has changed. Sure, the lighting may be interesting, but ultimately it is unlikely that the photograph adds much to the initial work. Here the inner critic has done a good thing by steering the photographer away from this image. The building is a different matter, though, as here the photographer has to solve the problem of compressing three dimensions into two for an end result that is aesthetically pleasing.
There is, however, another issue with photographing a building which a particularly picky inner critic may take issue with, and that has to do with the architect’s original vision. The architect usually works to ensure that his buildings work on the functional three-dimensional level and on the visual two-dimensional one. (The argument of whether we see in two or three dimensions is too long to go into here). I think that it is fair to say that no building looks equally stunning from all angles and distances, therefore the architect would have specific points in space that they see as the ideal ones to view the building from. Isn’t the photographer just trying to find one of these points to take their for the photograph from?
Even if this is the case, the inner critic’s cries of “too derivative” should can be ignored, because the on this one. The photographer still has to do a lot of work to produce a worthwhile image. Variables such as the focal length of the lens and time of day will have a huge impact on the final photograph. There is also the fact the photographer may have found a vantage point that differs from the ideal one envisaged by the architect, in which case the inner critic will have no valid argument against the shooting of the photograph whatsoever.
Work is Imitative
This is perhaps the most difficult one of the inner critic’s themes for me to deal with and the one for which it is hard to draw a precise line as to whether the photograph is worthwhile or not. Two things come to mind when considering this:
Is it possible to produce a work that isn’t reminiscent of something that someone else has produced?
Does it matter—or to put it another way, “Is originality that important?”
To my mind, art history, and more specifically Post-modernism, is the key that unlocks the whole imitation versus originality debate. Many argue that we are now done with Post-modernism and are now into a new era of Neo Post-modernism (or Post, Post-modernism), or that art history has become meaningless, but I feel that there are still valuable lessons and insights to be had.
It was Modernism that that put the artist/photographer on a pedestal, valuing originality above just about anything else. Prior to the Modern era the artist had been regarded as important, but not completely above the rest of humanity. Post-modernism did the world the service of putting the artist back in the box, so to speak.
Under Post-modernism, true originality is impossible; therefore it is pointless to strive for it. More importantly, the impossibility of originality means that every work and every collection of work is always just a small part of something larger, a part of a process as opposed to an end in itself. Take this a stage further and it can be seen that every creation or photo always references something else.
To give a concrete and personal example, I like film noir, and often make photographs using the sharp changes in contrast, odd angles, and motifs of this particular style. I see each individual photograph as relatively unimportant on their own, slightly more important when taken as a very small fraction of all of the film noir referential photographs I’ve made, and a little more important still when considered with similar work by others. By making the photographer relatively unimportant, i.e., just a contributor to a much larger process, pressure to even think in terms of being original becomes meaningless. To put it another way, grab your camera, be as derivative as you like and rather than try to hide your influences, highlight them. In Post-modern terms: reference them, cite them and celebrate them.
The Photograph is Boring
Boringness is in many ways a more difficult problem than imitation or originality. Co-opting the inner critic doesn’t in this case lead to as neat a solution, and the problem cannot easily be reduced to a non-issue. Instead, boringness has to be resolved on a case by case or a photo by photo basis.
I am lucky in one respect, in and that is that I have always been fascinated by reductionism. I always want to know how much can be stripped away from something before the meaning or essence is lost. Of all the boundaries in art (and in life for that matter) this is the one that most interests me. I am driven to find the minimum information required for an image to retain its interest.
This means that the dialog between myself and my internal critic kicks in automatically when this issue needs addressing. I think that my inner critic is now more of a friend and ally than a destructive force with respect to the whole boring/interesting issue.
I’ve outlined three different types of issues where the internal critic can come into play, and in each case it plays a different role. Originality and imitation are cases where the inner critic forced me to adopt one-off rationales that allow me to work without second-guessing myself. The third, interest, is different insomuch as it involves an ongoing dialog where each work or project is considered on its own merits.
This has been a very personal account of how I have and do deal with my inner critic or, to put it another way, self-doubt, and it serves better as an example than as a “how-to.” In other words you You will, of course, have to find your own way through this whole issue. The good news is that coming to terms with your inner critic is actually a very positive thing to do, and in solving after solving this problem it is almost certain that you will become a better artist.
For what it is worth, I regard self-doubt as an essential part of the artistic process. The least interesting artists to my mind are the ones who exist in a permanent state of creative euphoria, who feel that everything they create is equally wonderful. These are the artists that either had no internal critic to begin with, or had decided to completely ignore it. The consequence of this is art without any real bite, art that is without depth or substance.
It is the tension between the urge to create and the tendency towards self-doubt, the voice of the inner critic, that makes for the most interesting art. The inner critic may drive you nuts, but the internal dialog that it forces is an essential part of the creative process.