Training Feb 2006
Critique and Criticism:
copyright © 2006 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved
the budo of photography
The martial arts and the "fine arts" are not so far removed from
each other. Musashi said so in a book, so it must be true. I've also
found it to be true, for both my martial arts training and for my
photography. After a 20 year layoff I'm slowly training myself back
into photography, this time with auto-everything digital cameras and
editing instead of my trusty old manual 35mm and a darkroom full of
chemicals. As part of this training I've been reading a lot of internet
photography forums. One of the first things I noticed is the
similarity between the majority of photographers and the majority of
martial artists. Both seem to want to "get it" immediately without any
long training process, both are constantly asking for approval in one
way or another, and both are more or less allergic to any hint of
critique. At the same time, both types are also very quick to criticise
the work of others.
On the other hand, I've also noticed that on many of these forums (both
photographic and martial arts related) there are some very accomplished
people who can only be described as sensei, as top artists who have
time and kind words for those fighting to learn. There are, of course,
various types of "kindness".
As I said, many, perhaps most people don't want critiques when asking
"how do you like my work", or "how is my form", they want an ego
stroke. To say nothing or to say "very nice, keep it up" is considered
kind, and it's what I usually do with strangers if asked. But saying
that really doesn't help them, it's the ribbon awarded in public school
for showing up at field day. As my kids themselves say, if everyone is
excellent, nobody is excellent, we're not fooling them but as adults we
seem to want to be fooled ourselves.
When asking for criticism on photography forums, I received "nice work"
for a long time until one day, a very top fashion photographer from New
York City ripped into me, asking just what the hell I was doing, why
was I trying to do fashion work with crappy models and crappy styling
and crappy makeup and why was I not in New York or Paris instead of
some small town in Canada.
I was elated.
I had finally become good enough to be noticed, good enough to be told
my work isn't good enough. It was my first hint that I was on the right
Now, if someone is just starting out, and therefore not very good, a
little positive reinforcement is called for. But if that fellow has
been training for 6 years and has an ego the size of a house, perhaps
the worst thing in the world would be confirmation of his imagined
Teachers have to know when to stroke, and when to sting. But mostly
they just need to demonstrate, to show how it's done and to provide an
I'm not talking about "those who can't, teach" here. Teachers who can't
perform what they're trying to teach can only talk and read manuals on
teaching. They can encourage and hope the student somehow gets
what they never did.
Very hard, I sympathize with both the student and the teacher. One has
to leave and the other has to push them out as soon as possible. These
teachers can only start folks on the road and then go back to the gate
for the next traveler. Never having been far down the road themselves
they can't do much else but point out where the next teacher lives. If
they're good teachers they'll do this. If they get caught up in "being
a teacher" they can keep students as dull as they themselves are by
flattery and desparagement of their betters. Students are mostly lazy,
if they're told they're doing fine they won't go further.
The Japanese word for teacher is sensei which means roughly "gone
before". That implies someone who can lead, pull, entice and otherwise
encourage students to come to where he is. Once a student is at the
level of the teacher, that teacher passes the student on to someone who
can continue the education, or boots the student out of the nest.
A student's job is "shu, ha, ri" to "keep, break and leave". The first
level is to keep, to copy, to shut up, take the crap and learn the
basics. At this level the teacher will often be very cruel, the ego has
to be broken fast by showing the student just how little he knows or
everyone wastes time with a false sense of ability. Praise for nothing
holds the student back. He must understand just how little he
understands. The best the student gets at this point is a grunt,
usually nothing at all when the practice is done correctly. After all
what praise should there be for NOT forgetting to breath, for NOT
hitting a car while driving home from work. Only criticism is heard
here as the basics are learned.
It's here that many poor teachers become as stuck as their students,
unable to go beyond criticism into critique.
The next step is ha, to break, in the sense of breaking down the
learning that you've done into it's fundamentals, to understand the
theory behind the technique. This is of course, the opposite of the
Western way of teaching where theory comes first and practice later. In
the Japanese traditional method, rote practice (kata) comes first, and
the student derives the theory from that kata. Once the student starts
to feel the fundamentals "in the bones" there may come a small word in
the ear, perhaps an offhand comment now and then, even more rarely
perhaps, a question directly answered instead of simply thrown back
with the word "practice!" The criticism becomes a critique, "try it a
little more like that and a little less like this, see how that changes
things"... "oh yes, interesting isn't it?"
Here the teacher must be masterful, when the technique looks a certain
way, insight is possible and a small hint, a kind word, even a raised
eyebrow will allow a sudden realization in the student, and that
insight is reinforced by an even more subtle nod or grunt... or if it's
very profound, a head-shake of disgust which says "yes, it was so
obvious you should have understood that months ago you dull fellow" but
there's that twinkle in the eye. A good teacher doesn't hide ALL his
pride in his students at this point.
Finally, when all the learning is done, when the student no longer
needs the practice, when he can create his own "kata" at need, then
there must be a leaving. The student rarely leaves the teacher if the
lessons have been well taught, but the teacher slowly leaves the
student and becomes instead the senior partner, the older brother,
someone the student may ask for advice once in a while, or turn to with
a difficult student of his own, but who is no longer necessary for the
understanding of the art.
Now, perhaps for the first time, the student might overhear the teacher
praise him to another teacher. The student will quickly turn away and
pretend he didn't hear, the teacher will smile a little bit and the
other teacher will wink, "this one may be better than you are some day
my friend" "Oh I surely hope so, I'm getting old and would like to
retire leaving better than I arrived with".
That tiny glimpse is worth more than all the hearty pats on the back
and thousands of "well done" you've received in a lifetime.
It seems like so little for so much effort, but if you've been through
it you know exactly what it really is worth.
One tiny grin from the old man...