Musings on Photography

Craft and technology

Posted in aesthetics, digital printing, materials, paper, process, traditional materials by Paul Butzi on June 14, 2009


Colin Jago has some interesting points in response to my Kindle post. Colin writes (in part)

Printing used to be a craft. Ignore for the moment the old question of whether printing was also an art, for it most certainly was a craft regardless of that. It was something to get good at through practice and effort. And, do you know what, it still is. Yet, unlike the traditional wet darkroom, it is also very much a big business technology change driven occupation. That means that innovations are likely to sweep though the business regularly. A good thing, yes, but the downside is that change writes off our personal time investment in existing technologies. It might also mean that fewer people persist with any given technology to perfect and stretch it.

It isn’t that fanciful to imagine a time in the near future when people are trading the last ink cartridges and maintaining stocks of old fashioned rag papers just like they now do for dye transfer materials. The difference being that such changes will happen multiple times per lifetime.

Where does that leave the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to learn to do something well?

I’ve spent, over the course of my life, an awful lot of time in various darkrooms. I doubt I’ve hit the 10 kilohour mark, but there was a time when I could produce pretty nice prints in the wet darkroom.

Some of the skills I acquired during that time had to do with physical mastery of darkroom tools. I learned how to burn and dodge without leaving obvious trails. I learned how to develop film and prints with consistency. I learned how to control the temperature of things with great reliability and precision. But those physical skills were, in the end, not the hard part of making good prints.

If I can draw on an analogy I like, those skills are to first rate printing in a wet darkroom as knowing how to use the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake are to a successful road trip. They’re skills that are necessary, but not sufficient. Unless you can control the car, you can’t travel by auto successfully. The big problem to be faced with travel by automobile, though, is not knowing how to drive, it’s knowing where you want to go. Anyone can learn to drive and then drive around in the US. It takes Charles Kuralt to drive around the US, find compelling stories in the lives of ordinary people, and present them in a way that changed the people’s understanding of the world they lived in.

And so it was with printing in the darkroom. The understanding of the physical principles needed can be taught quickly. The problem in the wet darkroom is, in the end, not a matter of knowing how to get what you want. It’s being good at knowing what you want, and being sufficiently open to serendipitous discovery that you aren’t just a machine whacking out yet another full range print each and every time.

So, not only did I learn the physical skills needed in the wet darkroom, but I also learned some about what I can only call “thinking about images”. By this I don’t mean thinking about images in some philosophic sense, but more a matter of thinking about images in the sense that I understand how to visualize different ways an image can be presented, and can more or less articulate a goal for how I want an image to look when I print it. Once you get there (and some of the process of working that out inevitably involves some experimentation), then it’s a matter of figuring out how to get a reasonable approximation of that to appear on the paper when you run it through the tray line.

That skill, which I think is the real craft part of darkroom work, came along with me when I transitioned from printing in the wet darkroom and into the world of digital printing. I already knew how to think of regions of a print in terms of density and contrast. I was already familiar with the idea of print tone and how it could be used to get the right ‘feel’ in a print. I knew about balance and tonal weight, and I knew quite a lot about how to trick the human visual system into certain responses (like ‘wet’ or ‘curved’) when I wanted. So my transition into digital printing was largely a matter of learning how to control density and contrast with new tools. The basic problem to be confronted had not changed – it was just a different tool set, and a display material with different properties.

So I guess my point is that the transition to digital printing didn’t suddenly put me on an even footing with someone just learning to print. It didn’t start me over with a new 10K hour counter set to zero. Some part of those long hours in a small room lit with a dim red bulb counted, in some very important way, toward the 10K hours that it will take me to become an maker of outstanding inkjet prints.

And so, I think, with the inevitable shift from inkjet printing to whatever comes along and displaces that. Photo Kindles do not magically take raw files and turn them into expressive photo displays. Humans do that, and I very much suspect that the skills needed are more or less independent of display medium. Not completely – not quite completely. But very close.

13 Responses

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  1. Les Richardson said, on June 14, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Yes, I feel the same about technology change in the computer area also. Microsoft invents a technology, I start to learn it, (and since I’m only a part time developer and full time teacher), the technology changes or dies, just after I master a good chunk of the API, etc.

    I finally tired of this, and learned about Unix and Internet technologies and some non MS (only) languages like perl. This is technology that will (and has) stuck around for quite a while. A worthwhile thing to learn, IMO (but I’m a geek).

    In Photography, seeing is the issue, I think. Technical skills will deliver a version of your vision. But, if you don’t like it…. there _are_ choices. Back to Film. Back to Big Film. Carry around lots of little P&S cameras or bigger stuff. Since Photography is now tied to computing, much of it gets carried along on that wave.

    Les Richardson
    Linux geek / Open Source Developer

  2. Mike said, on June 14, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    “transitioned” is not a word, Paul. You can make a transition; you don’t “transition”. Please get the language right.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on June 14, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    “transitioned” is not a word, Paul. You can make a transition; you don’t “transition”. Please get the language right.

    You might want to check your resource a little more closely:
    Main Entry:
    intransitive verb
    : to make a transition

    I mean, it’s an intransitive verb in all the dictionaries I checked. It doesn’t even seem to be a new word.

    You might not like the word. You might think I overused it. But I don’t think you can argue that it’s not a word. Well, actually, you just did. I just don’t think it’s a *persuasive* argument, let alone a correct one.

  4. Tom Aellis said, on June 15, 2009 at 3:28 am

    Wonderfully written article.

  5. Mike said, on June 15, 2009 at 9:03 am

    OK — “to transition” is incorrect as used. One doesn’t “transition”. Never did. Dictionary doesn’t allow it. So as used it isn’t a word it’s noise.

  6. Mike said, on June 15, 2009 at 9:03 am

    Otherwise the article is fine, really. Makes sense.

  7. Martin Doonan said, on June 15, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Mike, to get properly pedantic 9and save Paul a rant), the OED allows that use quite nicely: verb (t & i) both allowed. It makes plenty of sense as used.
    back on topic:
    I think an important skill of any craft is the understanding “here” and “there” as much as the how to get from one to the other.

  8. Eric Jeschke said, on June 15, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    I’ve heard “transition” (transitioned, transitioning) used many times in this sort of context and (at least in some parts of the english speaking world) it seems to be in wide use in this fashion. It sounds fine to my ear.

  9. Paul Butzi said, on June 15, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    OK — “to transition” is incorrect as used. One doesn’t “transition”. Never did. Dictionary doesn’t allow it. So as used it isn’t a word it’s noise.

    Well, you’ve put forward a very exciting and unusual theory. Thank you very much for sharing it.

    It’s always nice to hear from an expert.

  10. Andreas Manessinger said, on June 17, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Who or whatever transitions, I just would like to mention that I really like your book. Very fine work 🙂

  11. John Taylor said, on June 19, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    this seems to have made a transition of topic… to transittion back… nice article. (note to pedant – there is little less appealling than a humourless pedant) Cheers! 🙂

  12. John Taylor said, on June 19, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    Oh damn a speeling mistake!!! that should of course be off topic not ‘of’ topic. sigh…

  13. John Taylor said, on June 19, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    lol!! ‘spelling’ i can’t type tonight for beans and can’t see straight g’night then.

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