Photography as (capital C ) Craft?

(By Anna Helgeson)

I recently ruffled some feathers by asking if photography should be considered a Craft medium rather than a Fine Art medium. For anyone even a few steps removed from the Craft world the answer to my question is probably; say what? Or who gives a shit? I give a shit, and here is why; names carry the weight of history. The name Art has a different weight, smell and texture than Craft. Art has a privileged place in the world of visual culture and, as is true with most privilege, it is an under examined placement.

This “give a shit-itude” is a new one for me concerning the realm of Craft. As an artist who dabbles in many forms of expression, including most recently photography and performance art, the idea of Craft used to elude me. If I had any concept of Craft at all it was a misguided one; having to do with strict reliance on rules, a right and wrong way (five stitches this way four stitches that) which was antithetical to the way I work. Isn’t art about breaking all the rules? Or I thought of Craft as the thing hundreds flock to Michaels to do on Saturday afternoons-filling carts with hot glue and glitter.

Now I know better. I have been schooled, and yes perhaps am drinking a bit of the Kool-Aid.

My mind has been blown by Craft mavericks like Frau Fiber, Michael Strand, Elissa Auther, Glenn Adamson, Danny Orendorff, and T’ai Smith (along with too many others to name) who are invested in the history of Craft and recognize that its power comes from the vary things that distinguish it from Art including; functionality, commitment to materiality, and role in the context of our everyday lives.

Here is how I personally (Craft/Art historians may not agree) make the distinction:

Art: Creative expression concerned with production of a singular masterpiece. Rooted in ideas of singular genius, high market values, and insular references. The history of Art has a distinguished place in the halls of academia.

Craft: Creative expression concerned with function, often made in multiples. Rooted in communities of production, lower market values, and commitment to materiality. The history of Craft is often couched in other academic disciplines including decorative arts, design, or anthropology.

So why might photography make more sense as a Craft medium than a Fine Art medium? Here are just a few possibilities:

  1. Craft holds the power of the quotidian. Just as we are surrounded by ceramic and fiber all day so too are we surrounded by photographs. (Whether what we see on our smart phones and laptops are really “photographs” is another discussion for another day…I’m looking at you photo nerds). And just as you likely did not pause to think about your coffee mug this morning you likely also did not spend too much time thinking about the hundreds of images you also likely encountered on Facebook, Instagram, blogs, etc. But what happens when we do pause and consider them, pause to consider how they were made and why? What can the answers reveal about the Zeitgeist?
  2. Photography, along with many other Craft mediums is pregnant with the possibility of the multiple. The negative acts like a mold, a pattern, a potential for more. Opening juicy ideas about the nature of authenticity and democracy.
  3. Amateurism. Selfies, meal shots and cat photos, oh my! Just as the Saturday scrap booker at Michael’s contributes to an understanding of Craft so too does the passionate selfie taker contribute to an understanding of photography. If considered as a Craft medium photography may learn to embrace the amateur -after all these are people who also love the medium. There is so much to say here on the pros and cons of Amateurism, but I fear it would make this post 10,000 words long and I would be tempted to just cut and paste several pages from Glenn Adamson’s chapter Amateurism in Thinking Through Craft, so I will not. Suffice it to say this is a rich conversation for photography and Craft alike.

So what say you photo friends, it is time to get crafty?

I am looking forward to continuing this conversation and starting many others at photo+craft .

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