Monday, December 15, 2008

The Dilemma of the Craftsman

I’ve been snapping pictures this morning. Snapping is a better word than “shooting” when referring to the taking of photographs, although “taking” also has its own connotations of possession and acquisition. We could perhaps say “capturing”, implying an involuntary loss of freedom. I like “snapping.” It’s something done with one’s fingers, as the release of the shutter is also triggered by one’s finger. Darn, there’s that word “triggered”, implying an act of violence, a faint association with the mechanism of the firearm. It’s funny (funny strange, not funny ha-ha) that it is so difficult to avoid associations with death and violence when discussing photography. Perhaps there is, after all, a little bit of one’s soul that is taken along with each picture.

I’m playing with a new camera, a Lumix G1, made by Panasonic. It’s a new format of digital camera, the so-called Micro-Four Thirds format, featuring interchangeable lenses and an electronic live viewfinder. It’s the first new camera purchase I’ve made in 30 years. Not that I’m somehow deprived of image-making devices, for I’ve collected a minor plethora of used film cameras in formats ranging from Minox to medium format, large format to even larger pinhole box cameras. I’m interested in the G1 because of its usefulness as a tool in creating photographic imagery. I don’t proclaim any particular philosophical preference to one specific type of image-making tool. Film, sheet, roll or slide; digital capture or paper negatives in homemade pinhole cameras; they’re all mere tools, to be wielded by the hand of the craftsman. Unlike the carpenter’s apprentice in “Pinocchio”, I don’t expect the tools to come alive and dance about the workbench under their own volition.

There is implicit in this discussion of tools the idea of control, that the hallmark of a craftsman is the ability to finely control one’s choice of tools. This has increasingly become an issue since the advent of electronically activated cameras, where many of the decisions formerly made by the photographer can now be left up to mathematical calculations performed by in-camera firmware programming.

However, before we go down the road of condemning all camera technology created after the 1970s, we should first discuss the antithesis of automated photography, one prime example being the paper negative, pinhole box camera, contact print method. In this process a sheet of B/W photo paper serves as a light-sensitive film inside a large box camera, the pinhole aperture being so minute, and the paper’s light sensitivity being so low (and limited to the blue end of the spectrum) that long exposure times in bright light are required. Once processed, the resulting paper negative is then contact printed onto a sheet of fine art gelatin silver photo paper.

The resulting print represents the most primitive of image-making technologies, yet paradoxically yields the barest minimum of control back into the hands of the craftsman. This is because the nature of the materials, and the contact printing process itself, precludes the degree of control evident in the traditional darkroom with projection enlargement, or in the “lightroom” of the computer. The paper negative-pinhole camera combination limits one’s choice of subject matter so severely that only a narrow range of light conditions are permitted; the contact printing method further precludes the possibility of burning and/or dodging portions of the negative in the final print; the opacity of the paper negative medium further eliminates the possibility of using advanced darkroom techniques like masking and printing from multiple negatives.

Thus we are presented with the paradox that at both ends of the photographic technology spectrum, from a mere hollow box to the complexity of built-in computers, the ability of the craftsman to finely control all aspects of the image-making process is severely hampered. What we find we are after is some middle ground where the process is sufficiently pliable so as to offer us maximum control, yet not so easy as to make these decisions seem trivial or nonexistent. We want to be able to work hard enough at our art in order for the results to be meaningful, yet we want the process to be pliable, manageable, yielding to our physical, mental and perceptive limitations. We want to have our cake and eat it, too.

This is the dilemma intrinsic to Man the Toolmaker: tools are simultaneously a crutch and a genetic predilection. We require them for their ability to leverage our weaknesses and minimize our limitations, yet in so doing they can all too easily remove entirely the hand of the artisan from the process. We desire to wield our tools with our own hands, so-to-speak, as an extension of ourselves, but we don’t want all the work to be done by the tool, nor do we want to lose touch with the materials and process. This is one of the strongest appeals to the do-it-yourself approach to photography, represented by the pinhole camera, since the design and crafting of the picture-making tools is itself an act of creation.

There is something primal, elemental, even fundamental, to the connection between spirituality and art, creation and creativity, that seems to have been left behind as art has moved from the bastion of the church or temple and into the realm of the university and the gallery. Yet the human spirit continues to strive for higher meaning, often through the aegis of the work of man’s hands, as if an offering were being made, a desperate desire for acceptance, a yearning for sufficiency in what has been accomplished, a pleading for mercy; yet the desire to create, an appeal to The Creator, continues unabated. Man the Toolmaker seems resigned to this destiny of ever seeking, ever yearning, ever desiring the ephemeral, through the creative work of the hands.

Meanwhile, as I mull over these thoughts, I’ve continued to snap more pictures between half-finished sentences and red-lined corrections to my typing, reminding myself that writing is itself an act of creation, the literal image alongside the visual. We are told that man has been a teller of stories since antiquity, that the origin of our culture is contained within the fireside verbal history handed down from one generation to the next, and the imagery carved and painted upon cave walls, stone monoliths, ceramic, papyrus and parchment. I wonder what would be made of our culture’s intense fascination with the implements of image making, as if the refuse of yesterday’s used electronics can be compared to the piles of broken pots and flint tools unearthed by archeologists. I suspect they would find us very much the same as themselves, the similarities outweighing the differences, as if man has changed very little, if at all, across the millennia.

I suspect that a hypothetical time-traveling artisan from millennia past would find people very much the same, but would have little in common with the frenetic art world of today, if for no other reason than the empty competitiveness of the present milieu. Fixing creative imagery from man’s deepest spiritual yearnings into an economic hierarchy, measured by arbitrary standards of popular culture and the ever-changing winds of post-modernist philosophy, tends to intrinsically devalue art by the very establishment of economic value, devoid of any deeper spiritual appreciation. To be certain, past cultures created art for reasons very specific to the economies of commerce, religion and power, much like in our present age. However, I suspect the primary difference relies on the compartmentalization of belief systems present today, where our culture’s public life is purposefully devoid of the metaphysical. For instance, in the worlds of science, law and government barely any assent is made to spirituality and the intangible reality of the human psyche; yet pre-modern man was intensely preoccupied by such matters, and his culture integrated the public life of the tribe, village and populace homogenously with the internal world of belief. Man has changed very little, but his culture has changed immensely, such that, in a corporate context, he is virtually a new species.

I review the images I’ve captured, quick to delete those that seem less than satisfactory, yet also cognizant of other images that may deserve saving for further consideration. Being non-physical, image-files are a precarious thing, like disembodied spirits, continually seeking some corporeal habitation more permanent than a tight agglomeration of magnetic or electric fields. The older media of film negatives may exist in the seemingly fragile bodies of easily scratched gelatin emulsions, like frail bodies aging and decrepit, whiling away the years in the retirement of a shoebox, but the new media files yearn to be recognized and preserved from the abyss of annihilation. I continue my search, like a seer devoid of vision, desperate to be freshly moved.


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