Wednesday, March 18, 2009


An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about some who cling to film reveals as much about life as it does about photography. One quote in particular caught my attention and got me thinking. “With digital, you’re only as good as your Photoshop technician,” Mark said. “He’ll take heads off bodies and switch them around. It’s a totally different medium.”, followed by another concluding statement regarding those who still cling to film, “-we’re a dying breed.”

But isn’t survival and success in human life the result of adapting to change? One wonders when the country voted for change, and now the loudest voices are saying they don’t like the change that is occurring. So apparently there are conservative photographers as well as politicians and those that vote conservative, who don’t like change. But isn’t change a function of time, of the fact we live in a different world each day which includes new people just born and old people who just passed on?

Aside from the philosophical implications the remark about Photoshop is significant in that it assumes that someone else other than the photographer taking the pictures does that, and second that it is only about special effects alterations. Both are and should be considered inaccurate. If digital is to be criticized from a truly traditional film perspective, for most serious photographers in the old days you weren’t just a “shooter”, you also developed your own film and made your own prints. It was only in the recent past of a dominance of color photography that serious photographers utilized a lab to develop and print their photographs. Now with digital, it is much easier to “develop” and print your own photographs as well as make the exposures, and not just be a “shooter”. So, in a sense the modern digital photography age at least can be more like the traditional photography practiced from its beginning through most of the 20th century.

I am convinced that the greatest photographers like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith achieved their success in large part because they controlled their own use of the photographic process from beginning to end. And that provided an advantage that was lost by the color “shooters” that followed them. All of those great creative photographers were advantaged by their darkroom experience processing their film and printing the photographs themselves because it provided a continuous loop feed back system of invaluable information and a greater level of understanding of the photographic process. First of all this provided more precise control, as what was learned in the darkroom was applied to what they did exposing the film with a camera; and this control allowed each to personalize the process to suite more exactly what their individual, unique visual perception should reproduce in a photograph.

With digital photography if the photographer fully utilizes a computer and an image editing application like Photoshop this same level of feedback and enhanced understanding of the complete photographic process can be achieved. An application like Photoshop can be used to alter the nature of an image’s relationship to the reality it represents, something only achieved in the past with great difficulty, but more importantly it re-establishes the photographer with access to the complete image creating process from beginning to end. And what can be learned by color correcting, adjusting and editing digital color photographs can provide a level of understanding of the process superior to anything possible in the past in terms of applying individual creative control over the process. Digital is far more exactly repeatable and therefor predictable lending the digital darkroom user even better understanding of how light is recorded and color is seen, than analog film photography afforded in the past. The reason for that is digital reduces the physical variables in a process dependent on films that were never exactly produced, and processes that were impossible to regulate precisely.

All that results as film disappears is a loss of familiarity with a comfortable old world that is only better by the nostalgia that is attached to it. For some having to learn something new and different is sometimes particularly challenging and painful, but to entirely lose a cherished interest and activity by refusing to adapt just prevents ever learning that others have chosen digital not just because it is new, but because it is better with even more advantages to the enthusiast than film photography provided. But should that mean everyone must switch to digital? No more than the popularity of TV required abandoning radio or movies. Film will persist and find a different niche as long as some cling to film and its use, and that is neither good or bad, it’s just how we humans are and what we do. Some live in the past, others in the future, while most of us in the present try to accommodate both past and future.

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