New Work Review Group Guidelines, a.k.a. "The Monday Night Manifesto"
Since August 1998 a subset of the Group f/5.6 has been meeting every other Monday in what has variously been called "Print Review", "New Work Review", "That Monday night thing", etc. For current purposes call it, and other similar gatherings, a New Work Review Group (NWRG). Some six or seven of us have been participating since 1998; every single participant feels that their participation has made a huge, positive difference in their photography.
The group was been so successful that it's became too big, and we spawned another group. What follows was written to describe and define exactly the NWRG is and how it works.
The New Work Review Group Manifesto
The original seed idea for the NWRG came from the following passage from the book "Art and Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland:
Operating Manual for Not Quitting
A: Make friends with others who make art, and share your in progress work with each other frequently.
B: Learn to think of [A], rather than the Museum of Modern Art, as the destination of your work.
This seems simple, and it is. Not only that, it works. Several of the core NWRG folks have had the experience of being dragged out of an artistic dry spell by the simple routine of repeatedly showing up for NWRG with their hands empty of new work. It doesn't take long before the urge to bring something kicks in or is kicked in by the rest of the group's sympathetic but snide remarks. And so you get out the camera, warm up the darkroom, and before you know what happened you're making photographs again.
Since this is a manifesto, we hold these truths to be self-evident:
- Because we're so close to it, we're often poor judges of the quality of our own work. It's all too easy for the desire for an image to be really stellar to be translated directly into the sometimes mistaken belief that the image really is stellar. For the same reason, we often don't recognize real breakthroughs in our own work. Sometimes it takes another person who is familiar with your past work to spot a new trend or a new idea, or even a serendipitous accident that points the way to further artistic growth.
- Because we can't really be good judges of our own work, we need regular feedback on our work from others. To be helpful, that feedback needs to be both honest and constructive, and we need to hear it from people that we know, respect, and trust.
- In order to improve our art, we need to become keen viewers of art. The more we are able to see subtlety in art made by others, the more we are able to make subtle refinements in our own art. One of the best ways to improve this ability to is to practice regularly and honestly giving feedback on other people's work.
- Notice that items (2) and (3) are curiously (and delightfully) symmetric - the two things we need to do to improve our art are to get feedback on our art, and to give other people feedback on their art. If you get a bunch of artists together, and have all of them discuss their work with each other, everyone benefits TWICE, once when they get feedback, and once when they give it.
- Turning up with mounted and matted work is fun and an important aspect of the NWRG - showing that work does get finished (eventually). However, often the most important feedback we can get is on in-progress photographs, photographs that we think don't work, photographs about which we're unhappy, or even photographs that are simply a lot different from what we've done before. But that's exactly the work that we feel least like showing to anyone because it feels very unsafe to show work that is unfinished, doesn't make the grade, or which represents a new direction.
- The only way to make it feel safe to show that sort of work is to establish an atmosphere of trust in which everyone understands that not everything you show is going to represent work that is finished or even work you consider 'good'.
- Giving honest feedback helps. Receiving honest feedback helps. Giving or receiving less than honest feedback doesn't help. The only way to make it possible to give and receive honest feedback is to do it in an environment where everyone respects and trusts one another.
- The best feedback you can get is from people who have seen the work you've done in the past, who are familiar with how you tend to approach things, are familiar with what you're trying to do, and are thus able to spot new trends, new problems, and new opportunities.
- A once-a-month meeting isn't enough. A once-a-week meeting is too much. That makes the every-other-week schedule sound optimal.
These thoughts set the framework for a successful New Work Review Group.
Notice how often the word 'trust' appears - trust is one of the keys to making the whole thing work. You need to trust the other participants not to trash you when you bring in your work, and they need to trust you likewise. Without this, it's either an ego contest (and unpleasant as well as worthless), or else it's a bunch of people sitting around looking at prints and saying "Say, that's really nice" (and pleasant but worthless). Two important things that contribute to this needed high level of trust are:
- Regular attendance: It's easier to trust people when you see them over and over and over again. It's a lot easier to trust people who have trusted you in the past. It's a whole lot easier to listen carefully to people who have given you excellent feedback before.
- Small group size: It's a lot easier to build the needed level of trust in a group of six than it is in a group of twenty. There is also the practical matter of time. A group larger than six or so simply doesn't have time for the careful consideration that makes the NWRG valuable.
Regular attendance is important for reasons besides trust, too. Self Evident Truth #8 tells us that we get the best feedback from people who have seen our stuff develop. No one can get to know your work if you show up infrequently. The corollary to SET #8 is that you give the best feedback to people whose work you're familiar with - and you can't be familiar with it unless you show up regularly. Finally, the 'getting past the roadblock' effect mentioned at the very beginning of the manifesto doesn't work if you don't show up simply because you don't have anything to show.
Group size is important for reasons other than trust, too. From a pragmatic point of view, a meeting in someone's home where there are more than six or seven people attending just doesn't work. If there are more than eight people attending some of the people simply will keep their mouths shut - and good feedback is lost. If 12 people show up with new work there's simply too much work to cover and not enough time to do it justice. Working strictly from observation of the existing NWRG, a size of about 6 to 8 people is just about optimum - there's enough diversity that you get a good spread of viewpoints in the feedback, but the group is small enough that it works both from a pragmatic and trust viewpoint. Another pragmatic issue is that not every member will show up for every gathering and not every member that does show up will bring work every time. With a group of 6 to 8, the random absence of 1 or 2 still leaves a viable group and if 1 or 2 people do not bring work still assures that enough work is there to spark a lively discussion.