Something a little different today. I have been encouraged to share a little of an email conversation from several weeks ago. Take it for what it is–just my opinion on what importance craft has been given in photography.
Something was said the other day that got me to thinking about the difference in craft and art. I have had a little experience in both so thought I would rattle a little on the differences as I see them.
My art work came first along with the study of art and time with both my mentors. One of the best things about not being locked into a “career” is I have had time to explore other things (I won’t go into the bad parts of that). So in time I went to school and studied gunsmithing and as usual I went into it full bore and worked my hardest to become one of the best around. In many ways I succeeded in the pistol end of this and in building and custom work on very high end skeet and trap shotguns. I did learn a lot on the nature of craftsmanship and how it applies to artwork and other disciplines from my time working on beautiful objects. Huge amounts of money are spent on these types of firearms and only the best wood, metalworking and workmanship is expected. Although I have seen firearms whose beauty and workmanship would take your breath away, I do not consider them art, even when I have heard the term used to describe them. The finest craftsmanship and beautiful materials don’t make a work of art. They will make a beautiful object that is a joy to hold and view, as well as an object that continues to provide that same pleasure over and over every time you see or hold it.
This is true also for some photographs and other works of painting or sculpture. However the part we admire is the skill and ability of the person who made it, not the message or voice of the piece its self, much the same in a fine firearm. The difference is that craft is about the skill and mastery of that skill–not the image. Art is about the image and the skill will either add to that or become secondary to the work’s message and soul. It is my contention that many folks in photography have been caught up in the skill portion of the work and can’t differentiate between the mastery of skill or voice or message. When they combine, it makes the creation of a clear voice easier but it isn’t about how it is told as much as what is said. Not all works have to have the voice of Shakespeare to be eloquent or get the meaning across. Some photos can use the simple voice of Steinbeck and tell a story as well or even use a voice and skill set we don’t know about yet. I admire craft for the skill of the person making the work and I admire them in the work. That isn’t the same as having the admiration for the work and what it makes me feel. If the work can transcend the craft with message and feeling it, becomes much more than just the maker’s skill.
This is where I have the problem with so many thinking they are gaining something by trying to copy a skill set of another as a learning tool. In custom work on firearms, you strove to find your own style and way of working–not copy someone else, that only led to dismissal in most eyes. Each piece of wood or metal was different so had to be worked that way. I think each person’s vision and way of seeing is much like that piece of wood and needs to find its own way of being worked. Basics are basics and after that all effort should go into finding what and how you do things as yourself with your voice. If it looks right to you, it is. I would rather be the artist than the craftsman–always. Working through a problem or adding a skill set is important if it adds to what you want to say, and if that is something another has solved then it is time to work on their solution to the craft. If a person asks or is seeking a solution to something they don’t think works then it is time to ask advice or personal solutions to an image. However if it feels right, it is. Each piece of wood or metal has its own grain and way of being what it is, the beauty and voice is shaped in accordance with its own nature. You can’t make something into what it isn’t and have it feel real or genuine. Copying someone else’s style or method is an attempt to make something into what it isn’t.
I am not trying to diminish the importance of craft here but I am trying to say that craft without vision or something to say, is just exercise. The development of skills and craft should go along with the development of a clear message and direction of the reasons for making something. If it was just about the craft or exercise, musicians could just play scales and painters could just mix colors or we could all just copy the same subject over and over.
Too often inspiration is turned into imitation of craft. Inspiration should be influence, influence that you use to build on your own vision. All art is influenced by what has come before and the great works use that as a part of or a stepping stone to help their own unique vision. All along in both art and craft I have felt the influence of those gifted craftsmen and artists, and I believe others should influence our work. I also believe that inspiration needs to come from someplace else. Inspiration is the thought that keeps you awake at night, the passion that makes you ask questions, the terminal curiosity that drives you to find a new way of saying something. Inspiration is unique to the individual and not provided by others and their way of seeing the world. What has been confused with inspiration is an admiration of craft and the individual’s ability to express themselves. Influence and inspiration are something that really should require another discussion.
Excellent craft can become “invisible” when we are surrounded by it, message and vision cannot. One is unique and the other is a learned skill. Learned skills are for everyone. A unique voice is individual and not something that can be duplicated.