The Photographic Hand-Worker: 

A Discourse on the Benefits of Knowing How, Through the Application of Craft Skill Within Photographic Practice.


  Within the sphere of photographic practice we are seeing a movement towards a standardisation of process, which has come about through the proliferation of modern technological approaches to the medium that resemble mass production through industrial methodologies. 

  This ubiquity of creative practice holds within it an unrelenting progressivism, which threatens to corrode higher levels of understanding of the process of making photographs. 

  The idea that knowledge of processes and the skill to utilise them is being lost in this age of technological progression is a central issue to the notion that in order to develop creatively we must have access to these abilities in the future. If we cannot obtain the levels of understanding inherent to the experience of an immersion in the totality of a practice, we will not have the depth of ability required to truly know how our medium functions, resulting in a complete standardisation of practice.

  In order to attain further understanding of the possibilities of photographic practice, it becomes necessary to approach the medium from a new point of view. To apply the ideals of craftsmanship to the making of imagery, to become involved and eventually skilled in all aspects of photographic production in order to truly understand the process in its entirety is an effective method of learning fluency in creative applications.  

  To know is to do, and as such, it becomes wholly practical to experience the efforts of the craftsman first hand. Through the process of building an ultra large format view camera, the ideals of a craft approach to my own personal practice will give me a greater insight into what it means to be fully integrated within the creative sphere of photography, providing me with the skills and understanding required in the continual development of a craftsman like ideology towards image making. 

Part 1: Visualising

  When we think of what it means to be a craftsman, we invariably picture an individual sat in their workshop engrossed in a task of the hand, apron on, surrounded with the paraphernalia of their trade. The floor covered in wood shavings, the workbenches strewn with incomprehensible objects of their own making. This particular viewpoint, however, describes only what a craftsman may outwardly do, rather than what a craftsman may be within. 

  What a craftsman is, is in fact an individual who is “engaged in a practical activity where they are seen to be in control of their work” (Dormer, p140). The fact that they are “in control by virtue of possessing personal know-how that allows them to be masters or mistresses of the available technology” (Ibid, p140), is central to the discussion concerning the application of a craft ethos to the photographic sphere.

  The complete understanding of practical processes demonstrated by the dedicated craftsperson is a vital attribute in the effective development of skills involved in the comprehensive utilisation of the medium of photography. That said, it is clear that image makers of all abilities could benefit greatly from immersion in a fluent practical understanding of their art form.

  The craftsperson can only truly know how a process or technique can be applied to their personal practice if they first surround themselves with and study its constituent parts in a detailed, single minded way; every piece of the puzzle is required in order to see the bigger picture. 

  With this thought comes the question: can the notion of craftsmanship be applied to an individual photographic practice to increase understanding and creative productivity? Can the photographer, for instance, gain an enhanced perspective on their own work through the practical, technical and personal development derived from building a camera from scratch? Craftsmanship and material skill have always played an important role in the creation of photographic imagery and perhaps it is time to see a return to these methodologies for “there is a reality, the same today as in the past. It does not change, for nothing can affect it” (Tzu, C, p137). 

Part 2: Learning

  Within the historical context of photographic practice, we must recognise that the craftsman has been part of a continually evolving convergence between technology and scientific experimentation that has sculpted our understanding of the medium.  

  The drive towards a complete understanding of the principles of the creation of a permanent photograph lead to developments in not only scientific methodology, but also in the making of the objects used to capture the image; a relationship that proved to be reciprocal, as whilst each aspect of the process developed individually, each in turn would aid the development of another. 

  This continual exchange of ideas allowed early practitioners to attain a high level of skill and an increased knowledge of their chosen medium, due to the need for involvement in each and every part of the photographic process, from mixing raw chemicals and sensitising photographic paper, to building the equipment which they intended to use.

  This application of tacit craft skill was necessary in order to obtain the high standard of precision required in the process of actually makingphotographs. The equipment that was built had to adhere to exact principles outlined by the technical and scientific parameters of the medium and attaining these standards could only be achieved through a fluency of knowledge gained from complete immersion in the process.

