Photography: Another throwback

I saw an article on Mashable Tech today that contained an infographic put together by the Adobe design team that is responsible for digital photography software production. It seems to me that every few months I see such a graphic or a story about the last Kodachrome chemicals; all inevitably pose the “provocative” question about whether people remember or miss getting film developed. Provocative, of course, because the questioners know it to be a cheap and easy way to elicit the predictable pro and anti, bleeding heart responses, with a few accusations on each side that people don’t recognize quality or (the only possible comeback) people that don’t love digital are OLD.

Despite the predictability of these responses, however, it got me thinking about why people are so vehement in their position and of course it got me a little nostalgic for film. For starters, let me refute the idea that all people that have a soft spot for film are old–I received my BFA in photography in 2000 and my MFA in 2004. I learned to shoot and process film and when I taught basic photography we used traditional darkroom techniques. This is still done in many places and it is not because those institutions are behind the times. It is done this way because the processes still have value and learning them tends to lead to a better mastery of the camera–this is unarguably a prerequisite to becoming a professional.

I should mention that I shoot and process my work digitally. It is difficult to argue against the accessibility of software as opposed to chemistry. However, I do remember the magic of watching an image develop on paper or the anticipation of waiting for the film to come off the reel. This was part of the collective experience of traditional processing and to deny this would be inhuman. But to dwell on this mysticism is also to trivialize the value of chemical processing. It taught me patience and made me learn how to control my camera. I learned to shoot a lot, but also to pay attention to what I was shooting and to how I was composing. Digital often robs people of this ability because the idea that everything can be fixed in post processing takes over. Shoots get sloppy and there is no need to pay attention to the single frame. Memory is cheap, so just shoot, shoot, shoot and hope for the best. Also, as our level of patience has diminished our expectation that electronics will handle all the details has increased. Thus, using the manual functions of a camera, still necessary to fully control your imagery, is becoming unthinkable to many. This is, perhaps, what some of those sputtering respondents mean when they proclaim digital will always be inferior to film.

There is, I believe, another reason that digital photography has inspired a backlash unlike the digitization of other materials. Interestingly, photography has a dynamic history that is still young, at least compared to that of ceramics, sculpture, or painting; and yet, while truly archaic processes are still prized in those fields, basic photography has a rap for being old and outdated. It carries a sense of backwardness and those clinging are not valuing history, they are simply anti-technologists. This is unfair, but perhaps fitting in such a rapidly changing medium. However, while improvements in chemistry have replaced early methods–daguerreotypes, anyone, how about nitrate films–and have been embraced along the way, digital processes are different. Digital photography does not build on tradition; it is not the next advancement of process but instead a radical departure. It is perhaps the abject rejection of film and chemistry that stings for so many people. It is, like so much in our culture, easy to perceive this as a rejection of history, tradition, and wisdom–it is youth gone wild.

So as not to end with poetics, which seem to exacerbate the existing perception problems, let me stand in a gray area. Digital photography is the obvious path. It is cleaner, more environmentally responsible, and more accessible (I won’t touch the subset of photographers that think it is this very accessibility that deflates the sails of a “complex” field; I will save that for another day). It is a powerful tool that has come into its own. But there is still a need for film. It imbues us with a sense of patience and sharpens our skills; this is crucial in the learning stages. There is a Zen-like quality that needs to be realized in order to combat the instantaneousness of digital photo. Not to diminish instant photography, but in the learning stages a full mastery of the medium and tools is just not encouraged by this approach. So bring on both–it will keep future photographers grounded in excellent technique and will prevent us from slipping into the perpetual cult of the amateur.          

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