By David Vestal Back to

The word “masterpiece” comes from the medieval craft guild. You’d spend a few years as an apprentice, sweeping the floor and doing the dirty work, then you’d rise to be a journeyman working under a master, and after a few more years, when you’d learned all that your master could teach you, you would produce a special piece of work to show that you were a master craftsman in your own right. A cooper, for instance, would make a really excellent keg or barrel, and the senior craftsmen of the guild would consider it critically. If they liked what they saw enough, they’d let you become a full member of the guild. That well-made keg was your masterpiece, your graduation exercise.

In the art market, that demonstration of craftsmanship later became inflated into something supposedly godlike and correspondingly expensive, sometimes in peculiar ways. In 18th century Austria, Franz Josef Haydn became the hired music master of Count Esterhazy. His status was that of an upper servant. He wore a servant’s uniform and came and went by the servants’ entrance. That was the job: he composed and performed masterpieces as the count required. As an old man he traveled to London, where he was treated as a superstar instead of as a servant. His music is good enough that it is still played and enjoyed all over the world. But back home in Austria, Papa Haydn was a hired hand. His great pride and pleasure was that his music helped people forget their troubles for a while. That, he felt, made it all worthwhile.

The “masterpiece” problem

Our present problem with masterpieces, as some photographers make them, is that they try too hard to impress themselves and others with spectacular performances. When they think more about how their prints will be received than about how to make them appropriate to what their pictures show, the viewer may be instantly impressed, but may also come away with no response to the picture except, “Wow, what a print!” What the photographers hope to express gets lost. The effort to impress wipes out whatever real expression their pictures may offer.

I saw this lately in a beautifully produced little magazine that fervently wants photography to be seen as Art of the capital-A kind. At first look, I was greatly impressed by the excellent production quality, but when I looked again, the effort to impress became too obvious, which diminished my pleasure in the pictures. That publication is so artistic that every picture page has little typographical curlicues at the top and bottom. These show highly refined typographical taste, but to my eye they compete with the pictures and work against the magazine’s wish to present them as beautifully as possible. The overdone printing by photographers is made worse by overdone presentation on the pages. The exquisite duotone or whatevertone printing is largely wasted. Too bad, because used with restraint it could surely present the photographs with real visual eloquence.

What’s worst about this is that many of these photos that are covered with too much gravy are really good ones that deserve to be handled with unobtrusive respect. Instead they are fussed to ceremonious death. It’s the photographers’ fault as much as the editors’. An old saying in photography also goes for painting: “If you can’t make it good, make it big.” Many large nothings have ensued. But in the little magazine the pages and photos are small, so the principle is different: “If it’s excellent, ruin it by making it terminally precious.”

Vitality, not smoothness

There are, in art, rare works called masterpieces. Few of them are very smooth. What makes them great is their vitality, which may or may not be refined.

Early Rembrandts are typically smooth, although they’re also good. His far better late paintings are rougher beasts. Early Cézannes are on the sentimental, romantic side. Late ones are brusque, rough, and infinitely better. In photography, Bill Brandt’s early prints were soft, and in books printed in their time, they were defaced by obvious retouching that was meant to make them better. Late in life he reprinted them in high contrast, which looks at first like the contrast that ignorant photographers use when they want that tiresome quality they call “impact.” But Bill Brandt used his high contrast to get down to essentials instead, and, strangely enough, his hard-edged late prints are much more refined than his early soft ones.

There is no one right way to photograph and print that works equally well for everyone. We all have to find our own ways, whether conventional, or far out, or in between, it doesn’t matter which, that work for us, although they may not work for anyone else.

I read in a novel about artists how a serious painter, outraged by the vanity of a mediocre colleague, came up with the insult, “Manufacturer of masterpieces!” In photography there are many such. They work long and hard to attain excellent craftsmanship, which they then waste by using it primarily to show off their craftsmanship. Instead of making large nothings, they produce expertly crafted smaller nothings that have essentially the same character as those paintings of Elvis Presley on black velvet with sequins: they are sentimental instead of being real. And that’s a pity, because much good talent is hidden behind those displays of skill. All that the best of those photos need in order to work well is enough restraint to let them be seen clearly, in appropriate tones, with no display of skill for skill’s sake. Enough is enough to satisfy, and too much is too much, as with the mugging of ham actors desperate for attention. Such performers pay no heed to the characters they fail to bring to life in the theater. Their only talent is for upstaging—grabbing attention at the play’s and the audience’s expense.

What to do

We would all like to make true masterpieces, but trying to make a masterpiece doesn’t work any more than trying to be sincere. We are or we aren’t at any given time. It’s a thing we can’t control. You may know that famous saying: “Sincerity is the important thing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Well, not really.

Instead, just do your work in your own way, whatever that is. No one can tell you how. If there is a key to this, it lies in not trying to figure it out. Instead, relax. Do exactly what you feel like doing, and do it as well as you can. Let masterpieces happen if they will. Don’t worry about it. Work on learning and using good craft, and be demanding, but don’t be fussy.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.