Rants and Sermons

Beyond Craft

Several months ago I wrote a post about whether photography was or was not Art. The absurd difficulty of defining “Art” aside, I came down on the side of “photography is a craft, excel at it, love it, and let others decide if it is or isn’t Art.”

I’ve changed my mind. Rather, my thinking has become a little clearer, and in part I’ve got Seth Godin to thank. It was while reading his book Linchpin, that I began to put the pieces of things together, and I bet you’ll be shocked when I tell you it comes back to Vision. Intent.

First, a couple thoughts from others. Anne Lamott says “Art, to be Art, must point at something.” My friend Jeffrey Chapman says Art needs to have something of the artist in it, otherwise it’s just craft.

Is photography an art? Maybe. Can photographs be Art? Also maybe.

It depends not on how skilled a technician you are, nor on which gear you use – though to one degree or another both of those affect how you create you art. It depends on two things. The first is a desire to make it a gift, the second is the vision of the artist himself.  I’m not going to explore the first too deeply this morning, my coffee’s barely kicked in and I’m still processing this part. I do know that propaganda posters are not made as a gift in any sense of the word, but they do have intent and I would argue that alone doesn’t make them Art. I could be wrong. I do suggest you read Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift if you’re interested in the discussion. Seth Godin references the book in Linchpin but doesn’t do it justice.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s the second aspect of this I’m most interested in. Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see, but it finally clicked in Maui – it’s the combination of Craft and Vision (no promotional plug intended, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence…) that makes Art. Godin argues that craft isn’t relevant – and perhaps he’s right. Perhaps we’ve elevated Art to a pinnacle it doesn’t deserve – perhaps there’s something higher to aim for, not merely Art but beautiful art, true art, art that expresses the author’s intent or vision as elegantly, uniquely, powerfully as possible. If that’s the case then a poet who masters the language has a better crack at that goal than one barely out of grade school. But it’s no substitute. I’ll take the grade schooler with something to say anyday, even roughly, over the eloquent poet without an original thought or honest emotion to share.

This is why Vision matters. Without it, we’re pointing at nothing. Without it we’re creating perfect images without passion, risk, failure, or humanity. It’s also the reason Craft matters. A man can say, “my heart is broken, my God has forsaken me,” but without Craft it’s neither a poem nor a song, it’s just a lament.The way he says it determines whether his words are merely heard or if they in turn cause hearts to quiver and break, to feel something.

This is also why the some of the old school get very twitchy about all this. There are forums aplenty full of grumpy old men talking trash about this emphasis on vision as though it were a complete dismissal of craft. They argue that the recent accessibility of digital gear that was once out of reach of the beginner has “made everyone a photographer.” They argue that learning the craft used to take time, it used to matter, it used to take dedication, dammit! Oh please. Talk about golden calves. So what? So the craft is a little easier now, so what? These codgers are just making my point for me more elegantly than I could. If the gear is getting better and cheaper (and it is getting cheaper in the long run – look at what we get now for $2000 compared to the price of early digital monsters, ) and if the gear is getting easier to use then, yes, you still need to master it. But if the ground around gear has been leveled, what’s the only ground left on which to differentiate (they use words like “compete”) ourselves? Vision. And yes, as cliche as it’s become – Passion too. Don’t settle for eloquence (Craft); say something that matters to you (Vision) and say it as loudly and courageously and powerfully as you can (Art)

I know the old school is scared, nervous, wondering how they’ll switch gears. But if their craft is as good as they say it is, then its time to stop bitching and start looking inside themselves to find that spark that was there when they first discovered the magic of the camera. This didn’t begin as a rant about professional concerns, but if there are people that seem dismissive of the need to develop and express our vision, this is where it is most profoundly pragmatic. Anyone can now hire someone whose sole qualification is competence with a camera. If the client wants more, they need someone with vision and a voice, and that’s where the money is. Want to compete solely on your technical competence?  Get in line behind the 16 year old with the ad on Craigslist and get ready for the fastest race to the bottom you’ve ever experienced.

Wow, that went off the rails fast. All I really wanted to do was encourage you to keep at it – both in learning your craft and in the harder work of discovering and expressing your vision. They work together, don’t neglect them.

So is it Art? The last time I discussed this I concluded that that was up to the person looking at your work. To some degree that’s true. But it has much, much more to do with us. To be sure, we’re craftsmen. But Artists? That’s up to us to decide – are we willing to do the hard work of moving past mere competence and into the scarier realm of expression, at pointing at something we see in a way others do not? At the risk of quoting myself, I think it’s motivating to remember that merely perfect photographs don’t move the heart, only art does that. We can do better than perfect histograms and compositions that take no risks.

Jun 19th


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CategoryPosted in: Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons

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