In 1920, photographer and essayist C.H. Claudy addressed the question “What’s Hard About Photography?” in an article for The Camera. I found it interesting that we continue to have these same conversations today. Every photographic technological advancement dredges up the same question—what is hard about photography? In this article Claudy explains the technical concepts as well as society’s perception of photography at the time of writing in 1920.
Among my several activities is the conducting of a photographic column in a popular woman’s journal—by which elaborate phrase you can understand that I answer questions to the best of my ability and occasionally write a little yarn about matters photographic for the information of said ladies.
Not very long ago a special publicity was given my efforts to solve the Chinese puzzle which photography is to many, and, as a result, I have had an unusual influx of letters asking me some hundreds of questions, ninety per cent of which are alike in one particular—they show that the askers thereof have become so imbued with the idea that photography is simply fool proof, childish, easy, plain, uncomplicated, that they have never stopped to read their little book.
I cannot imagine that this state of mind is engendered only in the feminine half of the population—indeed, as many questions come from husbands, brothers, sons and nephews, as from wives, mothers, daughters and sisters. It seems undeniable that the advertising of amateur photography, which has been so successfully put forth these many years, has convinced the bulk of the population that anyone can take pictures and that all you have to do is possess a Kodak, press a button and a finished picture of marvelous beauty drops out of the box.
As a result—or as one result—there is often some disappointment when pictures which are taken refuse to stay “took” and come out, if they come out at all, only as under-exposed, over-exposed, blurred, splotched or scratched results. Then I get a letter saying, “What’s the matter with these?”
For some never-to-be-understood reason there is a large number of people who think there is nothing difficult about taking a snapshot, who regard a time exposure as requiring an expert’s knowledge. There are an equally large number who think a landscape is a cinch and a portrait, difficult. Still others regard street scenes as something anyone can take, but a picture of the sea or a boat or a mountain, difficult beyond belief. I get many letters explaining how well the writer can take one kind of picture, but how impossible it is for him or her to succeed with the other kind. And I am asked to give help in the doing of the “hard” part of photography.
It does seem, to one who has made so many efforts and spoiled so much film as have I, that there is nothing hard about any of it—it is all a pleasure, and a pleasure is never difficult. But even from the standpoint of a beginner, the only difference in “hardness” between a snapshot and a time exposure is the “hardness” of knowing how long to make the exposure. Now timing is not a difficult matter—what with exposure meters and exposure tables, it would seem that almost anyone with intelligence enough to guess a distance and press a button would have no particular difficulty in deciding about what exposure to give and, after a trial or two, understanding pretty thoroughly that the portrait in the shade at five in the afternoon needs ten seconds with stop sixteen, or whatever the combination happens to be.
The “difficulty” gets back to the fact that people who buy Kodak to make snapshots on a vacation, regard, apparently, the advertising literature which comes wrapped around a film or which in the form of a booklet accompanies their instrument, as so much propaganda for the sale of more, different and expensive supplies, and, as such, cast it into outer darkness, or the waste basket. As you and I know the “advertising” matter is nothing more propagandish than the boiled down experience of years of skill, put in simple language for the tyro. Yet they read it not. “How do you set a shutter for a time exposure? Why is a time exposure? What are the numbers on my shutter for? Why does one of the little pointers have B.T.I. to point at and the other one figures? Where do you stand when you want to take a portrait? What makes all my portraits look fuzzy?” are a few simple and well intentioned questions written by people who could answer them for themselves by looking in the “advertising” literature which comes with their outfit.
Lest anyone think this diatribe is a compliment, let me say that answering questions is an editorial job not particularly difficult nor would I want everyone in the world so well-informed photographically that I’d be out of said job. But between asking a questions which some puzzle has presented to mind and asking for the information which it would seem everyone would have to have in order to make any pictures at all, is a wide gap. Wherefore, I am moved to ask, “What is hard about photography?” and to answer, “Nothing at all, if you will only try to learn the reason why of the thing you do, and not do it in the dark.”
