I asked my students last night what the word craft meant to them and what it implied. They answered with insightful words such as: skill, mastery, dedication, sensitivity to materials, and striving for excellence. I agree with their perceptions. However, in the world of automated plug-ins and cool apps, have we lost sight of what it takes to achieve true excellence?
What are the dangers that the digital world has spawned? Some people learn a few digital tools and, for them, that is enough, thinking that they have mastered the craft. Many of these individuals have not studied photography or the visual language in any meaningful way. They are not yet artists. They lack the attributes that my students have identified as requisites for becoming a true craftsperson.
Last week, I co-juried and installed our annual contemporary photography exhibition here in Honolulu: Contemporary Photography in Hawai‘i 2011 : The Third Annual Survey Exhibition. The show is sponsored by Pacific New Media, University of Hawai’i Manoa, and attracted 428 submissions from which 64 images were chosen. We juried the show from digital submissions and did not see the prints until they were delivered for installation. A mistake. Next year, we will ask to see the prints before making final determinations for the show.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should. We observed many images that were over-processed with exaggerated color, heavy-handed digital manipulation, oversaturation and over sharpening, that seemed to be striving for an affect without clear or meaningful purpose. These images did not make the final cut. Additionally, in a region filled with such complexity and social diversity, we were surprised at how few images documenting this rich cultural blend were actually submitted.
Many of the images selected for the exhibition communicated on all levels. They immediately stood out from the rest in terms of the strength of concept and transparency of execution. In making selections, we tended toward images that communicated with elegance and clarity.
While the artists who were accepted for the show are not yet master photographers, their efforts are imbued with a sense of striving and purpose. They have something to say and the growing craftsmanship to communicate with vitality and grace. thumbnails of the exhibition
Many of the prints in the show were skillful and alive, and intentionally reflected the image content, while others were off the mark, without sensitive consideration for surface, luminosity, or color. Mostly, I observed that those who made their own prints, or worked closely with a custom printer, carried their images through to completion in a manner that simply could not be matched by commercial printers.
The quality of the print is of utmost importance in transforming one’s vision into a meaningful and evocative statement. Learning the craft, learning to print, is all too often a forgotten art in today’s digital, wanting-to-be-quickly-gratified, artistic climate. I Remember when, after photographing and printing for over five years, I showed some images to my teacher, Minor White. His comment was: “Now, you need to learn to print”. And truly, it took more years to realize that level of power and subtlety—and I am still working on it today with some degree of dedication.
Seek out the prints of the masters. Look at prints by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Sally Mann, Robert Frank and others. Look at digital prints made by master printmakers. There are a few people who are now emerging in this relatively new medium with a growing level of knowledge and ability. For example, witness the prints made by Nash Editions. You can see reproductions of these prints from a wide range of artists in the book, Nash Editions: Photography and the Art of Digital Printing.
dedication to mastery
Look at these images; and gain a respect for their subtlety, power, and skill. The magic does not come from new software or the best camera; it grows from your dedication to mastery, your striving towards a seamless relationship between your vision and concept combined with taking the time and having the discipline to fully develop your craft. Skillful and knowledgeable image editing is where the craft lies, combined with a sensitivity to the final print—and not just installing apps or plug-ins on your computer or merely learning where the contrast and saturation sliders lie. Let’s elevate craft once again to a word that reflects a genuine human endeavor, beyond computers and beyond software, to a word that means dedication, skill, sensitivity, and a growing mastery.