I have a couple of times on this blog been pondering about the relationship between craftsmanship and creative inducements behind an artistic expression – and what promotes a visual strong and compelling image (as you may know, unsurprisingly enough, I believe in the combination). A sidetrack to this debate is the never-ending discussion going on between believers in established craftsmanship and those who wholeheartedly embrace new technologies. The former resist the new possibilities because they believe it makes the process of creation so much easier – too easy in fact. Whatever results from the use of these new technologies no longer have the right to be called art – they think. Likewise; those who embrace new technologies defend themselves by saying that it takes a lot of skills, knowledge and experience to be able to master the new tools. They claim it is not as easy as it looks.
I recall my post Instagram my Backyard some time ago where I wrote about how wonderfully stimulating it is to play around with Instagram and the likes. I think using apps like Instagram makes it fun to photograph and is even able to create stunning images. In a comment, though, another photographer asked why I would exploit apps that any amateur would be able to handle, instead of trusting my craftsmanship (in not quite those words).
I have to admit I have had my own reservations, but nevertheless I believe one doesn’t exclude the other. To take it a little further; just think about how photography was conceived when it came about some 190 years ago. The painters – the old school – criticised the new media for being mechanically reproducing images, and thus had absolutely no artistic value. I think we know better today… But the debate proceeds with new topics – and still the same. It often seems like the fronts are butting heads. I can’t help but think that both camps are missing the far more important point. The hard part of photography has never been technology. Why is it that technical master such as Edward Weston or Michelangelo don’t make masterpieces every time they create a new piece? Or look at you favourite pictures made by whatever masters; how often is the technique the critical factor for your appreciation?
For me this discussion is obsolete and will always be – even when I become the old school (I am already…). To use the words of Brooks Jensen; «the hard part of photography has never been technology, but rather the more difficult process of artmaking – a process that is stubbornly unsolvable through technological means and remains the sole province of the human heart, the human mind, and human soul.» Jensen is editor of the publication LensWork and has gathered some of his essays in the book The Creative Life in Photography – Photography and the Creative Process. It’s a book I wholeheartedly recommend.
One of the subjects Jensen addresses in his book is this general trust in craftsmanship that permeates most of the photography crowd and always has. His answer to what it is that creates masterpieces if not craftsmanship is: «In short, great photographs are never about photography but seem to be about life, and not, generally, the small things in life. The best photographers appear to be engaged in the great dialog of life — the dialog that is usually the field-of-play for philosophers and theologians, for mystics or even political scientists. The great photographers don’t seem to be asking questions about f/ stops or shutter speeds, developers or enlarging papers, but are asking the same kinds of questions that were asked by philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Freud — the same questions asked by the poets Aeschylus, Dante, Goethe, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain. What is man? Who am I? What is good? Why is there evil? How should we treat one another? Why don’t we? Why does suffering exist? These are the questions of art because these are the questions of humankind.»
I think it’s hard to state it any better than this. But how can these somewhat lofty thoughts become guidelines for our own work – us normal people, not the great masters of the world? By photographing whatever we photograph with intention and with our hearts. By engaging in the subject, by asking ourselves why it is important to us to photograph whatever it is we are photographing; and by finding a visual answer to the question. Our work of art becomes important when we search for answers that are important to us. We make self-portraits because we want to understand ourselves and to assert our existence. We make photographs of others so we can understand the community in which we live. We photograph the grand landscape so we can know the context and the planetary stage on which our dramas unfold. We photograph nostalgia so that we can remember; abstracts so we can play with the patterns in our visual mind; flowers so we can marvel at the wonders of creation. These are worthy, soaring pursuits, even if our results remain grounded and somewhat pedestrian.