  The thought that one individual could learn every aspect of a single practice is an idea that is becoming harder to visualise in this technologically progressive era. As photographic equipment has continued to become more refined and complex, it has become unthinkable that a single practitioner could sustain a method of working which involved the application of a wider skill set, utilising ideals of craftsmanship to compliment more progressive methodologies. Modern photographers, after all, do not build their own digital cameras. 

  With the digital age now in full swing, the photograph has become more accessible than ever before, and demand for imagery has risen exponentially, becoming “indispensible to the economy, to politics and in the pursuit of private happiness” (Sontag, 1977). This has driven the photographic practitioner to alter their creative processes, adopting an approach similar to that of mass production. Where quality of the image was once desirable, now quantity and speed of delivery are paramount, implying that “there is a physical component that cannot continue to be considered and treated in the same way as before; no longer can it escape the effects of modern knowledge and modern practice” (Valery, 1934).  

  This shift from visualising photography as a craft practice to seeing it as a wholly mechanised production process has seen a decline in the range of skills available to the individual photographer. No longer can decisions be made as to what methods or mediums should be employed to complete a specific brief, as uniformity has now become the choice of the professional and “simple and unthinking progressivism, unswerving in its belief that the future is always superior to the past” (Robins, 1995) has become the norm. Specialisation of practice is no longer needed, as it is far more productive to create using readily available, widely accepted methodologies.

The specialisation of skills however, is central to what it means to be a craftsman. To take time over something, to learn its nuances and to develop fluent ability over an extended period allows the individual to become more involved, more intuitive and more successful in work undertaken, gaining a deeper understanding of what it takes, and what it means,to create. Through the initial stages of building the camera, for instance, visualising the act of creating the object was simplified through already having applied knowledge of basic photographic mechanics, but transferring this into the physicality of a craft object became challenging, as involvement in the totality of the process was in its infancy; The puzzle had a few missing pieces which could only be found through involvement in the wider range of skills offered by learning through craft.   

  With the erosion of the wider skill set which has, in the past, been available to the photographic practitioner, comes a lessened ability to express artistic variation through the application of alternative methodologies learned through the continual self discussion and reflective deliberation of a craftsman like approach to the making of photographic art. This “debasement of skill as a valued artistic quality” (Risatti, p249) results in a noticeable level of similarity within modern practices, both aesthetically and technically, which has begun to resemble the modern trends of mechanisation and mass production, which now play such a large role in generating photographs for public consumption, as Dormer describes, “The commonest feature about technology ... is that everything begins to look the same ... consistency and predictability of outcome are almost guaranteed, but the price is uniformity” (Dormer, p142). 

  If we consider ourselves to be forward thinking and progressive within our field, why then should the decline of certain skills - inherent to it, though no longer central within it - become a consideration when creating photographs? If we cannot call on these skills to complement our modern approaches to the medium, if “technical skill is removed from imagination” (Sennett, p21), then we will no longer have the depth of understanding and insight which is needed to separate a simple photographic image from a piece of complex photographic art. 

  The ability to make a photograph does not therefore simply rest upon the pressing of buttons. Instead “it involves learning how to make the camera and photographic materials function to fulfil your purposes” (Hirsch and Valentino, 2001). Considerations must be made concerning the way in which the image is created; choices over aesthetics, methods and medium must all come together in order to successfully articulate the artistic thought processes of the photographer as “making distinctions about how objects are made is important because the process of making is tied to an object’s meaning” (Risatti, p14).  Within the culture of the digital photograph however, we see a movement away from these creative choices, a movement that leads towards a complete uniformity of photographic creation. Relating this to the process of building a camera by hand, we can appreciate the fact that the object which is made will function in exactly the way the maker wishes, allowing much more scope for articulation of creative thought processes through its use and the utterly unique imagery that it enables the photographer to create, in comparison to the uniformity offered by, for example, digital means of image making. 

