ART and/or CRAFT?
How do we distinguish fine art from craft? That question is loaded with presuppositions that are sure to create controversy and disagreement among practitioners of the various arts and crafts. In the history of photography and its place among the arts those presuppositions combined with the question of whether the camera was an automatic machine that mechanically produced images or whether it was a tool more akin to paint brushes and paints led to decades of photographers striving to make their photos look less like photos and more like drawings, etchings and paintings. For photographers who wanted to be artists, that was a source of anxiety well into the 20thcentury.
We went to see the Group f/64 show at the “MAC”, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture”, in Spokane and walked through the big room with prints from Edward and Brett Weston, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams. Group f/64 represents a collective of West Coast photographers who purposefully took up that battle to gain photography’s reputation as art. There were many images I had seen before in books and in films and there were quite a few, especially by Edward and by Willard Van Dyke that were new to me. I was especially interested in seeing Edward Weston’s contact prints as the bulk of his work was presented in that form and he remains one of the divinities of the American photographic tradition and his prints are very valuable in the art market.
I had read that people are sometimes surprised at how dark he printed and knowing this I was still surprised. There was a photo looking across a body of water to another section of shore that I would have tossed in the trash can and reprinted. I say that with a lot of discomfort. Though Weston was never financially successful he had many admirers and collectors in the 1930s when the bulk of the work in the show was done. Weston was a pioneer of sorts as he explored forms probing the universals that tie all that exists into a mysterious commonality. Sometimes a nude looks like a piece of fruit and sometimes a fruit looks like a nude. His artistic conversations took place with some of the Mexican expressionists and muralists and with American painters like his friend Florence Henri, with other photographers like Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, with dancers and poets: his work represents the evolution of the searching, creative mind. In his Daybooks he talks about his artistic revelations with excitement, and he talks as well about his technical developments and growth.
He was very mindful of being an “artist”. Two of his most famous pieces, the Nautilus Shell and Pepper no. 30 were beautifully photographed, subtle, soft, delicate and mysterious. In 1930 photographs like these were opening the minds of other artists like some kind of magic mushrooms and were eagerly collected by painters and poets and others in his circle of friends. Today it is more difficult to see beyond or behind their celebrity, to understand why they stunned his admirers. That’s one reason that seeing his original prints really helps to understand his value and place in photographic history and why I wanted to see the originals.
One noteworthy thing about the Weston’s exhibited at the group f64 show, however, is that at the most, two prints bore Edward’s signature, a signature which affirms that he printed it, nor were there prints with his initials, a sign that it was an approved print made by of his sons. It could be that the Bank that acquired these prints gathered them from the many apparently circulating but unproven as Weston approved master prints. In other words, many of these images might have been rejected by Weston, throw aways!
In the Adams section there were again several images I was unfamiliar with and that is always a welcome thing. A large print of blowing snow and clouds on a ridge in Yosemite was masterful in its capture of the brilliance of the sun lighting the clouds and falling on the rock face and yet retaining the dark hard solidity of the rock itself. As a printer, I know how difficult this is to do and yet Ansel did it again and again. The image that we really found incredible was the biggest in the show, a very large Moonlight over Hernandez that seemed to find its perspective when we stood back about fifteen feet. Standing close, however revealed the perfection of the printing, the brilliance of the white crosses in the foreground grave yard, the subtle tones of the desert ground, the not quite full moon glowing in the dark sky above silvery clouds. I suspect that even if Adams had inadvertently exposed an unbalanced composition, the beauty of the printing would have still captivated us. Still, one would be disappointed in a weak composition. To put this again in a different form, the technical quality of Ansel’s printing is in itself a performance of extraordinary beauty. When one recognizes his mastery of the craft, and then couples that with a perfectly balanced composition, that makes the viewing of his original prints a necessity for the full appreciation of his work.
