Rhetoric of Skill

The Rhetoric of Skill

One major question that bothers me regarding accepted histories of photography is: Why did it take so long for photography to become the dominant force in illustration? The emergence of photography sixty years after its invention as a preferred method of illustrating facts is usually explained as a technological problem. It wasn’t until the invention of the halftone in the 1880s that photography gained respect, slowly, as an accurate depiction of the physical world. From the beginning, photography was both a proletarian and elitist phenomenon. Its low cost cemented its appeal to the masses almost immediately, while its automatism had a profound appeal to emergent capitalism. However, the rhetoric of “truth” usually associated with photography is usually overstated—an artist’s depiction of a scene was generally valued more highly than the supposedly automatic response of the camera until the twentieth century.

In “The Dialectics of Skill in Talbot’s Dream World” (History of Photography, Summer 2002), Steve Edwards compares Talbot’s story told in The Pencil of Nature of his motivation for perfecting photography. Talbot could not draw well— photography was for Talbot, a “royal road to drawing.” The key question in Edward’s article is if Talbot considered photography as a substitute for skill exclusively for amateur artists, or if it also was foreseen as a replacement for the skills of professional artists as well. It is a complex question; personally, I think that it was taken by the artistic community as a replacement for the “middle-men” of art—the engravers and lithographers, not as the death-knell of painting and other “high” arts. Photography was believed to be a more perfect mode of translation—not a mode of artistic creation in its own right.

Edward’s article highlights an extremely important parallel discourse in the realm of manufacturing. Using Andrew Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufactures from 1835 as a touchstone, Edwards suggests that technical knowledge created a space for “experts” which displaced the hegemony of craft knowledge (mechanical skill). Ure’s fantasy of capitalist production is striking: “capital enlists science in her service, the refractory hand of labour will always be taught docility.” Skill, in a profound sense, is moved from the realm of the hand (or perhaps even “touch,” as Steven C. Pinson has argued) into the realm of mind.

Ure’s declarations are overt: “The most perfect manufacture is that which dispenses entirely with manual labor. The philosophy of manufactures is therefore an exposition of the general principles on which productive industry should be conducted by self-acting machines.” Obviously, the resistance to both photography and industrialization could be recast into a persistence of the original discourse of skill—as a manual, tactile, thing contrasted with a new discourse of skill reliant purely on concepts of mind.

People resist surrendering the qualities of touch. An impersonal utopia, seems hardly a utopia at all.