7.02.2016

Do you miss your craft?

Almost every day for the past sixteen years I've gone to swim practice at the same pool. I get in the water and swim the workout that the masters coaches put up on the white board.  Sometimes it's sets I'm not fond of but I trudge through it. Sometimes there are sprint sets that are just a a joy. It doesn't matter. All that matters is how good the practice of swimming and hour or an hour and a half each day makes me feel. You would think with all this practice I would have the goal of competing in swim meets, racing other swimmers, racking up trophies.

I share the lanes with like-minded swimmers. John has been swimming in the program as long as I can remember. He's a great swimmer and he loves being in the water, and being good at swimming. But as long as I've known John he's never gone to a swim meet. There is something about the practice and the continuity he enjoys. Maybe it's just the idea of having more or less total control over one aspect of life for an hour or so each day.

We were having coffee after practice with our usual group of swimmer friends. John and I were at one end of the table and we were talking about business. Out of the blue he asked me if I liked the way my business was now, because of digital. He was pretty sure I would say that I liked it better because it was so much easier to know when you got a good shot, or because I had to spend less time doing things like buying film, developing, making prints and all the rest.

I thought about it and I asked him, in return, if you knew you could get up on the starting blocks on any given day and bang out a 100 meter freestyle in a minute or less, without coming to daily practice would you stop coming to swim practice? Of course not. We love the process. We love the feel of the cool water on our skin. We love the way camaraderie continually pushes us to come to the pool and stay in shape. We love the feeling of mastery. We love the feeling of being in the water.

As I thought more about our conversation I realized that the thing that has frustrated me most about our business since our transition to digital is that there is no more in-depth process. We trade real process for "researching techniques on the web." When digital eliminated the uncertainty of whether or not we'd gotten the shot it stole from us the comfort and practice of process. Gone were the necessary trips out to the store to buy film and Polaroid, replaced with guilty trips to look at the latest gear. Gone were the quiet hours in the darkroom and the boisterous bonhomie of running into peers at the processing lab.

And, most grievous, the quickness of getting the shots robbed us of spending time getting the shots; and that time represented part of the richness of being immersed in photography.

There was a joy in problem solving in the camera. There was a mission to get everything perfect. It required higher levels of craft; of skill. Now, craft is quaint and post processing for improvement is the norm.

Do I miss the craft aspect of my profession? As much as I would miss my daily swims.

You may color this line of thought as sentiment or nostalgia but I would refer you to a book called, Art and Fear. It's a wonderful book about the life of artists. There is one story in the book that sums up the loss in a different way for me.

There was an experiment in a University ceramics class. The professor divided up the class into two halves. One half was told that they needed only make one perfect piece in order to get an A in the class. The other half was told that they would be graded solely on the sheer weight of the ceramics they created in the semester. More pounds of ceramics made for a higher grade.

One would conjecture that the people who had time to research and ponder and plan for the perfect final piece would obviously come up with the best work. But the reality, semester after semester, was that the class charged with producing sheer quantity of work, consistently, also did the best work. It seems that being enmeshed and immersed in the flow of process led to quicker feedback loops, learning, and finally comfort with the methods and techniques. A fluidity. With that in mind is it any wonder that we can't think of any real, single titan of photography that has emerged since the days of film? No new Avedons, no new Penns, no new Elliott Erwitts, No soaring replacement for Henri Cartier Bresson.

Seems that time and quantity are important ingredients to creating and solidifying a real and unique vision. Today paid work comes more sporadically and it's over quicker. The average photographer works his photography as a second or third job and orbits in and out of the pursuit. The giants of yesteryear probably produced as much photographic work in a year as most new photographers will do in ten, or even twenty years time. How can they hope to rise to the top when they'll hardly be through their own, Been there, done that, what's new phase?, and be ready to embrace their own mature style? How will they make time for the daily iteration that seems so much a part of the process?

Do I miss the process we used to do our work with? Yes, the process was the fun part. Not the sharing or the showing, or the completion. The good work was the part where we had our brains and our hearts fully engaged and were hellbent on making art; not just coughing up another one to share on Instagram.

I think we get too intellectual about photography. Trying after the fact to explain why our images work. As though there is some formula more important than, "I love the way this looks through the finder."


Diagrams, color theory, golden rules, rules of third are nothing more than attempts to explain why humans like what they see. Mostly postulated by people who are unsure of their own vision. Uncertain about the relevance of their own seeing. We are an irrational species. Sometimes we just do stuff because we enjoy it.

If you need to have a manifesto in order to grapple with the promise of success I would suggest you switch to painting or performance art or conceptual art. Either that, or get brave enough to appreciate your own work without the need to dissect it.

Comedians know that there is not a joke in the world that is bettered by the need for further explanation...