Blog author's note: This post originally appeared briefly on The 25 Year Plan, but was taken down for reasons that are no longer applicable.
Upon deciding to write a story that dealt with objectively examining the changes in photography, ushered in by the digital revolution, I was somewhat surprised to find that I had two conflicting biases. My story, however, was written based on the research I have done, not some preconceived notion, however subliminal it might have been. Furthermore, it should come as no surprise that reporters often have a particular mindset when going into a story. The good ones, however, won’t let it influence how the story is written. Judith Miller I am not.
I wanted to be able to write about how photography will always, at its core, be about film. I wanted to report that the purity of the traditional photographic techniques would always keep film’s quality at least just beyond what digital could deliver. I was willing to grant that the advantages of digital far outweigh film in every area save one: Purity (read “quality”). At worst, I wanted to concede that it would be many, many years before digital would overtake film in this isolated, albeit significant area.
But I can’t. I can report about the heart-felt passions of a few traditional photographers and that aficionados of “artistic” photography say so, but much to my dismay, I cannot defend the medium in light of what I have learned. However, I am only slightly disappointed, for as much as I have a tendency towards nostalgia, so too do I have one towards technology. This story has touched both interests and to some extent has satisfied both - and neither.
As technology evolves, it changes the way we do things. I have not worked out a long-division problem - armed with my trusty pencil - in a very long time. Yet I can remember when solving mathematical problems in this manner was the norm. Hand-held (and smaller) calculators have changed the way we do math. The ubiquitous personal computer, cable and satellite TV, robotics and any number of recent technological innovations have changed the world in much more profound ways than just as it applies directly to a specific industry.
“Professional” photographic technology is now available to the masses. Whether using automatic settings or fiddling around with the manual modes, these digital wonders allow the everyday person to do the things only the pros using professional equipment were able to do in days gone by. Furthermore, with instantly available results, trial and error is far more cost effective. Wait; allow me to rephrase that… it’s free. No processing cost or waiting for the results only to correlate the settings used to the frames on a negative. Today, it’s all about right here, right now.
And all that access sounds good. Indeed it is - but. What about the ability to frame and compose the shot… to be able to “see” the image before it is rendered - digitally or otherwise? How many trials and errors does it take? Professional photographer and Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento, Nigel Poor laments that the ease of taking literally hundreds of shots “takes the preciousness out of it.” The “art” of photography appears to be among the casualties of the digital revolution. Of course, it is not the only one.
However, classic photography will likely never completely die. It is said that portrait painters viewed the new technology of photography well over 100 years ago with the same trepidation as film photographers view digital imagery today. And although it is safe to say that the vast majority of portraits are photographed (now digitally), portrait painters are still painting portraits. Many in the world of art photography claim that black and white film photography has a quality that has eluded digital thus far. It is a very subjective assessment, but like other “ancient” technologies, traditional photography will still have a place in the world. Art always has had a staying power that transcends technology.
My story, therefore, tells the story of film obsolescence, but not its death knell. Indeed, the industry of film photography will likely continue to atrophy, but it will never completely die. And the fundamentals are still the same. Light still behaves as it always has and the physics that determines how it interacts with lenses, exposures, apertures, and the like is pretty much set in stone. These fundamentals still need to be mastered if one wishes to succeed in the business of photography.
Freelance news photographer Michael Kirby said simply, “I think every teacher should teach the fundamentals. There seems to be this attitude that says, ‘It doesn’t matter how it looks, I’ll fix it later with Photoshop.’ I think it’s a crime.” And he shoots almost entirely digitally. The last holdouts in the world of film photography, large format and motion picture film are fast losing their market. The major consumer roadblock of cost doesn’t have as much impact in the professional ranks. Digital large format and cinematic equipment is a reality - it’s expensive, but it’s here and it has a market.
It is heartening to know that the art of traditional photography will likely never die - that there will remain enough interest to keep some manufacturers in business and enough still practicing the art to pass it on to future generations. However, it will never enjoy the prominence it did. It is equally encouraging to realize that with the technology advancing at the rate it is, there will be greater access and consequently greater production of imagery. In that respect, everybody wins.