This article is one of a series of articles from Metalsmith Magazine “Art and Technics” talking about techniques in craftsmanship and design. For this 1992 Spring issue, Tim McCreight talks about superstitions and superstitious beliefs.
Somewhere in our childhood each of us heard tales of visitors to faraway places who encountered superstitious natives and their quaint fears about photography. An elder sometimes would not allow his picture to be taken because he was afraid that a piece of his soul would be taken as well. Of course we knew better, having been photographed at every Family Gathering since we were born. The story was always presented with the kindly forbearance of a sophisticated culture toward a charmingly naive one.
I’m having second thoughts.
Before I go further I should say that I’m about to raise a complaint without offering a constructive alternative. I hate when people do that, but though I don’t have an alternative to suggest, I feel strongly about the issues that arise as we photograph handmade objects.
It is obvious that photography is here to stay in business, education and communication. In the crafts world, photos are used to gain acceptance to shows and galleries, as professional credentials when seeking jobs and grants, as indications of style, and in books and periodicals. Take all that away and the world would be a drab place, as well as one in which it would be a lot harder to do business.
It’s a fact, though, that when we photograph an object, we create a new object: the slide or print. It can be large or small, of good or poor quality and so on, but whatever it is affects our perception of the original object. Ask anyone who depends on acceptance to shows about the importance of top-notch slides. I’ve even heard it said that great slides of mediocre work will triumph over poor slides of exceptional work. In a case like that, the judges are looking at the wrong object.
Slides and handmade objects are more than just a little different; they represent opposing and contradictory worlds. As objects, slides are everything we try to avoid in our work. They are machine made, identical, insistently uniform, and plain. Obviously I’m talking here about the physical slide, the cardboard and acetate object. They require no skill – you simply drop off your film at a store and return in a few days to pick it up. No matter how clever, experienced or painstaking you are, the objects will always look alike.
Slides, of course, are easy to duplicate and therefore have a disposable quality. They have achieved the status of photocopies: try this or that, then throw away the inferior versions. This is neither right nor wrong, but is a mind-set opposite to the one we take to the bench.
A photograph fixes an object in a composition, establishing its orientation, setting and scale. It is hard to overestimate the numbing effect this imposes on the viewer. Picture what happens if I hand you a banana. You take it in your hand and inevitably reorient it in space. You’d think me silly if I scolded you and said you weren’t pointing it in the right direction. After all, your choice of direction is as valid as mine. I would prefer that the objects I make be seen only in that context of participation. I am offended by the tyranny of the photograph. And, of course, it goes without saying that photographs reduce the five senses to a single one, forcing us to focus on the form and color at the expense of weight, smell, touch and sound.
In a related way, photographs are a fixed moment in time. This means that if the passage of time is relevant to a work, the piece must be rephotographed many times, say, as the patina darkens. More intimately, the moment of orientation and light, the relationship of the piece to its environment is locked. In a photograph we can’t rotate the piece and hold it up to the light, watching it change as we move it through space. Yet isn’t this exactly what we do when handed a piece of jewelry?
I dislike handling slides of my work. I put off organizing or selecting slides until I absolutely must, and for years I thought this had to do with the mechanics of organization. Now I’m wondering if this dread doesn’t have something to do with the soul-less quality of the object. Slides to me are like drab memories of a pleasant experience in my past. The photograph, far from capturing the essence, dissipates and trivializes it.
It’s not uncommon for me now to think about photography while I’m in the early stages of a piece. Sometimes it is clear to me, for reasons more felt than reasoned, that the piece being made should not be photographed. I’ve become aware that the process of making is dramatically altered by this decision. Ironically, I find that I pay more attention to details, knowing that the piece has an immediate reality and will exist in the full and living space of an interactive viewer.
I was soundly scolded by a colleague when I discussed this recently. And perhaps he’s right. In one way it would be a setback if each of us were exposed only to work that we could experience physically. On the other hand, that experience would be so different from the act of looking at work in photographic images that the trade-off might be worth it.
Tim McCreight is head of the metals department at Portland School of Art and a contributing editor to Metalsmith.