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.


Scott Campbell said...


Dave Jenkins said...

So, so, so right on, Kirk.

bpr said...

I'm an amateur in photography but I do feel this deeply in my own field. I trained as an architect because I loved the craft of drawing. I graduated into a world where the last drawing boards were disappearing and our studios became offices much like any others. I do feel like I missed out.

Aubrey Silvertooth said...

Wonderful post.

Ricardo Cordeiro said...

Really enjoyed this post.
As a photographer formed in the digital era I don't know if I would have liked the uncertainty of the film times, but I can say that I do enjoy the process of searching for photos, taking photos, editing and post-process them. Take out any of this steps and it would represent a great loss for me.
Nowdays it may be a bit easier or more secure at a technical level, but I think getting a good body of work continues to be a laborous and slow process. I would even risk to say that one of the main differences between a good photographer and a hobbist can be measured by the dedication he/she has to the work process.

Dave Jenkins said...

Fritz Henle was the first photographer to inspire me. He is still, 45 years later, a major influence on my photography. Yet, I doubt that even one out of a hundred of your readers would recognize his name.

He wrote that "...seeing pictures is always tied up with technique...it is important to decide things like sharpness or unsharpness and not let them happen accidentally. It is equally important to command the techniques that get the effects you want."

He also wrote “The whole idea is to make the picture with the camera – not to reconstruct it out of afterthoughts.”

-- from A New Guide to Rollei Photography, The Viking Press, 1965

lsumners said...

I miss the craft of the darkroom. Not saying the prints were better but there was a sense of accomplishment and excitement watching the print emerge that is just not there with an inkjet. Still progress marches on, I guess.

Ken said...

"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."

Agreed. There are still Titans of photography, but they have transitioned to digital from being Titans of film photography. Joe McNally comes to mind.

Kirk Tuck said...

Joe is a nice guy. He came from the same film background. His work is well crafted and commercial. I am asking where the real artists are. The people whose work we would buy and hang on our walls, or go to museums and galleries to see. Joe is from the film era. Dan Winters.. film. Arthur Meyerson? Film. Where is the great work being done by native digital-ers?

Kodachromeguy said...

Kirk, interesting article. I think the use of film today almost ensures some degree of craft because the whole process takes more time and thinking than pushing the button of the computer-in-a-sensing-device-box. Even if a contemporary film user sends his film to a lab for processing, the fact that he needed to measure light, focus, and consider that he had only a finite number of frames to use before reloading means a conscious thought process. So indeed, the film photographer has a smaller body of work than the machine-gun digital user, but I think the proportion of meaningful photographs is usually much higher.

Gato said...

There are parts I miss. I miss doing portraits with a view camera -- the way the big camera added a sort of gravity and ritual to the working process. For years when working at the computer I missed the sound of my darkroom print washer, which had been the background to my work for so many years. I often thought of digging it out, setting it up and making and audio loop to run on the background for the computer work.

As to the digital titans, maybe it is just too soon to expect much. The digital era is not much more than 10 years, so photographers coming of age in the digital era are mostly not much over 25 years old. Even those carry a large load of film-era baggage just from what they have seen coming up. Perhaps the first digital titan is a 15-year-old kid who has not yet had time to develop a style and emerge from the flickr clutter. And maybe that kid is doing something so new that film photographers of our generation just don't understand it.

Kirk Decker said...

I started in film and shot film for a long time before moving into digital. Even though I loved film, I thought the chances of my ever using it again were pretty slim. I’m still shooting digital but I’ve resumed working with film and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve set up a website and Instagram just for my film work. I'm not looking for some sort of Ultimate Quality in film. I'm looking for an aesthetic quality, kinda like the Japanese ideas of mono no aware, wabi, and yĆ«gen.
I shoot film now, for the very qualities that when we shot film (back then) were considered qualities to be avoided. For me, film is about the realization that our obsession with Ultimate Quality is really kinda silly, and it’s our “flaws” that make us beautiful.
We tend to talk about art as a finished product. But I think the process of making an image is, for the maker, where the most meaningful artistic experience frequently is. I find that experience occurs more often with film.

TMJ said...

I was bought, (I had chosen it as my Christmas present), the original Magnum Magnum book, the massive hardback version from 2007. It struck me then that this book represented the swansong of the film age as we moved to digital, which was already well established by the time Brigitte Lardinois, the editor, put it together.

For example, look at the great American architectural photographer Julius Shulman, whose images of case Study House #22 (the Stahl house by the architect Pierre Koenig)are amongst his most celebrated works. All shot on large format (5x4 if I remember) and peerles to this day. No-one with a digital Canon/24 TSE II, for example, has come close.

FasterThanEver said...

Disclaimer: I'm not and have never been a working photographer. I never had any interest in darkroom process. I miss nothing about film.

Some comments about process:

1. How much process you want to go through may vary from person to person. I'm happy to have a simple process that lets me concentrate on the subject matter.

2. What parts of the process you enjoy and what parts you would be happy to evade probably varies too. Taking closeups of wildflowers and insects that visit them is my main photographic activity. Finding the subjects is the part that I most enjoy. Getting good pictures of those is craft work that seems natural and enjoyable to me. Selecting and editing pictures, IDing the subjects and getting the chosen images online is mostly a necessary but not enjoyable burden.

3. Some people may become imprinted on the process they used at one stage of their lives.

4. I'm interested in capturing content and far less interested in acquiring and playing with gear or in demonstrating mastery. For people like me, it may be easier to move to a simpler process that deskills the craft aspect.

I hope that you will continue to write your blog.

Rudy Merz said...

There is nothing I miss, because I am back to film. IMHO there is no short cut to photography. I don't need a computer to tell me what to do. And I most certainly don't need the industry to tell me to buy every few years a new camera gear. But I am not a pro photographer, I am just a software engineer. ;)