Photo Notes

August 28, 2010

Art and Craft

Filed under: Looking at Photographs,Photographic Education,Uncategorized — John Siskin @ 5:40 pm

When I was in college I used to have arguments with my roommate about whether or not photography is an art. Neither of us were armed with the history of this argument, so no direct hits were scored. If you find this argument interesting you might want to study Alfred Stieglitz, who argued the topic with the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Today, as I have in the past, I want to discuss the craft of photography. Craft is something you can discuss in a more objective way than art. I don’t think I would want an artist to frame my house, but I would want good craftspeople framing my house if I was building one. One of the key aspects of good craft is that it can perform to a plan; art often doesn’t do that.
One of my favorite artists is Man Ray. When I first saw reproductions of his work I thought he had great ideas and poor craft. Over the years I bought better quality books and saw original work. I realized that I had been wrong. He was a consummate craftsman. What I didn’t see at first was quality because of poor reproductions, and the experimental nature of his images. Experimentation allows an artist to walk into the unknown. Continued experimentation allows the artist to map the area. The map really allows the artist to add craft to the experiments. For instance Man Ray’s work with solarization is the best I have ever seen. There are many images that I can’t explain, because I don’t have that craft.
I teach classes at BetterPhoto.com, as many who read this blog regularly know. I am not trying to teach art. I try to teach craft, and frankly I am often frustrated. In order for a person to learn craft they must practice, build their own map. In one of my classes: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, I tell people how to build a kind of a lighting laboratory. They can run their own experiments in this environment. I can tell when a student has really experimented and when they just did a shot. I wish that I could find a way to get more students to do more experiments; there is so much to learn. I know that many people present lighting as do this and this and you’ll get great results. I call this cookie-cutter lighting. If you are going to be good you need your own map. You need to know how to build a custom environment for each subject. This is the attitude of a good craftsperson and an artist.
The greatest advantages of digital photography are in this area of practice and mapping. A digital camera will allow you to practice for free; you couldn’t do that with film. Your results from digital are available instantly, and film wouldn’t do that either. So we should be seeing more good craftspeople ant ever before.
I wanted to add something from the book on interior photography I’m working on. I think it also has bearing on this discussion.
“When I started doing photography I thought there was a rule book. Of course I didn’t have a copy of the rules, and I didn’t know where to get a copy. Frankly I had the same idea about things other than photography. I went to school for a long time, they taught me a lot of rules, mostly about things that didn’t matter. There are supposed to be a lot of right ways to do things in photography, and there are. But they are the right way to do a particular thing for a particular reason. So in this chapter we’ll start with a picture that is taken from a wrong angle. The client is very happy with, I’m very happy with it, in fact I use it on some of my business cards.


This is a picture of the same doorway taken from a more usual angle. Both are good pictures, but one is much more dramatic.”


I teach a class in commercial photography , as well as classes in lighting and portraiture at BetterPhoto.com. I hope you will check out the classes soon. My first book: Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers will be published in the fall you can pre-order it. I have a new magazine article coming out in September about strobe power. You can see it in Photo Technique Magazine.
Thanks, John

1 Comment

  1. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Anyway I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

    Comment by Sydney — June 25, 2011 @ 10:59 am

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