  The popularity of modern photographic methodology is being fuelled in part by its simplicity and accessibility. It is now relatively easy to make a good quality photographic image, with little or no understanding of the underlying processes involved in its creation, “for there is a category of tool and artefact that allows us to make things without ourselves possessing the know-how to make them” (Dormer, p139). If no thought is entered into concerning these processes, how can the practitioner ever hope to truly know how a photograph is made? How can the same practitioner hope to extend their knowledge of the field beyond the boundaries imposed by modern approaches to image making?

  Without a link to the ideals of the craftsman - the ethos of continued personal development in the desire for complete understanding of a single practice - the modern photographer cannot begin to attain the levels of skill afforded to their predecessors. In learning all there is to learn of a process, the development of the creative mind will begin to benefit from the additional experiences gained form truly knowing how. It becomes clear that “when ... ask[ing] questions, [we must] set no limits, even though they cannot be limitless” (Tzu, C, p137).

Part 3: Doing

  A central part of the development of knowing how is the aspect of doing, the continued exercise of the relationship between the hand and the mind. An individual cannot gain any form of mastery within a single field in any other way, simply experiencing a process through the detachment of the pages of a book for example, cannot be a substitute for the use of the hand, for rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them” (Plato, 465a). Developing this link between the hand and the creative mind whilst engaged in the building of the camera enabled a more well rounded understanding to begin to be usable within more generalised practice, as both the hand and the mind were at work at the same moment. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that in order to know, we must do. 

  In doing, both the hand and the mind can be developed simultaneously, leading to a deeper understanding of possible methodologies and their uses with regards to a specific practice. When including technical skill in artistic applications, the photographer opens up the possibilities of their creativity, accessing further dimensions of freedom of expression drawn from a deeper understanding of their field. 

  This in turn drives the individual to strive for a deeper level of knowing still, which will ultimately contribute an enhanced perspective when involved in the creative processes of the making of an image. The ability to draw upon a wider variety of skills and utilise them successfully proves to differentiate between the average individual’s creative ability, and that of the accomplished image maker, or virtuoso

  In order to become a photographer as virtuoso, it becomes necessary to develop a working knowledge of the process of image making in its entirety, to be able to contribute to every stage of an individual method or process, and to have the strength of mind and purpose of hand to achieve desired results. It follows then, that “one of the most important ways to achieve fluency on anything is to find a way to practice and first master its smaller elements” (Binder et-al, p10).

  This is an intrinsic quality of the craft practitioner, and one that is applicable to the everyday workmanship of the photographer. With a craftsman like approach in moving ever forward in the acquisition and retention of knowledge concerning a fluency of practice, the photographer will achieve true virtuosity in their chosen field of specialisation, elucidating even the most complex themes held within, and will be able to utilise them to their full potential. Learning in this way is a continuous process requiring an open mind, because “to know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty” (Tzu, L, p76).

  As previously stated however, there is a difference between technical skill and rhetoric, or knowing how and being able to do, meaning that “between intellectually knowing how to manipulate a material and being physically capable of doing so lies a vast gulf” (Risatti, p101). Visualising how to cut a mortise joint, for example, is easily done. But the difficulty of cutting one with an unskilled hand is initially extremely daunting. This inability to transfer the intangible idea of what is to be created - held within the mind of the individual practitioner - through the hand and into the physical world, is an extremely restrictive aspect to the possibility of a craftsman like approach to the photographic sphere, the individual perhaps discovering that “actively pursuing good work and finding you can’t do it corrodes one’s sense of self” (Sennett, p97), effectively discouraging experimentation with more abstract tasks. 

  We cannot expect then, that there would be an opportunity for the application of a craft ethos to arise across the broadest range of the photographic industry. This thought is unattainable, as even though the central ideals of craft skill are universally engaging, the actual methodologies of physical and material skill held therein are somewhat more difficult to confer unto the modern practitioner, however willing they may be to learn. 

