A few days I wrote this post about what’s important in photography. It may seem surprising coming from someone who blogs about craft in photography – and techy craft at that – but I was making that point that craft is not the most important thing in photography; it’s not even close. My frame of reference in that post was making art, because that’s what I do, or try to do. However, I think that you could make a similar list about advertising photography, glamour work, photojournalism, or any photographic field with aspirations of importance. The priorities would be different. Some things might drop off the list. A few others might get added.
I maintain that the power, effect, and significance of a photograph is primarily dependent on what I will call its content: the totality of the intellectual, emotional, historic, and esthetic experience imparted to people who view it that does not stem from the craft involved in creating the image. You need content to have a successful image. You may need craft as well; how much depends on the content. But images aren’t successful on craft alone.
As an example, consider the Omaha Beach D-Day images created by Robert Capa. Grainy, blurry, smeared, ashes and soot. They are terrible from a technical point to view. Yet they are powerful, scary, dramatic, historical, and maybe the greatest short series of war photographs ever. They are intimate. They put you right there. Content 100, craft 5. Craft is not quite zero, though. You can tell that the images were properly exposed before they were tortured in processing. To some extent the lack of craft in making the exposures – the too-long shutter speeds, the haphazard framing – only serve to make the images more powerful, as they convey to the viewer the pressure Capa was under when he tripped the shutter.
Ansel Adams, a famous proponent of excellent craft, said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” My interpretation of that is that no amount of craft can save bad (or nonexistent) content.
That is not to say that craft can’t be effective in creating a more powerful and effective image. Adams knew that, and that’s why he worked so hard on perfecting his craft. It’s ironic that in spite of his vast and deep knowledge of exposure, his most famous image, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, was underexposed.
I’ve tried to be general in the above, but now I’m going to return to art.
There seem to be artists that disagree with what I said above. I don’t want to pick on anybody, but some of them seem to be using alternative processes. I have seen a lot of platinum, palladium, gum bichromate, albumin, and Daguerreotype images that no one would give a second glance to if they came out of an inkjet printer. It seems that the people who created them think that craft trumps content. Well, it doesn’t for me.
I’ve seen beautifully crafted black and white underwater photographs of featureless wide angle images full of random fish. I’ve taken lots of images like that. But I’ve never printed one.
There seems to be a group of landscape photographers who go to the same places and make incredibly similar, finely detailed, highly saturated, beautifully exposed, wide-angle with prominent foreground object, color within the lines, check all the boxes images. This brings up another point. Content becomes weaker with repetition. Craft does not.
Many curators in museums are invested in the individual, unique photographs in their collections. I can see why, given their job descriptions, they would be. But, if you’ve followed me so far, it will be no surprise to you that I’m not. The object is important, sure. It’s important because it is the carrier of the content. Without the content, it’s just a collection of, say, silver salts and gelatin on cotton pulp.
I’ve seen Cartier-Bresson prints. They are nicely executed. However, medium-resolution web images carry almost the same impact. People may string me up when they hear this, but I think that some Ansel Adams posters are close to as nice as some of his prints.
I wish I had a better word than content to describe what a photograph communicates without regard for its craft. Can someone help me out here?
As always, comments and well-intentioned criticism are appreciated.
Chris Livsey says
“You can tell that the images were properly exposed before they were tortured in processing”
The recent evidence is that they were in fact not “tortured” in processing. That story was “invented” to cover the fact that Capa only took those few famous, and rightly so,exposures the rest were never ruined, they never existed: http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/2014/06/10/alternate-history-robert-capa-on-d-day-1/
Be warned this is a long series of posts, there are entrenched vested interests fighting here.
Chris, thanks for the link on the Capa pictures.
tex andrews says
I agree with Jay, lovely , pithy post. One thing that is good about your blog is how it hits different angles of a subject, or even ranges a bit, as this one does.
Of course, I have comments. Can’t help myself on this topic, so important is it to my and my wife’s (and now a daughter’s) lives, and most of our friends as well.
So, Craft. It’s an interesting variable in the equation that is art. Because as you say, not only do some practitioners elevate craft above all else, and wind up with insipid work, but so too do many viewers, or worse, mistake the craft for the art.
But on the other hand…..
I can think of a number of examples off the top of my head where the craft is so extraordinary that it actually transcends craft: Homer’s watercolors; Sargent’s watercolors and oils; Turner; Constable; Reynolds; Gainsborough; Hals; Vermeer; ter Boorch (OMG that satin!); Van Aelst (can you tell I’m a fan of the Dutch 17th century?); de La Tour; Bernini; Rubens; Van Eyck; Pontormo; Bronzino; Michelangelo—-you get the picture (ha) or object—and that’s a top o’ my head, very incomplete list. And that list can go back into classical antiquity (Roman portrait busts? wow, not to mention just about all of Greek sculpture)—and beyond, to Egyptian art. But let’s single out a couple of cases, to prove your point and provide some good examples of exceptions.
Sargent would be a first pick: extraordinary painter of mind boggling (if you are a painter) facility and bravura. But there’s instances when his craft-skill is used in insipid ways—and that’s always been the knock on him (and he knew it himself when alive…). He’s a good one to prove your point. I’d say a host of current landscape photographers, too. But then I recently saw this show at the National Gallery and it was a knockout. One of the pieces , the Stieglitz “From the Back Window–291” is maybe the best photograph I’ve ever seen. Forget about being able to see why looking at it online, though. In person? Jaw dropper. And mostly because of the craft. Here craft was truly transcendent.
One of the best examples I can throw out into this discussion would be Charles Sheeler, a painter, draughtsman and photographer, sometimes of the same thing: check out “Interior with Stove”, both the photograph (platinum print) and the drawing in conte. Both are wonderful. The conte drawing—conte crayon is arguably with silverpoint the most difficult and intractable of drawing media, and I would say worse than silverpoint because it’s easily smudged—totally blows my mind, partly because I know what it is and how extraordinary and admirable is the craft of it, partly because it is just doggone beautiful. But in both cases, and really in all cases of Sheeler’s work, the craft does not overshadow the other elements, yet it is truly a “noble” part of the whole and really part of the content. A pure photographer as an example would be Porter, the best under-appreciated photographer I can think of.
There’s a lot of modern work in different media, including photography, in which seeming “craftlessness” is equally important and a positive element, and actually a contributor to the content.
So, what is content? Most confuse it with subject matter, which it is not. And then there is “deep content”, a level further down and tending towards the ineffable. Content is a strange and fascinating topic—one for a separate discussion. And then there’s taste, which I believe is the “ghost in the machine” of the arts.
Boy oh boy, did you open up a can o’ worms…