Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Photographers' Assistant.

        The masters plead inefficiency as excuse for low wages, and bewail the Jack of good assistants.
        The assistant pleads lack of means and absence of encouragement as excuse for inefficiency. Which is right?
        The position of the average assistant in the average photographic business has been in the part anything but an enviable one from any point of view. He is expected to handle successfully a large range of materials which are sensitive to many influences, often in circumstances and with apparatus that are in them handicaps to the production of good work. The knowledge and skill required to cope with the never ceasing stream of technical problems are perhaps greater than in any other craft, not only because of the existence of those problems, but also because the photographic business is not 10 sharply sub-divided into its many branches, and an assistant may be called upon at any time to do work of a kind quite outside his Ordinary job, and is expected to produce results equal to those of a man whose regular practice it is.
        That roughly suggests what is expected of the assistant as regards hi work. Usually he is required also to keep an appearance above that of a wage-earner, such as a mill-hand, letterpress printer, or bricklayer, and to cultivate the affability of speech and manner which is perhaps the principal asset of the successful doctor or lawyer. The dark-rooms in which many assistants spend nearly a third of their lives and most of the hours of daylight often are little better as regards health or comfort than the workrooms of many yean ago described so vividly by Charles Kingsley in "Alton Locke."
        So that compared with other crafts, quite apart from the rate of wage, photography exacts more, and offers less. That the average rate of pay, and consequently the social position, of the photographer's assistant, is comparatively very low is a fact, obvious and admitted. What are the natural consequences of this?
        I think that assistants may be divided broadly into two classes. The first class has caught the fascination which undoubtedly exists in photography for anyone with average intelligence and a little imagination. If to these qualities the assistant adds ambition he usually becomes the master-man eventually, but the business knowledge essential to success is not easily gained during the assistant period. The second class, by far the larger one, and probably still more increased by war recruits to the business, comprises those who are by nature slack, unintelligent, or unambitious, and those for whom the handicaps and discouragements incidental to the struggle for success in such an exacting calling have proved too great.
        The worker who has struggled to efficiency in spate of the many difficulties in his path still finds that adequate reward is not easy to get. He may have worked for a low wage for the chance of getting special experience, but the last rate of pay earned is still too often taken as the measure of a man's value. Many employers, far too many, are imbued with the idea that if they only advertise and back, advertise and sack, often enough they will eventually secure for the inefficient's wage either one of the skilled men willing to work for little money to increase his experience, or one of the disappointed ones for still less. The result is that the latter either recover a bit of their ambition or sink entirely to the level of the man who only just enough and that hardly wells enough, to earn his salt. The ambitious man very quickly picks up what he wants to learn and moves on, so that this type of employer is seldom suited for long. Another type of employer has greatly increased of late years in the shape of the "company shops," which turn out large quantities of inferior work by semiskilled workpeople on the "factory" principle. The wages offered by these firms to inefficient are often much higher than those paid by firms of standing to expert assistants.
        I have tried to show that the conditions fostered by employers tend to discourage a man from becoming efficient, besides offering him little reward if he overcomes the difficulties, often needless and stupid, placed in the way of his improving his ability. That there is "plenty of room at the top" is not true of photography, for there are always vacancies for those willing to accept a low wage; but a man who has made a study of his business and knows his real ability is often turned down in favor of one who will work for a little less money. It does not seem to occur to the average employer that the careful and conscientious worker can easily save the extra pay he asks, both in time and material as well as in quality of output. Yet we find the employers continually bewailing the difficulty of finding efficient assistants!
        Make the life of a really good assistant worth living, by giving him tools and material that will be a pleasure to work with, in clean and healthy workrooms, and pay him a wage that will permit him to have a decent home that he can take a pride in, as well as to have a hobby or two and the time to enjoy them in, and there will very soon be an army of assistants making themselves efficient. A few employers have rebased this, and find it pays them well to pay their staff well.
        Among those about to return from the Army employers will be looking for experienced assistants. Let me tell employers of a spirit that they may expect to find in these men, which I have noticed spreading among all ranks during the past year or more. It is a. spirit of antagonism to injustice, and is perhaps a sort of reaction against the harsh "militarism" and so-called "discipline" of the Army. It is not rebellious or antagonistic to authority, but men have been taken out of their ruts, and have been living a life summarized by "look after you, for no one else will." Living hugger-mugger with men of all classes, Jack finds out that he's as good as his master, and often better. This has resulted in a spirit of camaraderie flavored with independence, which shows itself outwardly among the men by willing work so long as those in authority do not "come it," and by obvious resentment and often by obstructionist methods if they do. Per contra officers and N.C.O.s find it pay better to recognize this new spirit, which has replaced the old "shirk while he isn't looking" idea and there is increased mutual confidence and respect. Men are told, as recruits, that the Army can tame even lions, but it has gone further, and is taming even sergeant-majors.
        This new feeling of self-reliance and impatience with injustice, if it can show itself so strongly in the most autocratic institution we have, is not likely to be shed when the khaki is left behind.


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