Getting beyond the hardware: an inspiring little essay.

Getting beyond the hardware: an inspiring little essay.

I may have mentioned that I spent a period of time in the early 80s as a commercial photographer. Honestly, I didn’t make it all that far; though a good technician, I wasn’t creative enough on demand to sustain a career. I did learn a lot, though, and I took some of those lessons and put them to good use in other areas of my life.

One of those lessons – and one of the most important – came in the form of an article written by Ben Helprin. I have a copy of this hanging above my workbench, where it serves to inspire me. I don’t know that I’m yet at the “master” stage of revolversmithing, but I work every day to get a little closer to that ideal.

While obviously photography-centric, this is a profound article for which you will no doubt find applications in your own life. Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Expert or Master – What’s the Difference?

by Ben Helprin

At the top of every craft, there are masters and experts. The difference between the two was defined by Will Connall (master photographer, photography teacher, and former head of photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California) this way:

“Let me”, he said, “use the exacting art of platemaking as an example.” (Platemakers are the skilled craftsmen who produce printing plates for books and magazines.) “If you ask an expert how he produces the negative for a fine plate, he’ll answer: “that’s easy. First I choose the correct size glass plate for the negative I want. Then, I compute the surface area of the plate and, holding it absolutely level, I pour exactly one ounce of emulsion for every 40 square inches of surface precisely onto the center of the plate. Then I rock the glass side-to-side and front-to-back, exactly the same amount each way, to spread the emulsion evenly. When the plate is dry, I load it into the copy camera, adjust my lights so that the original art work is absolutely evenly illuminated and, with the level of illumination that I use, expose the plate for 20 seconds. I develop the plate for precisely five minutes, process it normally, the end up with a perfect negative for reproduction.

“Now,” said Connall, “let’s ask a master the same question. He’d reply: Oh, that’s easy. First I choose the correct size glass for the negative. Then, I compute the surface area of the glass and, holding it exactly level, I pour one ounce of emulsion for every 40 square inches of surface exactly onto the center of the plate. Well, no, that’s really not true. Sometimes I use more than an ounce of emulsion per square inch. Sometimes less. It depends on the original copy. And sometimes I don’t pour the emulsion exactly on center. I’ll swirl it across to get a different spread. That also depends on the copy. Anyway, after I pour the emulsion, I rock the plate side-to-side and front-to-back, exactly the same each way, to spread the emulsion evenly. But sometimes, of course, I don’t want the emulsion spread evenly. Again, it depends on the copy. I might want to rock the plate more to one side to get the emulsion heavier there, or rock it more to the front…anyway, I rock it, dry it, load it in the camera, and light the copy exactly evenly – unless of course I want to slightly shade a corner to knock it down, or highlight a portion of the copy to lighten it up. I’m not sure exactly how I’ll light it until I do it. But after it’s lit, I give it a 20-second exposure. Well, not always 20 seconds….”

And so it goes. Each step of the master’s procedure depends, not on a set series of exacting rules, but on the interrelationship of the medium, the copy, and the desired final product.

What does this have to do with photography? Well to begin with, it doesn’t mean that you can forget technique or be sloppy in your execution of it. As Will Connall noted, every master had first to be an expert. Without that initial perfection of technique, they could never advance to the master’s stage.

Will’s apocryphal examples were, however, meant to point out that technique is by no means the be-all and end-all of photography. Technique is the base from which you build. But the product itself, the photograph, must go beyond set rules of technique or composition, or anything else that says “this, and only this, is the correct way of producing a photograph.”

Look at the work of master photographer Ansel Adams and compare it to the thousands of technical experts who attempt to imitate him. The large majority of Adams’ imitators do not understand expressive content, they understand only technique. The do not trust their inner feelings, the trust only a rigorous set of technical rules.

A creative photograph is a very unique personal statement, and the technical aspects of that statement must depend on what you, as an artist, want to say. Thus, the perfect exposure isn’t always one the reproduces the tonalities of a scene in exactly the same manner they originally appeared, but one that reproduces them in exactly the manner you want them to appear. Nor is the perfect print the one that always exactly matches the contrast of the paper to the density range of the negative, but the one that exactly matches paper and film to the contrast as seen by your inner eye. As Paul Klee said, “the purpose of art is not to reflect the visible, but to make visible.”

So, look at your recent photographs. Are they technically perfect? If not, you still have a lot of work to do to reach the “Expert” stage. On the other hand, if your work is technically perfect and perfectly boring, if it is indistinguishable from everyone else’s technically perfect work, then you have a lot of even harder work to reach the Master’s stage.

  • Posted by Grant Cunningham
  • On July 16, 2007