A Guest Post by Steve Jacob
Firstly I have to say that Mike's essay "Perfect Ambivalence" is one of the most eloquent and poignant articles on the subject of the digital transition that I have ever read. I can genuinely understand that from the point of view of someone steeped in the business of film for a generation, the decline of film as a mainstream medium brings a genuine sense of loss. However, though I take no pleasure in the decline and would be as happy to see film persist, I cannot feel genuine empathy for that sense of loss.
I plan to try, though probably with less poetry, to express a different experience, that of a humble amateur of moderate means, someone on the outside looking in, someone who loved photography but lacked access to the facilities, the infrastructure and the people that made film photography such an engaging and special process.
At college in the early 1980s I had access to all the B&W developing and printing facilities a budding photographer could wish for. As a chemistry major, the process held no mystery—it was pure fun and excitement from beginning to end. I can totally understand the joy, the sheer experimental exhilaration of it. Then I graduated. I worked in a regular IT job, lived in shared flats, then small apartments, then small Victorian terraced houses. I never had space for a proper darkroom, though I did manage to make a handful of prints in a bathroom with blackout blinds and an old enlarger. Then I started to discover Eggleston, Shore, Parr and other exponents of colour and realised that it was near impossible to self-develop and print colour film at all, let alone in a bathroom. Without access to a professional lab I was at the mercy of local or mail order film labs of variable quality, or constrained by the limited latitude of slide film. Ordering large prints from 35mm negatives was both expensive and frustratingly unsatisfactory.
Of course some enjoy the discipline of constraint, but for me this was just pure, raging frustration which led in turn to disillusionment and lassitude. I was denied by the vagaries of time, technology, geography and income the opportunity to control anything after the shutter was pressed, or to create large, beautiful colour prints to the standard I wanted. I could not be creative in any real sense; I could not experiment, even in a small way; I could not learn or develop as a photographer and I could not share my work. Film photography was a rigid hierarchical class system and mere amateurs could not hope to compete without substantial financial resources. For nearly ten years my despondency was so profound that many of my travels in the U.S. from 1987 to 1995 went undocumented, a criminal act of omission and one of my deepest regrets.
Then, in the late 1990s something wonderful happened. I bought a CanoScan 2700 and a copy of Paint Shop Pro and started to edit my collection of negatives and slides. It was the perfect drug and I was addicted. I would spend weeks in rapt concentration working on a single photo. I made over 200 versions of one file just to practice and experiment with different ideas. I remember finding the ability to dodge and burn a colour photograph a pure revelation. Next came an inkjet and my love affair with photography was not only rekindled, but blazed. My trusty Dynax was transformed into a power tool that could build a house instead of a bird table.
Transitioning to a full digital SLR five years later was barely a transition in any real sense. My workflow was simply more seamless, the feedback more immediate, the results more than acceptable. The various deficiencies of digital were minor compared to the control I could now exercise. Since then those deficiencies have all but disappeared and the technology has moved on in leaps and bounds. I can print archival quality 19x13" prints at home or order exceptional A2 prints over the internet for a few pounds.
Now, as I said, I don't in any way wish to scorn the affection for film that many photographers gained by craft and hard-won skill over many years. I know that the creativity and craft of really good film processing and printing was and is deeply satisfying. I accept that film has artistic qualities that are hard to replicate in digital and that inevitably something will be lost in the process. Such is the nature of all transitions. But in reality the facility to exploit this craft fully was the preserve of a privileged or lucky few. Now the edifice is crumbling and the next generation is free to create its own masters, styles and techniques. The best of the old masters have made the transition already with facility and good grace, but the fact that some of the new masters will increasingly be amateurs of average means using humble equipment is surely to be celebrated. At no time in the history of photography has the opportunity to learn, experiment, create and share great images been so accessible. How can this process of democratisation be anything other than a pure joy in every conceivable sense? The fact that we are all sharing our thoughts on this blog today is a direct result.
There is of course a body of opinion that asserts that quality and artistry have suffered. Yes, it’s easy to flick through Flickr with a barely stifled yawn, but these are often just people’s ordinary snaps. If you compared them to the holiday slide shows Uncle George put on when you were a kid, the standard of the humble snapshot is now remarkably good. One can perhaps thank the advances in modern cameras and a little peer pressure for that. To see how this translates into the output from real enthusiasts, you only have to spend a few hours browsing through 1x or Photoblur to realise how far the bar of mere acceptability has actually been raised. Yes, freedom has also enabled tastelessness to abound and created an industry in copycat technique, but it has also given free rein to imagination. It only requires artistry and skill to turn imagination into something wonderful. If anything, digital is haring off down so many new avenues that we are almost too tired of surprises to notice. As the technology matures the cream will rise to the surface, just as it did with every new genre of film photography. It usually requires a distance of one or two decades to judge the truly significant output of each generation, but I have a feeling that in 20 years many will look back on this transition period as the birth of a new golden age in the art of the still image, one we are all part of.
For me, even if I am a merely average photographer even more aware of my weaknesses, I believe I am producing far better photographs than I ever have. Perhaps more to the point, I’m having a lot more fun doing it.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.