Are You a Craftsman Dedicated to Mastery?

Photo: Rafal Maleszyk

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.

Photography Exhibition

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.

Photo: Art Pascua

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.

Photo: Alison Beste
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.

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  • Renee Besta

    This is an excellent article that all photographers should read. In particular, I agree with David about the quality (or lack thereof) of prints submitted for exhibitions. As someone who has produced quite a few major exhibits on the California Central Coast, I have been appalled at the low quality of commercial prints submitted after the image has been juried in.

    I struggle to understand why so few photographers want to take total control of their art and complete the artistic process by producing their own prints. We have also learned from the mistake of accepting images for shows via digital submission, only to later see bad prints show up for hanging. In some cases, the images bore little resemblance to the original digital submission because the printmaking was so inferior. These need to be rejected, despite the outcry from the submitting artist.

    With the ease of posting photos online today, it is a crying shame that so few photographers rarely, if ever, get involved in actually making a print. They almost never see their work as it was meant to be seen – as a masterfully crafted print. This is a travesty, and deprives those photographers from learning to see in a much more meaningful way.

    I agree that the highest quality prints are those made by the photographer who puts the time into mastering this great craft. Preferably someone who makes their own custom ICC profiles, has studied the craft of printing, and who has experimented with the many wonderful papers available today. As someone who makes fine art prints for other photographers, it always amazes me when people are shocked at the visual difference between those mass-produced at commercial labs, versus those carefully made one by one, on the appropriate paper, to achieve the utmost quality so that the print truly “speaks” to the viewer. Many photographers have commented that they are seeing their image for the first time in a much different manner. Which proves the point that until the image is output to print, it is impossible to truly evaluate its quality or meaning.

    Thanks for posting this great article on the Breathing Color blog. You have the most insightful articles of all.

    Renee Besta, Paso Robles, CA

    • David Ulrich


      Thanks for your kind words. I totally agree with your question of why so few photographers seem inclined to “complete the artistic process by producing their own prints.”

      Let’s keep championing the cause!


  • Renee Besta

    In my previous post, I forgot to add the famous quote by Ansel Adams that goes something like this: “The negative is the score, but the print is the symphony.” Think this sums it up.

    Renee Besta, Paso Robles, CA

  • Nick Friend

    nicely done, David. I really enjoyed this article. Your final sentence sums it all up perfectly:

    “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.”

  • Craig Ellenwood

    I applaud your post and agree that just because a person has a camera and has played around in Photoshop does not make them a craftsman. I have three decades in the darkroom making prints for photographers such as Sally Mann, Joel Meyerowitrz, and Richard Misrach. I printed Misrach’s retrospective that is permanantly housed at the National gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I learned platinum printing from Rondall Partridge. Sadly this year my photos were not deemed strong enough to be included in the juried show… maybe next year! I currently manage a fine art printing company Chromaco, in Honolulu, Hawaii and would be happy to work with your students to produce prints of outstanding quality.

    Craig Ellenwood

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