  It takes a great deal of time and effort to become fluent in the use of materials and techniques specific to the more involved ways of working demonstrated by the craftsman. Although these methods may appear desirable as ways of creating, we must recognise that developing true skill in any single practice is a very intense undertaking and one which will see increases in ability and knowledge only after prolonged investment in the continual process of self evaluation and personal reflection gained from learning through involvement in all aspects of a craft based ideological practice.

  The introduction of this craftsman like methodology to the modern photographer could prove to be a difficult undertaking however, as at this moment in time it is the desire of the professional photographer to work as quickly as is possible in order to turn around as many small jobs as is necessary to make a good profit. This seems to be in direct conflict with the ideology of craftsmanship. The notion that it may perhaps be better suited for a project to extend and develop further than is thought to be initially required, for the simple reward of doing a job well for its own sake is not a popular view in modern professional circles, as now “pride in one’s work [is] treated as a luxury” (Sennett, p21).  

  This drive for greater speed and efficiency where image making is concerned is continually accelerating with the development of new digital camera technology and editing software, the results of which have seen a decline in the need for traditional applied skills, specialised to, and associated with a particular practice, and a sharp rise in the need for more generalised methods of working, which will eventually “obliterate any human-based standard with which work and effort can be valued and judged” (Risatti, p197). A craftsman like approach, then, could be seen as “essentially backward looking and opposed to the new technology which the world must now depend on” (Pye, p4). 

  However, if it is the desire of the individual to develop the wider skill set which is required to master a specific practice in its totality, becoming virtuoso, then the inclusion of a craft ethos functioning within the sphere of mechanisation and progressivism surrounding modern photographic processes will become key, and we shall discover that “it is not craft as ‘handcraft’ that defines contemporary craftsmanship, it is craft as knowledge that empowers a maker to take charge of technology” (Dormer, p140).  

  This observation of how a craftsman like approach to image making may function to complement the practice of the modern photographer by contributing to it the benefits of a fluent understanding of intrinsic methodology, will serve to further develop the universally humanistic attributes of the craft ethos within the minds of both the creators and the viewers of photographic art, leading to a greater appreciation of what actually goes into the process of making work, allowing the photographer to open a discourse with those who observe the methods which are employed, or experience the results of the application of a fluent understanding of the craft of image making.

  It therefore becomes apparent that by applying a craft ethos to the practice of making photographs, a stronger connection will be made between the maker and the viewer through the appreciation of the complexity derived from the utilisation of a wider array of skills gained from a craftsman like approach to learning through the process of doing. As such, “works of art that are done in moments of enlightenment are indeed mediums for others to grasp the ungraspable” (Juniper, p93). As Risatti states: “When we compare what our hand can do to that of skilled makers, we develop an awareness and appreciation of other human beings and, in the process, a greater degree of self understanding and self awareness” (Risatti, p196).

Part 4: Understanding

  The increased conceptual possibilities gained from a complete interconnection between the hand, the mind and the photographic eye, carry with them further modes of self exploration of practical and personal development which can only be gained through a deeper understanding of procedural methodologies. 

  The idea that having the know-how to create in a way that calls upon these connections between artistic faculties, whilst exercising dedicated workmanship through craft, holds within it the notion that any practice can evolve to engage more than just the skills which have been derived from interaction with a wide variety of processes. The thought that “a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body” (Morris, p289), is an important point to raise concerning the development of the understanding of skill, and its successful application to contemporary imaging practices. 

  With higher levels of ability in any one individual process comes intuition and purposefulness, freeing the innermost desires of the creative practitioner from the restrictions imposed by the skill of the hand. Gaining the ability to do through understanding is a necessary aspect of the applied craft ethos and one which encourages a fluidity of creation, which involves the utilisation of the mind, the hand and the heart in unison in order to realise complex artistic intentions.

  This is not to say that in order to do something well it must be first understood in its entirety. The fact that “modern prejudice clings to the conviction that only a few have the ability to do really good work” (Sennett, p273), is opposed to the outward looking, inclusive ideology that the virtuoso must possess. The ability to pass on learned knowledge from one person to another is a key aspect of the craftsman’s approach to workmanship, giving visual instruction of tacit skill, rather than verbal commentary, due to the difficulties held within the dissemination of understanding which becomes apparent when the craftsman is “absorbed in doing something well, unable to explain the value of what he or she is doing” (Sennett, p117). 

