From the Book of Kells
In the world of marketing — especially when it comes to photography — one of the magic words that one sees over and over again is the term "handmade." I've always found this curious, if not downright misleading.
What is there in photography that is truly handmade — say, compared to in pottery, painting, sculpture, or even the performing arts like dance or music? My "handmade" prints are produced by a machine, i.e., an inkjet printer. Even in the days of wet darkroom work, what in the printing process of a gelatin silver print is handmade? Clearly not the paper or emulsion; not the chemistry; nor the various hardware equipment, like enlargers or lenses. I suppose my hand gestures in dodging and burning come to mind, but that hardly is the equivalent to the hand work of a potter. Perhaps the over-mat could be considered handmade, but perhaps hand-cut is a more accurate term.
If pressed, I'll be darned if I can think of a part of the process that is truly and accurately described with the term handmade. It seems demeaning to refer to our carefully crafted prints as "machine made" because that implies an inhuman sort of creation. No — machine made is definitely not right. As I think of it, the best term that most accurately describes what we all do would probably be mindmade.
Perhaps this is why I've always associated photography and writing in the creative process. Novelists have a lot more in common with photographers than painters do. Novelists and photographers make fiction from their observations of the real world. So do painters, I suppose, but the machines used by the novelist (typewriters, computers) and the photographer (cameras, printers) are more or less immaterial to the final result. The machine facilitates production, but it isn't the magic of the machine that makes the result sing as artwork.
Perhaps this is the root of that ever-present cloud that hangs over photography regarding its status as a true art medium. I don't think of a novel as a work of art — instead it is a work of literature. What would be so wrong about thinking of photography as a work of literature, too? Photography is, after all, a visual form of storytelling. We all know that, etymologically, photograph is light writing. Hmmm . . .
There is a lot of hullaballoo in photography about the original print and the magical visual properties contained therein. Undeniably true. But, an equivalent could be drawn between that and a handmade, hand-calligraphed, parchment and vellum book. The original, hand-written and hand-drawn Book of Kells is not the same thing as a commercially printed modern book of the same content. But if I want to read the Book of Kells, I don't need the original handmade manuscript to acquire the content of the message. The message is not the medium, although it does require some medium to be manifest.
Some of this gets so muddied because of a confusion of terms. The term "book," for example, refers both to a physical combination of molecules in the form of paper, ink, and glue, but it also is used to refer to the story content that is thoroughly independent of the molecules. Dickens wrote the "book" Oliver Twist when he penned the story, but he didn't manufacture the "book" Oliver Twist that was printed and bound by Chapman & Hall. Similarly, I "create a photograph" when I work on the image in Photoshop, but that is a different thing than when I print the photograph using molecules of paper and pigment.
So, where is the creative act located in the process? For the novelist, the creative act is in dreaming up the story and characters, in the process of constructing the string of words that comprise the story, and in the final editing and finishing of the manuscript before it is handed off to the book-maker. Let me re-write that last sentence for us photographers and see how it flies.
For the photographer, the creative act is in dreaming up the image and composition, in the process of constructing the array of tones that comprise the image, and in the final editing and finishing of the image before it is handed off to the print-maker/framer/publisher.
You know, I can live with that — in spite of the fact that the entire concept of handmade is nowhere in the neighborhood. Now, if I can just get the term mindmade accepted in the popular zeitgeist.
Brooks' books on photography and the creative process are available in print from Lulu.com, and as eBooks for Kindle or EPUB readers. As one of the membership benefits, these eBooks are available in their entirety to members of LensWork Online via download.