Thursday, April 26, 2018

Against "Craft"

Perhaps I've been reading too much LuLa lately, but it strikes me that we're constantly subjected to a drumbeat based on the notion of "the craft of photography." You can probably visualize the old bearded guy with the meaty, moist, lips rambling on tediously about "crahft" and reminiscing about the darkroom and The Fine Print.

Now, to be sure, I am not opposed to craft as a general idea. Doing a decent job at taking and printing pictures is great, and far be it from me to judge someone who wants to devote what seem to be absurd efforts to getting the smallest details Just So. It's your Art, make it the way you want it to be.

The trouble is that "crahft" is used to smuggle in a bunch of unsavory stuff, and it's that stuff I object to.

The first thing is that "crahft" discussions usually lead more or less directly to tools, and we learn about how craftsmen, true craftsmen, insist on the very best tools. Craft, after all, is about precision, attention to detail, an obsession with the smallest elements. Which, to an extent, is true. Except for the part about the very best tools.

While there are certainly craftsmen who have carefully organized shops filled with the best tools, this more accurately describes the moneyed dilettante. More often than not, a proper craftsman's shop will look like a shed into which garbage has been shoved for 30 years. Sally Mann, in a short film attached to her current show, describes with evident delight how she broke her ground glass, and now uses a piece of ordinary clear glass which she has covered with scotch tape. I am not making this up. I saw this object in the film. Now that's a craftsman.

So, when some old bugger with a long white beard and thick moist lips slips inevitably from "crahft" to discussion of how important it is to have the latest Sony A17 WhateverTheFuckIII, he's pulling a fast one. Either he doesn't actually know anything about "crahft" in the first place (likely), or he's selling something (probably), or he's justifying his own recent purchase of some silly gizmo (almost certainly).

Onwards to the second thing smuggled in with the discussion of craft.

If it's craft and highly technical and you need the best tools then surely it is also very hard. Right?

It's not.

I know how to do a lot of things toleraby well. I can bake a loaf of sourdough bread, I can cut dovetails, I can paint a wall, I can write, illustrate, and bind a book. Some of these things are harder than photography. None of them is easier.

Photography is pretty easy. Sure, you can work away at it, and get really really good at it (which I am not, particularly) and things come more smoothly and easily, and you get to the right answers faster than I do. Just like anything, you can always expend effort and get better. Just because you spent 1000 hours learning how to light and are now truly, legitimately, really good at it, doesn't mean that it's inherently hard. If you'd spent those hours on making cakes, you'd be damned good at making cakes. If you'd spent that time learning how to cut dovetails, well, let's be honest, you probably still wouldn't be that good at cutting dovetails unless you're some kind of dovetail savant.

The old bugger talking about "crahft" might not be selling a WunderCamera 2000, he might be selling you a workshop.

I print about as well as I do a bunch of other things, which is to say, "not bad, not brilliant, but not bad". I came into photography in the glory days of roll film, when the best emulsions ever were being introduced, when multigrade papers were getting really good (another thing: Sally Mann uses Ilford MG, so there) and so on. I can find my way around a darkroom, and honestly, it's not that hard. See above.

These days, almost nobody wants to go back to the darkroom. There's a lot of excuses, but the answer underlying it all is that digital is a hell of a lot easier.

Back in ye olde wet plate dayes, sure, there was some serious technical stuff, some real physical skills to master. By the time I started in, if you could follow simple recipes, you could shoot, develop, print, just fine. At least black and white. And now things are much much easier.

It's just not that hard. The degree-of-difficulty has been steadily trending downward since 1840, and we've reached the point where anyone can do it.

So, when someone starts talking about "craft", or worse, "crahft", just tune out. No need to be mean about it, but you don't have to pay attention either.


  1. Hardest part of photography is finding the nearest good coffee shops or bars at which to take frequent breaks.

    1. Certainly it should be at least a coffee interspersed with up to an hours wandering around. It has improved in the UK, it was not so long ago that most cafes served a vile liquid purporting to be coffee but now its good. Good coffee is important to working properly.

  2. I think it's in fact a double-edged sword that photography became so easy. Since the ease with which all sorts of things can be achieved results in a lot of difficult choices. For instance, it is easy to fine-tune the shadows in your picture. But when do they look "right"? Or should this be a bit lighter and that a bit cooler?

