Craft vs. Art

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Tom Duffy, Jul 11, 2004.

  1. Tom Duffy

    Tom Duffy Member

    Messages:
    963
    Joined:
    Nov 13, 2002
    Location:
    New Jersey
    Forgive the iconic title, I wanted to get people's attention :smile:

    I'm about to give all my old view camera magazines to another APUGer. Slow process, as I find myself rereading them all before they go...

    In the Jan/Feb 1997 issue (the famous one with the Huchings/Davis discussion about pyro) there is an interview with Richard M.A. Benson, then Dean of the Yale School of Art. To my mind he seems to disparage the craft aspects of print making, notable since he seems to be a fairly technical photographer.

    Says Benson in the interview with John Paul Caponigro:
    "I have a lot of ideas about craft. I think nothing is more boring than to spend your time figuring out how to makd a thing absolutely beautifully. I think you shoudl make a thing as well as you need to make it to make it carry across the thing you're trying to make clear and no better. And that means you have to be careful because you can get really interested in the thing you make. If you get interested in making more than the thing you're making does then you're becoming a craftsman. And a craftsman is fine but an artist is a different creature.
    The worst possible thing you can do is to waste your energy trying to get all the little bits and pieces right because when you get all those right the important things are wrong. So when ever I make something, I just try to get the big issues roughly correct. I have no interest in getting the little things all precise... So my notion is that it's a total waste of time to be chasing some notion of perfection when what we should be making is a roughly made object that serves its purpose well."

    Its difficult to quote an article, without stating things out of context, but his "get the big stuff right", i.e. compose correctly, get the print exposure and contrast close enough and don't worry about the details seems to give the craft aspects short shrift. But there is also something that resonates after seeing many large format prints that are technically excellent without seeming to say much...
    Take care,
    Tom
     
  2. Francesco

    Francesco Member

    Messages:
    1,020
    Joined:
    Sep 11, 2003
    Location:
    Düsseldorf,
    Shooter:
    8x10 Format
    I agree in that "The Big Picture" is the priority. But to me Benson sounds like a lazy person in so far as the following: if he already knows he has got the Big Picture issue down pat why not go all the way and make it perfect. Sometimes a beautiful photo becomes a classic with this extra effort, which is why I always go back to old negatives/prints with the view to reprinting them if I feel that I can make it "better" so to speak. Just like in other fields of arts and sciences, I am always keeping one eye open for new developments that can help make something I have made much better than all previous versions of it.

    Finallly, I am in no way a photo-teckie (heck, I do not even have a darkroom or measuring scale or denistometer, etc.) BUT this is does not hamper my efforts to strive beyond the "close enough". SO CLOSE...and yet SO FAR.
     
  3. papagene

    papagene Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    5,302
    Joined:
    Jun 11, 2004
    Location:
    Tucson, AZ
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    In my (very) humble opinion, the craft aspect part of your art should be something you don't have to think or worry about. The Big Picture is what you strive for and the craft is how you get there. This does not mean that you shouldn't try to make your skills better, but that you should be skilled enough to get your point/idea across.
    And of course we should always try to make our photographs as good as we can or even surpass our skills.
    I guess what I am saying is that if one has to worry about all the little things, not to have confidence in one's abilities, the Big Picture will get away.
     
  4. Andre R. de Avillez

    Andre R. de Avillez Member

    Messages:
    965
    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2004
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    exactly... the problem with striving for perfection is that perfection is unachievable, and it is so in part because as imperfect beings, we have no true concept of perfection (just as we have no clear concept of eternity, etc..). And if we consider perfect to be flawless (possibly a misconception), we have already solved the issue: a photograph that fails to get its point across is no longer perfect, regardless of sharpness, tone, etc...

    But we can back-track a bit, and ask this: How many of us have a clear, solid, and immutable idea of what the photograph should be before we compose it, meter, and shoot? Without a clear, solid, and immutable concept, a perfect print is impossible (for we will have no reference to base it's perfection upon).

    To make matters worse, a perfect print is only perfect as long as its audience agrees with the photographer's concept of the image, and idea of perfection. Given the variations between each individual's concept of perfection, the possibility of a perfect photograph decreases as its audience increases.

    Not to sound like a (insert insult here), a debate like this cannot go anywhere. We are unable to solve it, only to come up with examples that support our point of view (e.g. Ansel's photos were well printed, but boring... Yeah!? most PJ carries messages, but wouldn't make it to anyone's wall!!!)

    Perhaps Benson was merely trying to stay on the Aristotelian (sp?) mean with regards to the issue. Get it good enough to transmit the message.
     
