My way of working is just a long series of personal discoveries. I can’t give anyone any secrets, something that I promise will work, because, finally, it depends on one’s skill and intuition, and other things. But I can give hints, the benefit of some experience in the things that have happened to me. . . .

Many people don’t realize these truths because they have never been close enough to real wood, beautiful wood in its natural state. They’ve seen veneered surfaces; they’ve lived with wood secondhand, and they are just not aware of the richness that is to be found in individual pieces, logs, and planks. So part of my struggle through the years, both with visitors in my shop and in some of my brief writing, has been to remind people of these things, to tell them not only about the richness of the material, but the connection between the material and how some few people, a very few people, work. In a way I can prepare them to receive these objects, or to meet these objects, and expose themselves to them with a degree of sensitivity which these objects, I hope, deserve. (A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, 12-13)

I have been building a basement wood shop for about a year now. I have little to show for it in the manner of objects (save shop fixtures and jigs), but the philosophy has enriched me immeasurably. I suppose it began when I moved to the village of Fayetteville, one of the centers of the Stickley universe. The Arts and Crafts Movement coincides with the historical period that fascinates me in photography though prior to locating myself here I had never really thought much about furniture design. I was immediately drawn to the beefiness and practicality of the Stickley designs, but wasn’t really quite sure what to think about Krenov’s spare bird-like pieces.

What becomes instantly apparent when you read much woodworking literature is that it is dominated by machine expediency. The philosophy of people like Gustav Stickley is stripped away in favor of quick-and-dirty methods of replicating the Arts and Crafts look. One has to search pretty hard to find Stickley’s thoughts on craft and life, but it’s findable (though a subject for another day).

Reading Krenov has been a revelation. His thoughts on originality, composition, and materials are first rate concepts for consideration for anyone considering matters of craft. In making sense of things, I cannot help but compare Krenov’s concepts with the craft I dedicated such a huge swath of my life to: photography.

This might seem a bit forced, given that wood is an organic material and photography is currently dominated by talk of megapixels and evanescent virtual bits, but I think that the real gist of photography is just as organic due to the shaping of its human subject. The materials that all photographers work with are primarily time, space, and light.1 The education of a photographer should always begin with a sensitivity and embrace of those three essential elements.

Fall Drive

I am reminded of an incident shooting outside CaTony’s diner last week.

A woman (perhaps “Cathy” of CaTony’s) came out and interrogated me: “What are you taking pictures of?”

“The light, mostly. Isn’t it beautiful?” I answered. The blank look on her face just broadcast suspicion and a complete failure to grasp what I was saying at all. Most people aren’t all that sensitive to light, I guess. If I had answered that I thought her ice-cream shaped lights were distinctive and novel, I might have gotten a more collegial response; it was as if I was speaking a foreign language to her.

Photography is most easily understandable when it addresses the novel, the unusual, the out-of-the-ordinary (celebrity, unusual natural phenomena, etc.). The actual materials of it are subsumed in searching for matters of more impressive visuality. Krenov actually centers this emphasis on visual novelty geographically as the passage quoted above continues:

This is truly an unexplored chapter in the United States. Expression in wood, if I may say so, is a bit heavy handed there; oversimplified. So often the emphasis is on form— as in sculpture. It is primarily a visual experience, with the wood not always having its say, not always as important as it should be—sometimes not important at all. Some artists in wood order their material by telephone, and admit it is not of that great importance. This is not a criticism; it is merely stating that there are different relationships to the material. (13)

Krenov expands his thoughts on visuality and originality in his second book, but this early passage really seems to dig at the bulkiness of most of the Arts and Crafts furniture as exemplified by Stickley and his imitators. Sensitivity to objects, and sensitivity to the tools that create them is central to Krenov. He has little love for the perfection of machines (a quality that Stickley embraces to a much greater degree than his English/European counterparts in the Arts and Crafts Movement). But it would be facile to take this as simply a matter of preferring one sort of form over another. The relationship of material in form (as objects) is what Krenov emphasizes:

So we talk about tools, we talk about objects, and I hope that gradually I can get across this relationship, this love affair or whatever you will. How it comes to be that woods whisper to you about tools and methods and shapes—shapes within shapes, really, because when you become aware of certain ways of using wood, then you realize something about a straight line. To me there is no real life in a perfectly straight line or a perfect circle. But in wood you can make a rectangular object, give it tension and countertension and balance without complete symmetry, and you can give it rhythm by choosing the wood. You may have just a rectangular frame, but you can make it almost soft, almost a sensation of oval for the eye, if you choose the wood in the right way. And you can do the opposite; make it unpleasant by making the wood bow slightly upward and inward so that the corners appear extremely sharp to the eye; this will be disturbing, whereas the other is harmonious. But it is not dead, or lax, because wood is a living material when used in this way. You are always experimenting. You are playing with textures, tensions, the things that happen, and, if you are sensitive, if you are lucky enough, then you exceed your expectations. (14)

I will never forget my first impressions of the work of my mentor Harry Wilson— it seemed as if space itself curved in his photographs, as if you could sense the bulge of the earth. But it was not a lens distortion, or an optical illusion caused by strong and predictable lines. It was a subtle thing, a palpable feeling about space that was not a formal thing, but rather a subjective quality. This quality was real to me, though no one I ever tried to describe it to sensed it in quite the same way (even Harry himself). I just could tell that it was a Harry Wilson photograph because of the space and tensions within that space. It was personal, but at the same time it seemed to be more than that. It was not that Harry “invented” this space, but rather that he identified arrangements of objects in the world that were evocative of that particular space. The space was apparent even in his multiple exposure work, so it seemed to me a matter of selection rather than invention.

I’ve never believed that you have to be all that inventive. Form, for me, is not the primary thing, form is only the beginning. It is the combination of feelings and a function; shapes and things that come into one connection with the discoveries made as one goes into the wood that pull it together and give meaning to form. (Krenov, 14)

The materials of photography are, for me, the world itself which greets us with time and space and light. Photography, for me at least, is about the love affair that I have with the world. I tend to look at photographs as utilitarian objects that give me the chance to examine the world more closely, to know certain aspects that would be invisible without this recording technology.

The difficult thing, then, is dealing with the utter loss of photographs as objects in the contemporary schema of the world. I miss holding them, looking at them, and furnishing my space with them. I have yet to find the skill I need in ink jet printing (or furniture making for that matter) so I feel myself at an impasse. But one thing is certain: I want to focus my effort at creating, rather thans simply consuming, in the space and time that avails itself to me.

1These distinctions have been with me since I first confronted the problem of trying to teach photography at the University of Minnesota. It was a short class, but useful I think both to me and my students. It surprises me that I have never written anything about that (that I remember or can find).