Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Assistants Notes: Specialization and Efficiency.

Notes by assistants suitable for this column trill be considered and paid for on the first of the month following publication.

Specialization and Efficiency.

The advice to specialize in one or perhaps two particular branches of work is frequently given to the photographer whether he is a master, assistant, or amateur. This advice is often rather vague, first as to the "why" and more so as to the “how” of the question.
I am writing more particularly for the benefit of the assistant, because one who has a business of his own has usually found out what particular lines pay him tat, and how to push the sale them Still, it is strange to notice the great number of photographers' note headings stating this, that, or the other to be a specialty (or "speciality," or " specialite "), but which can form only a very tiny portion of the business done. For instance, a order comes to quite a small studio for an oil-painting. The photographer puts the work out, takes the profit, and feels pleased with him at having launched out into a high-class and profitable branch so has all his stationery imprinted for ever after “Oil-paintings a specialty," in the probably vain hope of a succession of such orders. Another advertises "Wedding-groups" or ' Child portraits «as his specialty, not necessarily because weddings are frequent in the one man's neighborhood, or that the second is extraordinarily successful with children. If any definite reason for printing these phrases on note-paper can be given, it usually is only that "it sounds well."
Another sort of specialization was criticized in a letter recently by an "All-round Hand" on behalf of his class. He described a retouched whose work was so "effective" that the portrait looked very nice but not a bit like the subject, and a receptionist whose "specializing" in her own department was so water-tight that she failed to recognize what -was wrong with the portrait when complained of.
I do not call these things specialization at all. I don't know what to call them. We have specialists in the Army. In the infantry a soldier may be, for example, a Lewis-gunner, a sniper, or a mess-waiter, but he must be a good infantryman first. I think the same applies to a craftsman, each as a journeyman photographer.
When an assistant has had a few years' practice and can, say, correctly expose on a well-arranged group, develop plates evenly, make good bromide prints that will tone well, and make a fair show at one or two other departments he will realize that some jobs are better paid than others. That will be the first reason "why" he should specialize. Then he will find that one branch of work appeals more than others, not necessarily because it seems more lucrative or easier, nor because it is a clean-hand job, but because it is more interesting. In short, he likes that particular, work. If he does not like one branch better than another the assistant should go further a field for wider experience till he does find work he can like. One spends nearly all one's life in work, so why not expend a little effort in finding something to does that one can enjoy doing? That is the second "why" for specialization. After a bit one finds that one is able to do certain work better, and with less effort, than other kinds. Again, this is not necessarily because it is easy work, but one "picks it up" more easily, and one feels surer of one's self in doing it. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the kind of work that a man finds he can do beet is the same as the kind that he likes best. It's quite natural when you come to think about it, and it works both ways. Anyone likes doing what he can do well, and in doing it with interest is likely in time to do it as well as it can be done. When that stage is reached, surely he is in a position to demand a higher price for his work.
That is the right sort of specialization. It does not prevent a man being skilful in other branches. Barely is it possible for a worker to reach the highest grade of ability in any branch of photography without at least a working knowledge of other branches. Retouching is probably the line in which the worker usually knows least of other department? The aim of so many retouches is to produce a beautifully modeled "effect," and to make a face resemble one of those nicely rounded plaster casts that they practiced light and shade from at art school. They like to call forth the remark "How nicely retouched," forgetting that the greatest art is to conceal art, and that the best retouching is recognized by its apparent absence. A retouched should know how his (or more often her) work will print, not only in a P.O.P. proof, but in other processes and surfaces, and be able to modify it accordingly. No one can be considered efficient unless the effect of his work on subsequent stages is understood and intelligently handled.
And that brings me to the question of efficiency. When an assistant decides to specialize, obviously he reaches certain stage of efficiency before be can claim to be a specialist. There is an absolute teat by which he can know when be has reached that stage. His employer or manager will be in the habit of giving the assistant instructions as to what is required, and how to set about it. The assistant should aim to be able, in at least one branch of work, to look his chief in the eye and say "Leave that to air." That is the test of efficiency.
Now for how to set about it Assistants in photography are at a very great disadvantage, usually as regards so-called experiments and other credentials to improving their work. I have never yet met an employer who offered an assistant the use of his studio on an "off" afternoon to try his hand at posing and lighting, nor one whom one felt like asking for that favor, still less one who would apply a few plates and some developer for practical tests. There before, unless one assists in the studio itself it is not easy to get even a starting knowledge of this work except in at home portraiture. All the same, within limit this is a very good school, for when the student can make a good portrait in an ordinary room or garden he won't have much difficulty in doing better studio work. A pair of “smoked" spectacles are useful to see the light and shade affect by eliminating much of the colour in the subject, and much practice may be got without using plates.
Of course, books are necessary. A pile of old "B.J.’s." and Almanac provides a heat of needful knowledge. The great thing, though, is to learn to work systematically and to cultivate the power of observation, for is photography it is often apparently small things that make big differences. A splendid idea of what I mean by system can be get from the "Watkins’s Manual." which will soon teach the student whet be wants to know about exposure and development.
In printing it is a food ides to take one good negative, one flat one and another on the contra sty aide, and practice on these only can produce the best possible prints with ease and certainty. With a standard 1 developer, at normal temperature, try various lengths of exposure and varying length of developed. When the different art of remits obtained have been carefully observed, the next thing is to start over again with a weaker light, or at a greater distance from the light, which amounts to the pare the ranks with the first lot, noting been effected and where not. I am referring to bromide printing not necessary to spend a lot, even at war prices. Half-plate paper cot into four is quite large enough for practice work, hot rent thing is to take time to observe closely the differences between different prints, and to aid this it is eventual to mark on the tack of each strip the exposure and length of development, and other variable factors.
It is only by starting slowly and systematically on the lines suggested that a really good "grounding" can be obtained in any object, and it is only with good grounding that one can rapidly. Attempts to short circuit the process by prattling only on the more advanced stages leads to mediocrity. It is that half baked sort of ability that has brought the term "all round hand" into such disrepute. Every assistant should be an all-round hand, with one or two special abilities. A man of that kind is reedy to tackle any sort of job that comes along, whether it comes within his previous experience or not.
Assistants who reach that stages of ability have nothing to fear from the soap-shutter who thinks bow nice it mart be to be working continually at such an interesting bobby, and whose enthusiasm gives him or her enough ability to get a start (and a disillusionment) at a tow shillings a week. It is enthusiasm that is needed to get on and no one can enthuse over poor work. Any assistant who feels that the class of work he is employed in is not worth doing well is hereby advised to do it u well as he can all the same, whether the pay makes it worth while or not, and whether that particular employer appreciates the effort or not. It is always practice that makes perfect, if the practice has an object and some system behind it; and when such efforts have had the desired effect by improving ability, then is the time to get a better job.

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