  5. Francesco

    Francesco Member

    Messages:
    1,020
    Joined:
    Sep 11, 2003
    Location:
    Düsseldorf,
    Shooter:
    8x10 Format
    I believe that an awareness that something is good enough is also an awareness that it can be made better, somehow.
     
  6. Cheryl Jacobs

    Cheryl Jacobs Member

    Messages:
    1,717
    Joined:
    Jun 10, 2003
    Location:
    Denver, Colo
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Well, perhaps I read it the way I want it to be read, but I feel more that he's addressing perfectionism rather than great craftsmanship. Perfectionism is a different thing entirely. Ed posted that great quote on the subject from "The Artist's Way". The refusal to allow something to be good enough, to obsess and fuss about the tiniest little nitpicks (in the craftmanship) can be a great excuse to not push on and create (the art.) I think he intentionally overstated his point in order to make sure it stuck.

    I'm certain he's not advocating sloppy, half-baked prints. I think he's just warning that obsessing about miniscule flaws can distract you from why you made the print in the first place.

    Personally, I prefer the print to get out of the way, so to speak. I'm happiest when people comment on a print itself as a second thought, or not at all. I want them to see the emotion in the image and to understand why I made it. I don't want technique, either great or terrible, to ever be the first thing people see when they look at my work.

    Just my thoughts.
     
  7. lee

    lee Member

    Messages:
    2,913
    Joined:
    Nov 23, 2002
    Location:
    Fort Worth T
    Shooter:
    8x10 Format
    I think Cheryl got it right.

    lee\c
     
  8. Francesco

    Francesco Member

    Messages:
    1,020
    Joined:
    Sep 11, 2003
    Location:
    Düsseldorf,
    Shooter:
    8x10 Format
    I also feel that a great deal depends on the subject matter. Some subjects lend itself to detachment (or excused) from technique much easier than others. Then there are those subjects where vision and technique have equal importance, whereby one without the other lessens the image.
     
  9. anyte

    anyte Member

    Messages:
    701
    Joined:
    Jun 8, 2004
    Location:
    Minnesota
    Shooter:
    35mm
    I usually end up reading things and miss some significant point that everyone else sees, and I end up going off on an tagent about something completely unrelated. That said, here is what comes to my mind.

    Creating a better image is entirely different from trying to create the perfect image. Often times, creating the perfect image means creating something that everyone will agree on, but that's not possible. Isn't art more about the creator than the viewer in some respect? I know the biggest setback for me as an artist is that I expect too much of myself and when I'm not satisfied with a project I dismiss it. I don't even share it. In the end the work was all for nothing. Getting back to photography, what I have seen on many of the online forums is everyone trying to achieve a standard color for the sky, a standard for contrast, a standard for all the other colors, etc. It is almost as if no photo is good until your reach these set of standards. But doesn't every photo essentially become the same when they all share the exact same level of contrast and the colors are all the same from one photo to the next? Where is the art in that? That is the sort of perfection I see people trying to achieve. Tweaking your photos to improve colors and contrast is one thing but to make it the exact same as everyone else, all in the name of creating the perfect photo seems too much.

    If I'm way off base just pretend I was never here. :smile:
     
  10. Annemarieke

    Annemarieke Member

    Messages:
    747
    Joined:
    May 27, 2003
    Location:
    near Amsterd
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    I totally agree with Cheryl. The print is not the final goal, the image is.

    Anne Marieke
     
  11. jovo

    jovo Membership Council Council

    Messages:
    4,124
    Joined:
    Feb 8, 2004
    Location:
    Jacksonville
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I think for Mr. Benson's point to be valid, it should apply to art in general and not just art the end product of which is an object (as he put it.). In that case, 'art' music performance would rarely withstand the scrutiny of repeated listening to recordings of sloppy performances that were, on first hearing, exciting. Without reliable, near-flawless (within the limits of human fallability) technic acquired after infinite hours of the drugery of scale and passage work drills, and as much rehearsal as can be afforded, the art of performance would be a sorry one indeed. Technic must be totally second nature for truly expressive performance.

    No less should be expected of an artist whose work will hang on one's wall. Superb craftsmanship is the absolute prerequisite for artistic expression; only by complete mastery of one's tools can one truly express the focus of his artistic sensibility. To be satisfied with less is to be a second rate artist because such work only accidentally actually achieves the artists intent.
     
  12. Poco

    Poco Member

    Messages:
    653
    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2002
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    The amazing thing is that the average viewer doesn't give a hoot about print quality. It's a photographer's obsession.

