Photography as a teacher (1910)

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Truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Many modern professional (and highly skilled amateur) photographers today lament that too many people these days just go around pushing the button on their camera, paying little regard to composition or technical quality. The now popular phrase “great capture” is enough to make many of them shiver.

As we see in this piece from 1910, the concern over the average amateur’s lack of involvement in the photographic process was just as common then as it is today. Although photographic plates are a thing of the past and film is ever increasingly following its path to obsolescence, the same idea still applies to today’s concepts of digital-post processing and the knowledge of how to use one’s camera correctly. – AJW

Boy messengers in 1910 - Tennessee

Photography as a teacher

by R S Cole

Familiar as is the sight of the camera, in all sorts of places and in the hands of old and young alike, there are probably but few of the thousands who are, to a greater or less extent, devotees of the art of picture making, who do more than “press the button” or the bulb, as the case may be, and roll another section of film into position or replace the exposed plate with a fresh one.

A large majority of those who take “pictures” know absolutely nothing of the more interesting and amusing side of photography, depending on “amateur finishing” firms to develop their films or plates and turn out their prints. Yet these same persons, with a little study and with but a small expenditure of money, might themselves become masters not only of the art of picture “taking,” but of picture “making” as well. And in many instances, the difference in results would agreeably surprise the man or woman who depends upon others to complete his or her work.

So perfect are now the various appliances provided for the amateur photographer that with the exercise of a modicum of care and ordinary attention to the directions for the manipulation of plates, films and paper, it is practically impossible for the amateur who is really interested in his work to go wrong; and once having commenced the work of actually “making” his own pictures, the amateur photographer has entered into a field of almost limitless investigation and of unbounded interest.

Instead of indiscriminately “snapping” everything in sight, he begins to exercise care in the selection of subjects and settings, with the result that more real pictures and less merely spoiled paper crown his efforts. He learns that there are different grades of paper for negatives of varying quality, and different plates to be used for different subjects. Almost without knowing it, he acquires the ability to turn out photographs that are the envy of those of his friends who continue to depend upon others to complete their work for them, and then wonder why it is that their pictures are like anything rather than what they expected.

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The foregoing is not intended as a criticism of those who make a business of finishing the work of amateur photographers — for in any reputable finishing house, every effort is made to obtain, as far as possible, the best results from the plates or films turned in for development. But it is easily understood that to give to each negative the careful attention necessary to obtain the most perfect result is impossible where hundreds of rolls of film and hundreds of plates are developed each week.

On the other hand, the enthusiast who develops his own plates or films and makes his own prints is able to give every negative the most careful attention, and as he discovers his errors of exposure or manipulation to correct them. It is the old story of, “When you want a thing well done, do it yourself.”

The personal pursuit of perfection

The excuse often given by users of the camera who depend upon others to finish their pictures is that they lack the time necessary to complete the work. It is, however, a fact that many of the most successful amateur photographers are men and women who are engaged in work which demands what would be considered “all their time,” but who still find leisure to devote to the development of their own negatives and the making of their own prints, and every one of these enthusiasts would laugh at the idea of turning part of their work over to others. They know too well the advantage of careful manipulation of each negative and properly handling of every print. Above all this, however, is the pleasure of knowing when the picture is completed that it is the work of one’s own hands, and that every care has been exercised to make it as nearly perfect as possible.

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Such pleasure can come only to the person who sees the image gradually appear as development proceeds, who carries the negative through the various stages of fixing, washing, drying and sometimes of intensification, where this is necessary, and then makes the print which shall tell whether his work was well or ill done. Once thoroughly interested in this, the real work of photography, the amateur is satisfied with nothing but the best possible results — and in the end, he generally obtains these results.

Careful attention to detail is the secret of success in photography, as in any other occupation. The man or woman who cares so little for the results of his or her efforts as to leave the most important part of the work to some one else is generally content with anything that resembles the subject of his or her “snapshot,” and a general resemblance is oftentimes the best result obtained. On the other hand, the man who finishes his own pictures, if he finds the print unsatisfactory, at once seeks out the cause of his failure to obtain the desired result and applies the proper remedy on the next attempt, witn a practical certainty of not making the same mistake twice.

So if the study of photography brings no other result, it teaches to the operator of the camera that care in every detail of his work is essential to success, and from his pastime with the camera, the photographer extends this principle to the everyday business af fairs of life. Taken up in most cases as a mere form of recreation, the study of the art of picture making has in stilled a lesson which spells success whenever and wherever it is put into practice. In the pleasure of perpetuating scenes and incidents which will be treasured in later years, the photographer has unconsciously taught himself that only by painstaking care can he succeed, and once master of this cardinal principle of success he will not soon forget it.

Top photo: Boys working in Benn’s Messenger Service, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Boy in middle is named Thomas Knox. Lower photo: Young doffers in a Vermont cotton mill, August 1910. Both photographs by Lewis Wickes Hine.

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