Looking at Edward and Ansel, two of my favorites like this leads to the topic of art and craft, a topic which has frequently come up between Kathy and me and with other friends in the arts. I once was a fine arts major in a small Illinois University, for two years before I’d had enough and dropped out. What I had enough of was instruction such as this from my first painting teacher;”Ya just gotta be creative man, just gotta do your thing…” What I was looking for was some technical knowledge passed along, like what brushes to use for what, how to lay ground most effectively. I recognized even then that there were certain technical keys to excellent work in any field. This middle-aged hippie painter had a different idea of art, one in which the key was unlocking the hidden genius and letting it pour out like, perhaps, Pollock’s paint drippings. In his scenario, the history of art was pushed along by the work of individual geniuses and their influence on contemporaries and artistic descendants. But it is not some mysterious spiritual quality called genius that makes an artist, at least not in and of itself.
I just finished reading a biography of sorts of Carleton Watkins, who was doing straight photography in a career that spanned the last 40 years of the 19thcentury. Watkins is less well known by moderns simply because his life’s work was all located in San Francisco in 1906 when the earthquake came that broke little Ansel’s nose! The quake and the fire that followed eliminated all of his holdings of prints, his cameras, his 40 years of glass plate negatives and for a long time, his reputation. There are still many Watkins prints that were sold over the years including some with the royal family in England, but when it came time for the first historians to try to document a history of photography, Watkins was absent from the discussion.
Most of his career was spent with the wet plate process. His images of Yosemite, starting in 1861, informed the nation and the western world of the spectacular beauty of the place. The early history of American California is chronicled in his “mammoth plate” prints. It used to really irk me when the twin boasters Stieglitz and Strand would claim that no good photography was done between Hill and Adamson and themselves. It was the arrogance of the East Coast club, that ignored the artists of the West. Knowing now that so much of Watkins was lost to the earthquake I can more generously attribute the Stieglitz/Strand claims to their ignorance of a master craftsman and artist. (Still, the work of the Civil War photographers like O’Sullivan was available if they had simply cared to research it. These photographers, I suspect, would not have neatly fit into their personal narrative.)
Watkins claimed the mantle of artist. It was an important part of his self-understanding. And the late 19thcentury community that bought up his prints, and the galleries that showed them and the prizes that were awarded his work all understand him as an artist without hesitation.
There were no gum bichromates, no scratching on his plates, no soft fuzzy lenses. Watkins amazed other wet plate photographers with the pristine excellence of his images. He had mastered the difficult craft of wet plate collodian and albumen printing but even more so, Watkins mastered the mysteries of composition, and the language of his medium, with its syntax and visual codes to produce images that can still stun an experienced photographer with their perfection.
Group f64 represented a struggle to claim the superiority of a photography that left behind the manipulations of the Pictorialists who ran the camera clubs, but perhaps they didn’t understand that it was really about re-claiming photography and the straight tradition that had already had a long and healthy run in the 19thcentury. Still, that isn’t quite enough to explain and inform the other thing they craved, recognition as artists!
Artists like Watkins had to master the craft, the technical issues related to their work. For Watkins, that was a wet plate negative without flaws, clean and even and well exposed. That is mastery of the craft. But even before his exposure of the plate, Watkins, the artist, studied the scene, moved around, thought about how to include light and shade, contrasting values, energy lines of motion and a sense of depth in order to perfect the composition. He went to sometimes extreme measures, climbing a thousand feet with hundreds of pounds of equipment to find the right spot for his tripod. Only when he had perfected the composition and when the light was just right, would he expose. He knew that the camera lens was an eye that had its own perspective on the world before it and the photographic artist had to be able to see with that eye.
Where does the craft leave off and the art begin?
It’s a false question. When you read Weston’s Daybooks, you see him struggle and strive to perfect, through frustration to frustration to elation. This is the work of the artist. For the photographic artist this requires a different way of seeing than the painter or sketcher. The process is seeing through the camera and then producing a two dimensional image that is seen again, or re-seen, with the binocular vision of the human eyes. It is not capturing what the photographer saw with his or her own eyes looking at the scene, but what the photographer saw through the camera’s eye. Successful art in any media requires finely honed craft. The best photographic artists had mastered their craft but also learned the mind of the camera lens, if you will forgive this attempt to conceptualize. A perfectly exposed and focused negative of a boringly bad scene will never be art. An automatic camera cannot make art. An artist, however, could make art with an automatic camera.
Bill Kostelec, December 1, 2019
Carleton Watkins: Making the West American. Tyler Green, University of California Press, 2018.