Posted: 12/27/2011

Merciless Critic vs. Master Craftsman
Jim Austin

A friend said to me yesterday that she often does not share pictures because of the voices. I also have a critical voice inside my mind, I told her.

I call it "Merciless Critic." My Merciless Critic voice comes a creature that I imagine looks like Gollum with missing teeth and big ears, and has the voice of The Joker from Batman. 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," and "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 am sharing photos or doing photography, I often 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...

Some days it takes a lot to get the Master Craftsman on his feet. Obviously, drinking Mr. Brown, espresso coffee, and long walks can help. To get his visual mind moving, the Master Craftsman often has to get his feet moving first. A walk outside, even in the worst weather, can usually awaken the Master Craftsman to some photo opportunities and start me shooting. It all comes down to taking taking that first cold, empty, lonely step while gripping the camera with whatever ennui, fatigue, or depression I feel. And as I do so, my Master Craftsman silences the Merciless Critic.


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. His best trick is to nit pick: "your colors are off", "the developer was 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. Now I am no master craftsman, but these tools are helpful ideas about making pictures that I've found true from experience:

Five Tools and Sayings of the Master Craftsman:

1. Slow Down. The best 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. He 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.

Says the critic: " You'll never be as good as Olga Ivanova, Joe McNally, or Annie Liebovitz." Then there is a pause, and the Master Craftsman answers that doing photography is a lot like dancing tango or playing music: what looks like a feat of magic in photography is the result of a lot of practice.

3. GO Around GAS. It's better to shoot now, today, with the camera(s) you own than wait for the next one you have GAS* for.


4. Be Now Here. The Merciless Critic loves to freeze open the shutter with fixed ideas from the past, fog my lens with fantasies for the future, and use any trick to keep the Master Craftsman from being fully here, now.

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 of sensitizing is a lot more important than the product. While the Merciless Critic nit picks at the product, the Master Craftsman stays mindful of the emotions of the process -how exciting this shot is, here! He teaches me that the intense emotion or connection that happened for that photograph makes it the one that will survive over time.

I'd like to learn about your valuable tools from your photography experience. If you like, in the comments section below this blog, share some of the ones that work for you.

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Photographs: 35mm Kodak Tri-X film, rated at ISO 400, in D-76 diluted 1:1.

About Jim: Taught photo for Metro State College in Denver, Colorado, writes for Apogee Photo Magazine and the Film Photography Podcast, publishes downloadable photography books, and shares on G+, Flickr and his website.

* 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".



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