A Few Disjointed Thoughts on the Art and Craft of Digital Photography
Some years ago I went through the process of applying to the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen for juried membership. My application and sample images were accepted and then, after a long silence, I was told that the decision had been made that digital photography would not be considered as either as craft or art. It was explained to me that digital processes where considered "automatic" and not requiring any artistic input. They would only accept photographers using "chemical" processes for their work.
I was annoyed by what I felt was a shallow understanding of the opportunity for art and craft that digital photography provides. I had been a "chemical" photographer for years, but like many, I moved to digital when I realized that I could exert much better control of the whole process, from the initial image to the final print. I must admit that I retain a strong nostalgia for my wet darkroom days. I would love to find a cologne with the intoxicating scent of fixer, but, earlier this year, I finally donated all my darkroom equipment to the Vermont Center for Photography.
Dealing with Rejection
Despite my rejection, I have always enjoyed the artistry of the members of the League and have admired the energy that the organization has exerted to promote the their work. The League has established 7 beautiful galleries throughout New Hampshire and runs its Annual Craft Fair every August at the Mt Sunapee Resort. I have a number of good friends who are members of the League and whenever I see them, I take the opportunity to engage in a little good-natured moaning about my rejection. Recently Juried member Bob England, who does remarkable wood-working, told me that the league was sponsoring a show on the impact of technology on the crafts and he thought this might be a good time to revisit the restrictions on digital photography. My ego hasn't been trampled in awhile so it seemed reasonable to take another pass.
Rules of the Craft
I can understand how traditional craftsmen might consider any photography to be on the fringe of what might be seen as a "hand-made" craft, but the league has embraced the work of many fine photographers. So why the absolute distinction between "chemical" and other methods of recording images? From my research I discovered that the same restrictions are still present in the League's guidelines for photography. In the first paragraph is the unequivocal statement, "The League accepts both traditional and chemistry-based photography". "All digital processes are excluded". Seems pretty strait forward, but then I reviewed the information on some of the league's twenty three photographers. I was impressed with the variety and quality of the work being done.
From an incomplete survey of information on the league web site, as well on personal sites, I found numerous examples of photographers who have switched to digital photography, often citing the benefits of better artistic control. Of those who proudly still shoot using film, many note that they scan there images and use printing techniques which appear to involve ink jet printers to create archival prints. Certainly many still use an "an all chemical process", but, as it should be, the techniques employed for artistic expression demonstrate a healthy degree of variation.
Craft is the system one masters to be able to create a work which is the reflection of a personal vision. In photography we apply our craft both while shooting and in the "darkroom" (chemical or digital) to interpret the reality that we observe. Painters do the same with different tools, but it is the interpretation no matter how it is rendered that brings the art to life.
The Craft of Photography
So what is the "craft" of photography. It is actually the combination of many decisions and manipulations. It starts with choosing a subject and deciding when and in what light it should be captured. The angle of view and subtleties of composition are all crucial before the shutter is pressed, along with the impact of aperture and shutter speed on exposure, depth of field and motion. The manipulation of these factors is the same regardless of whether the recording media is film or digital.
In digital photography the image is recorded on the digital sensor.
|The Digital Darkroom, Photoshop|
"Chemical" photography is not especially different. With film, the
|My Chemical Darkroom 1977|
It would be an honor to be considered among the talented artists in the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, but for me, it is a worthwhile exercise just to explore my own place, balancing craft and art, and glorying in the amazing range of human expression.