    Last year I was going through a huge stack of prints with a family that had just lost someone. The prints spanned 60 years, everything from contact printed B&Ws from the 30's to faded color prints from the 70's and beyond. We were all making a pile of "keepers" to scan and distribute and there were several times when I came upon an old contact that stopped me dead in my tracks, the tonality was so gorgeous. When I came across one of these, I'd pass it on, all excited, only to hear, "the smile isn't quite right, she's squinting a bit, it's kinda small, etc..." Okay, I realise this was a special situation and that special standards were at play, but still -- you'd think there'd be some moment of hesitation when looking at a gorgeous object while some of its unique qualities register. But it just never happened. I gotta say, that afternoon was a real eye-opener for me.
     
  13. Les McLean

    Les McLean Subscriber

    Messages:
    1,609
    Joined:
    Oct 18, 2002
    Location:
    Northern Eng
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I agree that Cheryl got it right, the subject is all, I would rather see a poor print of a strong image than a faultless print of a boring subject. Having said that, I have always worked hard to learn and understand technique and the craft of photography and aimed for as near perfection as I can whenever I make a print. The logic that I apply is that if I don't have to think about the problems related to exposure and development of the film, and then dealing with the printing problems in the darkroom my mind is free to concentrate fully on the subject. I never have any worries when dealing with difficult lighting situations or in printing those horendous negatives that we all make from time to time simply because I have taught myself how to deal with the little things that Benson urges us to ignore. Whilst I agree that he is right that the image is important I think he is totally wrong to have taken the view that the little things are unimportant.
     
  14. Sponsored Ad
  15. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

    Messages:
    6,242
    Joined:
    Dec 21, 2002
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    This is an interesting topic and thread and several have indicated important pertinant aspects.

    As I reflect back on the relatively few really "fine" prints/images that I have observed over the years, one thing stands out above all else. The print/image evidenced a very finely tuned technical competence on the part of the photographer. This technical competence was the vehicle through which the photographer expressed the emotional content of the image/print.

    There are those who utilize fuzzy technique to express something which doesn't transmit to the observer. There are certainly those, as well, who do not step beyond the "comfort zone" of their ill contrived means of expression. I am not speaking about this self limitation when I speak about technical competence in what I have written. We are all on a continuum of ever increasing ability.

    As I read some of the responses, I am sometimes left with the question of " what the he**did they mean by that?.such is the case of the distinction between the terms "image and print".

    I realize that this may be a foreign concept but I make photographs for my own enjoyment. What others may think, fail to think, like, fail to appreciate, understand or in any other way be affected by is of no consequence.
     
  16. Cheryl Jacobs

    Cheryl Jacobs Member

    Messages:
    1,717
    Joined:
    Jun 10, 2003
    Location:
    Denver, Colo
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    And I don't think he truly believes what he said either. :wink: Again, I think he made such a strong overstatement to make a point. Really, the proof's in his own work. Are his prints technically excellent? Does he leave careless flaws behind for the world to enjoy? Would you describe his work as "decent" or "beautiful"?

    If his personal work is technically strong and reflects attention to detail, then it stands to reason that he was simply trying to send a message about perfectionism and its effect on the ability of the artist to create.
     
  17. Andre R. de Avillez

    Andre R. de Avillez Member

    Messages:
    965
    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2004
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    That is not a foreign concept to me, at all. I photograph for my own growth and necessity (it is no longer a pleasurable thing alone, it is an addiction).

    But I do believe that many, many photographers get caught up in the technical aspects of their work, and as a result hinder their growth. On the other end of the spectrum, many, many photographers get so anxious to "pass on the message" that they completely overlook the technical aspects, and that hinders their growth. These, I believe are the two extreme ends of the spectrum, and should be avoided.

    I am a big fan of "purposeful photography," but beautyful prints stop me dead at my tracks, mostly because I want my prints to look like that.

    I still think that the Aritotelian mean is the way to go, and my reading of the original post confirms my view (how convenient for me, huh?)
     
  18. livemoa

    livemoa Member

    Messages:
    372
    Joined:
    Aug 12, 2003
    Location:
    Was New Zeal
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I think it was Ansel Adams who once said some thing along the lines of "I have seen to many sharp prints of a fuzzy idea".
     
  19. Cheryl Jacobs

    Cheryl Jacobs Member

    Messages:
    1,717
    Joined:
    Jun 10, 2003
    Location:
    Denver, Colo
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    Tom, for those of us who never saw that particular interview, could you give us more context for the excerpt you posted? What was the premise of the interview? What question or questions led to this particular quote?
     
  20. mwtroxell

    mwtroxell Member

    Messages:
    73
    Joined:
    Dec 13, 2003
    Location:
    Jasper, Tenn
    Shooter:
    8x10 Format
    I always liked Fred Pickers approach. Get the technical stuff to where you can almost do it blindfolded. Do all the test and once you have the data stop testing, put it to use. Then go concentrate on photography.
     