  The inherent difficulties of passing on skills with which real understanding can be attained through the articulation of a craftsman like approach to personal practice may serve to hinder the individual’s rate of development within this ideological framework, slowing the pace of progress significantly. When attempting to learn complex tasks whilst building the camera, difficulties arose when attempts were made to simply discuss the processes involved; these difficulties were elucidated when the trained hand took the lead in physically demonstrating the methods which were required at any specific point. 

  A craft approach to any practice then, would offer enhanced levels of skill within the hand and eye of the professional, but at the cost of speed of delivery of such abilities. As previously discussed, the current trend in the photographic sphere for efficiency and rapid turnaround is becoming the standard upon which professionalism is based and “these ... approaches, in their reliance on ... standardisation and quantity of output reflect machine production and modern industrial concepts” (Risatti, p161), suggesting that the slower, more involved processes involved in a craft approach could be unwelcome in modern creative methodologies.

  This raises the issue as to whether engaging with professional photographic practice in a craftsman like way can in fact still be productive, or whether craft skill is now simply nostalgic and counter intuitive where the development of the industry - and those functioning within it - is concerned. Is there any need to know anything anymore, when it takes such a great deal of time and personal investment in order to do so, compared with the relatively effortless, user friendly methods attributed to technological progression? 

  Technology has now developed to such a level that automation is becoming a driving force in the photographic sphere. The complexity of the digital camera for instance, acting as a boundary which the user cannot cross, that ultimately prevents a complete understanding of processes to be achieved. We know that “most contemporary technology has embedded within it knowledge that is not and cannot be ours to possess, but it does not follow necessarily that technology removes the need for personal know-how” (Dormer, p140). If we take this into account it becomes clear that in order to gain any real understanding of what we are doing or what we are capable of doing creatively, we must first know the intricacies of the task at hand, combining what we know of a process with what we use to create work, as “the critical ingredient is the possession of knowledge that can supplement or override that which you have bought as a package” (Ibid, p139). In this way we shall be able to utilise technology far more efficiently and effectively through truly knowing how.  

Part 5: Knowing

  To have the ability to call upon the skills and intrinsic creative methodologies afforded to past practitioners of our medium, learned through the application of a craft ethos concerning the continual development of the underlying technicalities and aesthetic modes available to the knowing eye and skilled hand will result in a deeper understanding of photographic practice and its possibilities. Without this, we will perhaps one day see an end to the almost limitless creativity that our medium boasts, as there will be few practitioners willing to accept the risk of experimenting with the unknown, or what is seen to be potentially unprofitable.

  The photographic hand-worker must have a place in the future of our medium, else “the more powerful, tireless robot may set the standard against which all human beings fail” (Sennett, p98), negating the need for knowledge that extends further than fundamental education in basic photographic technique.

  The opportunity to pass on tacit ability through experiential training in craftsman like photographic methodologies in the face of technological progression and the standardisation of general practice will perhaps be difficult to encourage due to the instant accessibility of digital processes. As we have found, however, “skill is a trained practice; modern technology is abused when it deprives its users precisely of that repetitive, concrete, hands on training” (Sennett, p52) and as such, it becomes of great importance to learn by doing, in the vein of a craft ethos.     

  The nostalgic view of the craft practitioner, alone in his workshop with a determined mind bent on the creative satisfaction of knowing that he has willed an object into being with only the skill of his hand is an utterly relatable idea. The desire to become as good as we can be in any facet of our own personal practice should drive us to strive for thorough explanations of all that we claim to know about the medium we use every day. Only then will creative visions be absolute in their physicality, as the practitioner will be able to utilise all experience and all knowledge to their advantage. The ideals of the craftsman are simple. Perhaps it is time to slow down and take them into account in order to become the creative professionals that we are capable of being. 


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Using Format