Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Education Of Assistants.

           Our title has nothing original about it, it has figured pretty frequently in the "Journal" lately, but as the question seems in rather a nebulous state, it is perhaps in order to inquire what it really means. In other trades it is not usual to employ the wide and comprehensive term assistant, but to specify the branch in which the employee is to be engaged. In letterpress printing, for example, we have compositors, linotype operators, machine minders, and warehousemen, and in each division a man is only expected to be proficient in his particular work; but in photography, except in very large establishments, this is not the case, and an' assistant is expected to be able to turn his hand to any job which happens to come in his way, or in other words, if the reputation of the studio is to be kept up, to be as good an all-round worker as his principal and a better one in some particular section. That there are such assistants we very well know, and the photographer who secures the services of one is to be congratulated.
           Now before starting any education scheme it would appear to be necessary to define the various classes of assistants and to set up some standard of proficiency for each. Another important paint to be settled is that of remuneration, so that a youth or girl entering the profession should know what wage can be looked forward to when he, or she, has qualified as proficient. Many things besides scientific knowledge and practical proficiency are called for in everyday work. We have known amateurs capable of turning out prints which would do credit to any studio in the kingdom, but their pace has been hopelessly slow, and no employer could afford to keep them. Nothing but practice in a busy place can give the necessary smartness, and it is a question how this is to be obtained.
           The old practice of engaging a juvenile as a sort of messenger and general helper with more or less opportunity to pick up knowledge of photography will obviously be out of the question under the new regime. Proper teaching should start at the outset, and it is difficult to see how this is to be obtained in many localities. Let us take the case of an intelligent lad living in a small country town who wishes to become a photographer. The only course that is open to him is to obtain work in the local studio with a man who can just manage to make a negative and print it sufficiently well to pass muster with a not too critical class of customers. When the lad begins to want a living wage he looks further a field, only to find that he is one of the incompetents whose existence we all profess to deplore, but who provide a source of cheap labour for the sweaters who, as in all other trades, are found in photography. If we are to have well-trained assistants there must be sufficient inducement for them to be trained in the same way as chemists, engineers, lithographers, or dental mechanics, by a proper system of apprenticeship or pupilage, supplementing their workshop practice with a part-time training in the scientific aspect of their work. The latter cannot be given in a house of business without serious waste of time, so that something on the lines of the Fisher scheme of education must be adopted, and it is for the masters to co-operate with the local authorities to secure this. But such a scheme is only workable with very young people; after the age of eighteen it is very difficult to find that readiness to assimilate knowledge that is natural to the schoolboy. It is easy enough to teach youngsters of fifteen to eighteen such subjects as elementary chemistry, optics, or even art principles, but if those three precious years have been wasted, the mind takes another turn, and learning becomes laborious. Moreover, a bad way of working is acquired, and this is often felt to be sufficient. There is now also the sex question to be considered, as a great change is coming over photography by the invasion of women into almost every branch. Are the assistants of the future to be male or female? Already men returning from army service are finding that situations are not so easily obtained as they had expected, and we look for still further developments in the same direction. Only a few years ago, and women were considered as greatly inferior to men as retouchers. What is the position now? The same thing going on in other branches printing, dark-room work, and even in studio operating - the only field in which male labour is unchallenged being that of outdoor work.
           Still, male or female, we must have assistants, and the initiative for their training must come from the master photographers. Their first problem will be to find instructors, the second to find a body to hold examinations and grant certificates of such a degree of proficiency that the holder can secure a standard, wage. In the organization of the chemists and druggists we have an excellent model. In this profession a youth enters as an apprentice, is given time for study, usually takes a course under a coach, and finally passes his minor and major examinations before he can hope to attain a position as a “qualified assistant.” One of the greatest factors in producing a shortage of good assistants is the ease with which a competent worker can start on his own account in a small wav. If we can offer such terms as will keep good workers in their situations we shall have accomplished much.

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