“I made a lot of fine pictures,” write a minister. “Then something went wrong and I haven’t had a good picture for weeks. I am sending you some films. What is the matter with them?”
The matter with them was rank under-exposure—snapshots where five-seconds’ time could have been given. Either the minister “ran off the groove” badly or someone moved his diaphragm lever when he wasn’t looking and he never stopped to find out.
“I am sending you some films. They are my first attempt at developing. What is the matter with them?” These were black as a piece of old jet. Which might mean almost anything, except that the rabbet edges were black, also. A letter or two developed the fact that the film had been unrolled in the shade, in the house, but in daylight. The owner of this remarkable intelligence insisted and wouldn’t believe to the contrary. I suggested he might have had his developing and his printing instructions mixed and to that letter I have had no reply so maybe he had found out that film really ought to be kept away from the light as much as possible, even unto the hour of fixation.
Don’t laugh—I know it sounds funny when you know differently, but this sort of thing is a near-tragedy to those who have spent time and money and effort to get themselves good pictures and get only expense for their pains. Yet photography is almost fool proof. I have a sixteen-year-old lad who makes pictures exactly as thousands of others make them—with no real knowledge of what goes on inside the camera, of the chemistry of photography or the optics of its lens. But he has intelligence enough to grasp the sequence of cause and effect and knows that over-exposure means one thing, and under-exposure another. His results are as good ad the average and better than some. So the difficulty cannot, I take it, be in the art of making pictures—the difficulty is in the mind of the person making the picture.
If it were possible to make a law which should read that no person should be allowed to buy or use a camera until they had read one simple book on picture making and passed an examination in it, there would be no such thing as a photographic column in ladies’ papers, and no such thing as bunches of letters asking why things which are really as simple as A B C, are “hard.” The thing that makes it “hard” is lack of even elementary knowledge.
Now I do not suppose that the majority of readers of The Camera are in need of elementary instructions. But I do think that people are pretty much alike the world over and that what the majority of people do one time they are apt to do another. So it seems reasonable to suggest to you, you who have passed your novitiate in photography and now make gums and use an anastigmat and talk learnedly of planes and infinity and hyperfocal distance and everything, that if you, too, find any department of the photographic art “hard,” it is at least possible that you are trying to do something you don’t know anything about, in the light of experience in quite another line. I dare say that an experience of snapshotting on a vacation is some sort of background for an attempt at portrait or high speed or telephoto work, but it isn’t much of a background.
If you find it “hard” to make good carbon prints, have you tried to analyze the “hardness”? Or is it “hard” merely because they “don’t come out very well”? If they don’t come out very well, there must be a reason, since generations of photographers have demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to make perfectly good carbon prints. It is lack of understanding of this reason, not the reason itself, which makes the work “hard.”
Is it “hard” to mount a print? It is not. Why, then, should it be “hard” to mount two of them on the same piece of cardboard? It shouldn’t be. Is there anything difficult about transposing two pictures? There is not. Where, then, comes in the “hardness” of making seterographic prints? Answer, the “hardness” is in the lack of understanding, not in the thing.
Have you ever watched an expert printer making D.O.P. prints with a developing and printing cabinet? One of these exposure machines which saves time? Print after print, hour after hour, day after day, negative after negative, thick, thin, yellow, bluish—and print after print is done so perfectly that even the makers of the paper are satisfied. There is nothing hard about it because the printer knows exactly what he is doing—knows how to judge a negative by looking at it, knows what grade of paper to use, and what exposure to give. In other words, the difficulty has evaporated as knowledge came to the fore.
Hence, it seems reasonable to postulate that he who finds photography difficult has found it impossible to take time to learn what he is doing—he who finds any process “hard” is fooling himself—the thing which is “hard” is for him to make up his mind to do a little easy study and reading first. In the operation itself is never anything difficult.
In other words, the only really “hard” things about photography are some persons’ heads.
This essay by C.H. Claudy first appeared in The Camera, October 1920, p. 509-516.