Thursday, September 08, 2011

Thoughts on Craftsmanship

The lady above is Lillian McNicol, one of Diane's great-grandmothers. It was made around 1900-1904 in Canton, NY, not exactly a metropolis even in those days. I scanned the original today as part of my on-again/off-again genealogy project and was struck by what a great portrait it is. Now I know there are lots of mediocre portraits from that era but what struck me was how good this one is despite what we today would consider to be primitive if not crude equipment. Great lighting, exposure, focus, a gem of a portrait.

In that era it would have been made with a studio camera that was little more than a wooden box, probably on a glass plate, and contact printed (the image on my screen is a bit larger than the original). The lens may not even have had a shutter, just a lens cap that the photographer removed and counted off the seconds before putting it back on. The photographer had no soft boxes or speed lights, not even an incandescent photo-flood lamp. The light source may be from a North facing window as was common back then. He probably hand painted his own back drop.

What the photographer had was skill. He knew his equipment and his materials. He had the ability to relate to the subject, to connect and get her to relax at the same time she held still for a long exposure. He had the skill to develop the negative and make a print that has lasted over 100 years with no particular special care while being passed down through four generations.

It's as true today as it was when A. J. Runions made this photo that craftsmanship and vision are more important than gear. The next time you think that your photos would be better if only you had the latest piece of gear that they are hawking, remember Mr. Runions. I don't know about you but I'd be proud to make such portraits.

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