  21. doughowk

    doughowk Subscriber

    Messages:
    1,765
    Joined:
    Feb 11, 2003
    Location:
    Jacksonville
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Perfectionism is sterile, devoid of artistry. The art arises in the imperfect aspects of a medium. Despite the best efforts of oil painters over many centuries, none achieved a perfect rendering of reality. Its the taking advantage of the mediums' limitations that 19th century painting flurished.

    Yesterday visited an exhibit of Ansel Adams work (Harn Museum in Gainesville, FL). Ansel was an artist who took advantage of the medium's limitations to produce stunning works of art. Yet he was a perfectionist, a craftsman, in striving to achieve his vision. In an oft-quoted phrase, each of his negatives were a score and the print was the performance ( the performance could vary as many of his later prints had a darker mood). Landscape photography is different from portrait, wedding , etc. photography for its the performance - the print as both subject & object - that we judge.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 11, 2004
  22. clay

    clay Subscriber

    Messages:
    1,125
    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2002
    Location:
    Asheville, N
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I ran across this quote during some vacation reading. The more i think about it, the more I like it. My paraphrase would be that beauty is an effect, not a cause or a reason for art. Some art will of course be beautiful, but it is art for a lot more reasons than just 'beauty' and perfection. Here is the quote:



    "The pursuit of beauty is (a) much more dangerous nonsense than the pursuit of truth or goodness, because it affords a stronger temptation to the ego. Beauty, like truth and goodness, is a quality that in one sense can be predicated by all great art, but the deliberate attempt to beautify can, in itself, only weaken the creative energy. Beauty in art is like happiness in morals: it may accompany the act, but it cannot be the goal of the act, just as one cannot ‘pursue happiness’, but only something else that may give happiness. Aiming at beauty produces at best, the attractive: the quality of beauty represented by the word loveliness, a quality which depends on the carefully restricted choice of both subject and technique. A religious painter, for instance can produce this quality only as long as churches keep commissioning Madonnas: if a church asks for a Crucifixion he must paint cruelty and horror instead."

    Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 1957
     
  23. c6h6o3

    c6h6o3 Member

    Messages:
    3,219
    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2002
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    Yes, no and "beautiful". I think the fact that Richard Benson was the only person ever entrusted during his lifetime with the printing of Paul Strand's negatives testifies more than anything any of us could say about his technical competence. He printed Strand's last two portfolios, On My Doorstep and The Garden. I've seen On My Doorstep. It's gorgeous.

    As to Benson's own work, what little I've seen of it is masterful, both in a technical sense as well as a spiritual one.
     
  24. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

    Messages:
    2,512
    Joined:
    Sep 22, 2002
    Location:
    Omaha, Nebra
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I agree that a person can become obsessed with the technical aspects and the pursuit of a perfect print to the point that creativity becomes paralyzed.

    I also believe that a strong subject that resonates with the viewer does not need to be printed perfect. What we as photographers see as flaws are invisible to the person who is captivated by the image.
     
  25. Ricardo41

    Ricardo41 Member

    Messages:
    44
    Joined:
    May 24, 2004
    Shooter:
    35mm
    No disrespect to the dean of Yale, but does any artist really care what some elbow-patched, tweed-jacketed academic has to say about art? Every other decade or so, some self-appointed pope of the art world descends Mount Sinai with one pronouncement or another (people like Frye or Meyer-Shapiro come to mind here), usually designed to garner the accolades of fellow cobweb producers (to paraphrase Jonathan Swift's famous discussion of ancient versus modern learning).

    There are, in my opinion, at least three major ways to measure the "worth" of artistic work: You yourself as the producing artist derive a great sense of satisfaction from your completed work; secondly, another person is "touched" by your art (this can take many forms); thirdly, the "art world" validates your work in one way or another.

    All of these ways probably have very little to do with the technical aspects of your work (and how well you have mastered them, or not). In fact, NOT mastering them, "deliberately" turning out sloppy work may be what might give you a leg up in the art world.

    At any rate, this debate (art versus craft) is an old one and Mr. Yale adds nothing to it.

    A good discussion of this can be found in the now classic study by Howard Becker, Art World.

    Ricardo
     
  26. Tom Duffy

    Tom Duffy Member

    Messages:
    963
    Joined:
    Nov 13, 2002
    Location:
    New Jersey
    Cheryl,
    I mentioned in my original post that it was difficult not to quote out of context, the interview attempted to cover several nuanced ideas. I found the interview on John Paul Caponigro's website. It certainly deserves a full read.

    http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/dialogs/dialogs_a-m/richard_benson.html

    Interesting to hear that Benson printed Paul Strand's work. Strand was evidently a real perfectionist.