    The craftsmen I know tend to avoid too many choices. They rather stick with a manageable set of tools and tried-and-proven techniques.

    Best, Thomas

  3. There's one more thing: I just had to think about that marvellous early color work of Ernst Haas and Saul Leiter. As I understand, the motion blur and stark silhouettes in Haas' work and the impressionist look in Leiter's were owing to the low sensitivity and limited dynamic range of Kodachrome. This made it necessary to drop the shadows in high-contrast lighting and make trade-offs between shutter speed and aperture. It's just "make do with what you have".

    If Haas and Leiter already had the latest Sony-Alpha-Schießmichtot with incredible dynamic range and fabulous high ISO then probably their work wouldn't exist. Or they'd have dropped photography altogether out of boredom.

    1. A lot of Leiter’s look came from his use of longer lenses and the willingness to shoot through things (windows, etc). I’m sure that today the “experts” would complain about his lack of focus and abstraction, not to mention his “strange” framing. I mean...such weak compositions! You can’t even see their faces!

      If the next new Sony is NOT named Scheissmichtot, I will be disappointed.

    2. "Schießmichtot" - literal translation: "shoot me"; contextual meaning: "whatever". Sorry, I shouldn't have posted that in German since its spelling is too similar to a hard word for soft matter ;^)

    3. Yes, made me laugh when I saw that. Don't know that "shit me dead" isn't a better expression in the context, though... ;)


  4. The hardest part of photography has always been the same and will never change: How to develop a good 'eye'. There's too much respect for 'technique'.

    I remember being scolded by a hair-shirted analoguer for making a pseudo-cyanotype 'with the click of a Photoshop button', instead of taking the hours and skills necessary to produce the genuine article, dangerous chemicals and all.

    1. OK.
      And I will NOT be ashamed that I am not boiling up Ye Cowe-Foote (etc. etc.) in order to glue together my increasingly colourful & fantastical, deeply inauthentic, and yet profoundly pleasing (to me) book-casings for my beloved old paperback novels that would otherwise be crumbling into illegible powder...

    2. Long may it be so, Stone Seal!

  5. I can’t say I’m against “craft”, except when it becomes the sole, end goal. Then you end up churning out loads of technically well-constructed photos, all rule-of-thirds-y, sharp and micro-contrasty, but without soul. A shark-eye of a photograph.
    Craft should service artistic impulses. The problem is, not everyone has something artistically to say.

  6. I don't understand all this fuss about camera gear and craft: What's it to me how other photographers choose to practice their photography?

    Sure, when I have my photographer hat on, the technical details matter -- a lot, in fact! -- with respect to my own photography. But when I have my viewer hat on, all that matters is the end result: Does the final, finished photo work for me or not?

    Yes, because I am a photographer, as well as a lifelong tinkerer with all things electronic and mechanical, and I have a lot of practical experience with both camera gear and many aspects of photographic craft, I confess to sometimes being curious about the rationale behind the camera gear choices made by other photographers (as I recently expressed to Molitor in a private email) and/or the various techniques they employed while converting their captures from grains of silver or zeros and ones to a print on paper.

    But curiosity is as far as that goes, because when it comes to their photography, I would never tell another photographer they should be using -- or doing! -- something different(ly) or that their priorities are all wrong.

    If their photos work for me -- whether it's because of, or in spite of, the camera gear they used and the craft they employed -- then that's all that matters!

    Otherwise, I could never enjoy the photography of, say, Susan Burnstine or Sally Mann, both of whom intentionally use camera gear and processing techniques that place significant limits on the ultimate image quality of their photos and prints, not to mention any photos made using a pinhole instead of a lens or most prints made using alternative processes.

    And that's fine, because however technically flawed these photos may be, the best of them still work. And in some instances, they work very well indeed!

    So I say, live and let live!

    If a photographer wants to capture long-exposure, nighttime photos using an APS-C format camera and budget zoom lenses -- both of which are far from optimal when it comes to maximizing image quality in these circumstances -- then by all means, he should do so.

    And if his choices make no sense to me, a photographer who holds image quality dear and as a result, chooses to capture long-exposure, nighttime photos using a 35mm format camera and high-quality prime lenses, well, that's okay, too.

    Because the resulting photos are interesting regardless, even if they could (and IMO, would) have benefited from being taken using different camera gear.

    And really, that's all that counts ... yes?