While there is great value in the idea of the artist or photographer working away in blissful isolation, there is also a lot of value in learning from others.
One school of thought is that if you work in isolation that you will be free to create your own, completely personal and original voice as an artist or photographer. Now while there is some value in this line of thought, there are also major issues. Art and photography are an outcome of our social nature and as such can benefit from interaction. Likewise how will you know if your work is original if you do not have a good look at what is already out there. There is also so much to learn, doing so in isolation can be, for most people, less than ideal.
So if you are going to interact with others then how, why and where do you do it?
The opinion of family and friends about your work is good and valuable personally, but are often worthless from the perspective of making your work better. Family and friends will usually not be brutally honest about your work and often do not have the visual experience to provide solid, critical advice. What you do want is the opinion of other people experienced in your form of art or photography, and preferably more experienced. Seek them out, join groups or create them. Now you must use careful judgment, as there are lots of people who sound convincing but, in fact, will lead you astray.
Clubs and groups of all sorts have experienced a decline as people’s lives have gotten busier, but they are still worthwhile. Face to face discussions can’t be beat in many ways. Plus they provide the opportunity to see real prints, which is invaluable. The shared experience of doing photography or art together gives you the opportunity to observe different working methods and approaches, which can be key to your development. These positives must be balanced with the negatives of groups, such as requiring a time commitment, travel to and fro, plus the inevitable politics and personality issues.
The Internet and things like discussion groups and forums, bring the club into your own home. There are groups for all sorts of specific interests, from users of a particular camera model to people who shoot through a microscope. Now there are problems with online groups, but they can be worked around. You don’t have the immediacy of looking at a physical print, but this can be solved with a portfolio circle that sends physical prints between members. Discussions can become quite heated because you can’t read the body language online and people tend to be more abrupt online. You can also come across cultural differences that can get in the way, because the online community is really global, even between different English-language speaking countries. And you also get people with the ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome, which think they know much more than they do. But the benefits are that you can meet some wonderful people online who live too far away for you to ever meet them in the flesh and keep the dialog going over a long time. Plus in the case of typed messages, you have a history of the discussion you can look back to, something I find invaluable. Online groups also usually have the benefit of not costing anything to join, making it zero risk to try.
A specific word about portfolio circles. In these at set of prints are circulated around the members of the group for comment. When you work online for too long you start to forget just how low-resolution email and website images are, and how limited in tonal range and color. Seeing prints is a key to getting better as a photographer or artist. Now there is some cost involved in posting the prints around, but it is not huge and is more than offset by the great benefit that comes form handling real prints. I highly recommend looking into one.
When you look at the biographies of great people of the past they usually entered into lengthy and prolonged written communication with others of like mind. They were great correspondents, in the older use of this word. The online world is probably the modern day equivalent of this. The secret is in finding the right people. There are so many forums to choose from. The big places are Yahoo and Google, but there are also great forums run by the online magazine sites and many smaller, more focused, private forums. It is also very easy to start your own, although building them up can be tough. Online groups, like all such groups, virtual or physical, want people to participate. It is important to realize that everyone can learn from everyone else and your experience is as valid as others. So when you join a group, get involved in the discussions that interest you and do not let the loud mouthed ones put you off from contributing. What you want to say is as valid (and probably more sensible) than theirs.
One thing to watch out for is the time consuming nature of groups. They can soak up as much time as you want to give and are often used as a subconscious means of avoiding having to actually create work. So you need to balance your commitment with groups with your commitment to practicing your own art. But they are a fantastic way to learn and grow.