The pussy and the PhotoSIG

If you want to get a lot of attention on PhotoSIG, post an image with a pretty naked girl in it. The ideal image would fit this approximate profile:

Notice I didn't say anything about photographic attributes in the image? Good composition: What's that? Background / depth of field: Who needs it? Theme: Only if the theme is "look, I have breasts" Keep it simple, stupid, and you'll get a ton of critiques like this:

"This is a gorgeous image. Perfectly erotic. You are one of the greatest photographers ever. I love her breasts! Three thumbs up!!!!"

Now, I like a good "girlie pic" as much as the next guy. That's why I subscribe to Perfect-10 magazine, domai and met-art. There's nothing wrong with that - but a photographer who posts a basic girlie picture and gets just feedback about the model's bodily attributes isn't going to learn a whole lot. If we want to help them improve their craft we need give them useful feedback in our critiques. If we want to boost their egoes, then we can just tell them they're wonderful and leave it at that.

An example of useless feedback: "She has a great ass!" As if the photographer was somehow responsible for that? Did he, perhaps, grow it himself? Unless I'm seriously mistaken, the photographer's contribution there began with choosing the ass in question, and ended with displaying it to its best advantage. Now that is a legitimate and useful critique: "The way you have her holding her hips makes her ass look blocky. If she were to turn her pelvis a little bit, it'd really look rounder and the light would catch ... blah blah blah..."

But what really gets to me is the critique that reads: "3 Thumbs Down!!! This model has fake breasts! I can't believe someone would do such a thing to their body!!" As if the photographer, perhaps, did the boob job on the model? Once again, the involvement of the model's boob job begins and ends with the photographer's choice of model and how he posed, lit, and photographed her. I shoot a lot of nude models and I really hate to see a lovely pair of natural breasts ruined by the addition of mechanical enlargements - but you shoot what you've got when you're photographing someone, a lot of the time. One of my favorite models got a boob job and I learned to just shoot around it because a) she was a reliable model, b) she was very happy about her boob job, c) she was a nice gal and I didn't see any reason to be mean about it, d) she had a terrific ass and you shoot what you've got unless you're a photographer with a playboy-sized budget and a dozen talent scouts. I think it'd be great to see critiques that read "I personally like the natural look in glamour photos but you did a really good job with this shot's lighting, composition, pose, and theme!" What's wrong with that? If you're repelled by the model's boob job don't jump all over the photographer unless you know the whole story.

If PhotoSIG is going to be an place where learning happens the critiques need to be useful and not just flame-bait. To keep the critiques useful, you've got to respect the photographers' agenda in putting their artwork there. Sometimes, that might mean asking the photographer what their agenda is! If the photographer's agenda is "hey, look, I got a pretty girl to take her shirt off for me!!" then a "nice tits! you must be a lucky guy!" critique is perfect and will make their day. If the photographer's agenda is to learn (or maybe even teach) something about photography, then try to divorce your opinion about the content from the technical details of the photographer's craft when you write your critique. "Nice composition, here, but do you think it would have been more effective if you had cropped the right border in a little bit?" is going to open the door to a much more interesting discussion about when or why a particular image might get cropped or not. I hope that you can tell, from looking, at what a particular photographer is trying to do with the portfolio they present. (As I write this I just looked at my own and it confused the hell out of me so maybe that theory is wrong? Who is this guy Ranum who posts pretentious fine art along side of cheesecake, humor, and deep fetish/bondage? Some weirdo!)

It's inevitable that a forum like PhotoSIG is going to have conflicts. Why? You've got a feedback mechanism that is open to anyone who wants to participate, and you've got a broad range of skills and interests represented in that community. Thats the blessing of PhotoSIG! When you post something, your work is being looked at and commented-on by a broad cross-section of people. It's not as if you're surrounded by you clique who is "into" whatever you're "into" and are your friends that are all afraid to say what they really think because they care about your feelings. Much of the good and useful feedback I've gotten about my work is from strangers: after all, if someone who doesn't know you likes it, it means more than if your wife likes it. Presumably she's biassed. Actually, my wife really hates some of my stuff and has no problem telling me. She cares enough to trust me with a negative review..

There's nothing that can be done about differing opinions, short of splitting into art.photosig.com, pornosig.com, erotica.photosig.com, etc. And, I really think that would be a bad idea. But, as long as you give someone the opportunity to see something they don't like, and a way they can complain about it, you're going to get the periodic flame-wars. In the meantime, I wish that PhotoSIG had a feedback system that was more like photo.net's - images are rated on:

Frankly, I'd probably only read critiques about my photos' technical qualities from people who have posted a significant number of technically well-rated images themselves. Etc. I know that sounds elitist but in practice, in the Real World, when I sit in a coffee-shop and do portfolio reviews with my friends, I listen more to the opinions of the guys who I know are darkroom wizards, when they talk about my print quality. And I listen to my friend the crazy artist when she talks about whether my images are "alive" or not. You learn which critics you trust for what criticism, and that's not much of an option in a forum as big as PhotoSIG. It's almost as if we need critics who identify the area they consider themselves critics in, and then we can decide what value to place on their opinions based on their idea of where their opinion matters. For example, I could easily see myself hoisting my banner as an official critic of lighting, composition, and tits. I know a lot and have strong opinions on those topics. But don't ask me about kid pictures - kids all look the same to me until they're at least a year old. See what I'm getting at? There are some things that I really care a lot about and I wish there was a way that I, as a critic, could inject that into my critique. I try to do that whenever I post a critique. I did one the other day that was a comment on a beautiful underwater shot of a sunken boat. "WOW!" I thought. I added to my comment: "As someone who knows zero about underwater photography, I am also impressed by what I presume is the difficulty of getting a shot like this." Now - someone who knows diving might tell me it was a total point-and-shoot grab shot. I just don't know. Is my critique less valuable? No. But it is less well-informed.

Last week a fellow posted what has to be one of the most intensely erotic images I've seen on PhotoSIG. It's a closeup of a woman's pussy, with another woman's mouth moving in to lick it. It's well-lit, carefully and well-composed, and delicately after-worked in PhotoShop, and kind of shocking in its "in your face" intensity. My guess is that in a year or two it'll float up to somewhere near the top in ratings. What bothers me about this image? Nothing. What bothers me is how the PhotoSIG community reacted to it. There were several critiques posted that basically said "Beautiful technical image, but it's porn. Three thumbs down!" Of course those critiques were followed by a welter of the usual debate about what constitutes porn. I don't know what constitutes porn, and neither do you - but I do know what constitutes a useful critique, and "Beautiful image, three thumbs down!!" Ain't it. I imagine in my wildest dreams a very experienced photographer (I have known a few...) who'd look at someone's image and say, "That's repulsive. Now, let's talk about your composition, lighting, and exposure and see if we can make it better." I got a very important clue about this when I was at a Mapplethorpe show at the Baltimore Museum of Art and was looking at some of his prints and, frankly, I thought the print quality was poor. I was leaning forward and looking closely at one big dust spot on a print that hadn't been spotted out, and muttered to myself, "that's awful" when someone behind me said, "yes, disgusting!" I smiled, nodded to her, and walked away, filled with the awareness that we were each living on different planets and shared no common ground on which to communicate.

mjr. (2003)