Creative Photo Process – Merciless Critic vs. Master Craftsman

One of my photography students told me that she often does not share her pictures because of “the voices”—those internal voices that critique her photos. I also have a critical voice inside my mind, I told her.

I call it the Merciless Critic. I imagine my Merciless Critic to look like a creature similar to Gollum (fictional character in J.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”), with missing teeth and big ears, and has the voice of The Joker from Batman….

Photo of alligator heads called Invasive Species by Jim Austin
“Invasive Species”

….his voice has a biting tone and it criticizes me with its favorite sound bites, like: “That’s a boring subject.” “You just can’t take good pictures today.” “That person will be angry if you take their picture.” “It’s too (wet, snowy, cold) to go out shooting now.” “You can’t do that until you have that lens you’ve been lusting for.”

My Merciless Critic is a deadly accurate shooter with a vest full of painful ammo.

When I do photography, I have to call upon a different persona. He is the motivator, the one that gets me to start making photographs. I call him the Master Craftsman.

As I try to turn up the volume on his low, quiet, confident voice that says, “You can do this”, I think maybe the reason he exists is to counter the Merciless Critic and nudge me to go grab the camera and head out the door.
Photo of feathers of a bird called Feathered by Jim Austin

Some days it takes a lot to get the Master Craftsman on his feet. Long walks can help. Once I get his feet moving, he usually initiates my visual mind to “see” the pictures. A walk outside, even in the worst weather, can usually awaken the Master Craftsman to some photo opportunities.

He gets me to lift the camera, look through view finder and start pressing the shutter button. It all comes down to taking that first cold, empty, lonely step, while gripping the camera with whatever ennui, fatigue, or depression I feel. When I do start to move, the voice of the Merciless Critic begins to fade.

At other times, the Merciless Critic is more persistent, and has a more cacophonous, shriller voice: “You call that a photograph? HA, you make me laugh, what were you thinking?” He sounds somewhat like David Sedaris (writer and speaker with sardonic wit and incisive social critiques).

His best trick is to nit-pick… “Your colors are off.” “The developer is exhausted.” “You’ve got no contrast in that print.” “That horizon is tilted.” “They’ll tear this apart in critique.” He is the Devil of the Details. His effect is to stop me from sharing or shooting.

In response, I try to engage my Master Craftsman. He has to open the door to the mental tool shed and reach for some useful tools.

Holding onto them, the Master Craftsman knows they are the most valuable gear he can offer me. These tools are helpful ideas about making pictures that I’ve found true from experience.

Photo of a little boy with a drink bottle at a memorial wall called Thirst by Jim Austin

Five Sayings of the Master Craftsman

1. “Slow down.” The best photography tool you can take with you into the field is an extra day. Taking my time is always a good answer to the Merciless Critic, who pushes to hurry up and rush the process of taking pictures.

The critic is an expert at glancing, without taking the time to see. But the Master Craftsman knows that good photographs mean slowly letting go of self to turn to the world outside.

2. “Photographers are like musicians. We must practice every day.” The Merciless Critic often tries to convince me that other photographers perform feats of magic. He’ll say, “You’ll never be as good as Joe McNally or Annie Liebovitz.”

Then there is a pause and the Master Craftsman shouts back, “Doing photography is like playing music – it looks like magic, but it’s really the result of a lot of practice.”

3. “Go around GAS.” It’s better to make those photos today with the camera and lenses you own than wait for the one for which you have GAS. As a segue, the term “GAS” was coined by Walter Carl Becker (Steely Dan founder, songwriter and producer) in 1996 in his article G.A.S. in Guitar Player [1] as “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome”.

Photo of a deer and chimpanzee called Contact by Jim Austin

4. “Be here now!” The Merciless Critic loves to freeze open the shutter with fixed ideas from the past, fog my lens with images of the future, and use any trick to keep the Master Craftsman from being fully here, now. The craftsman encourages me to play and engage in my surrounding each and every moment. It allows me to be creative.

5. “Feel it. Emotion is more important than detail.” Doing photography on your own, or taking photo walks with friends, is a process of awareness. This process is a lot more important than the product. The Merciless Critic nit-picks at the product, but the Master Craftsman is mindful of the emotions of the process.

And your images where you felt intense emotion or connection during the photographing are the ones that will survive over time.

by Jim Austin
All text and photos: © 2012 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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