Test of the Trade
It’s hard to fathom, but if I’d made a slightly different guess one summer before 10th grade, then I might have ended up taking portraits of your kid’s baseball team.
When I was a boy, I had a few passions that drove me to distraction. I loved building stuff and wanted to be an architect. Every day I messed with my blocks, my Legos and my sketchpad of house designs. I also was consumed with photography. I had my own darkroom, I took classes at the local college and I was head photographer at my school paper.
For several years, it looked like I was headed into the photography trade. And so I was taken in by a local portrait studio to work in the lab. It was an apprenticeship. I and another boy spent our first weeks there cleaning the lab. We washed the owner’s car (with kerosene!), we emptied the stop bath tank. We tended the garbage. We sorted portraits into envelopes.
After proving we could empty the trash without turning on a light (very important in a lab), we were trusted to load the film into the processing machines and make contact prints. And this is where I looked like a god. I had a darkroom at home and could do all the lab stuff quickly and unerringly.
The other apprentice struggled with the hand and technical skills. But he was good looking, good natured and quick with a joke. I did my best work by myself and in the dark.
One day, the head photographer at the studio took us both outside on a sunny day. He handed us each a Hasselblad, the expensive medium-format camera the studio used to take its portraits. It didn’t have a built-in light meter. The photographer told each of us to set our camera’s shutter speed and f-stop to take a photo of him in front of a tree.
We had to divine the right setting for the environment and hand the camera back to him. The person who got it right would be apprenticed to him for the next year to learn the trade in the field and the studio. The loser would have to stay in the lab for the summer and then his job would end.
It was a long summer alone in the dark lab. And when I began high school the next year (as pale as typing paper) I took a job with a fish market (ensuring that I would never get a date with a girl with a sense of smell) and I decided that I should start writing for the school newspaper, as well as take photos.
That choice led me into journalism , another trade and another test. That test also took three months, and I passed (barely, I might add).
What does this have to do with woodworking? Plenty. I’ve been reading about the trades a lot lately and have been wondering about the tests that moved an apprentice to a journeyman to a master. I met a German master a few years ago in Las Vegas who told me about the tests he had to pass to achieve each of these levels of competency. To become a journeyman, he had to build a certain piece of furniture in a certain amount of time.
To become a master he had to first design a certain piece of furniture, then build it in a certain amount of time.
I would love to see photos and drawings of some of these “test” projects. Wouldn’t they make a cool article for the magazine? If you have some, drop me a line.
– Christopher Schwarz