Normally the conversation around here is civil, considerate, and collegial, but yesterday I had to excise a number of less than generous comments. There seems to be something about any post that looks to be about "film vs. digital" that still elicits some bad attitudes and churlishness.
At this point I consider myself almost perfectly ambivalent about the sea change called "the Digital Transition." At 54, a photographer since 7th grade and serious about it since 1980, it's not hard to predict that, if I live a normal lifespan, I'll have split my life about equally between both eras. Having bought my first digital camera in 2003 and my first DSLR (used) in 2006, I was neither an early nor a late adopter of digital. And right now I consider myself non-doctrinaire—I'm set up to process and print film but I work mainly in digital. More importantly, I see no reason to advocate or side with one over the other. Nor do I see or feel any need at all to commit to one over the other. I wouldn't give up either one.
I see clearly both the gains and the losses of this transition period, and am equally interested in the future and the past.
I've showed this picture before. It's titled "Color Picture." In my mind, the way I think of it, it's a photograph of the Digital Transition. It encapsulates the period to me. If and when I finish my monograph of 35mm black-and-white pictures, this will be the last picture in the book.
The title, to me, has as many layers as an onion. To begin with, we all know what the colors are. We know grass is green and the apple is probably red. (It was. Quite.) And, sure enough, the color original is brilliant and vivid, solid primary colors that are, of course, complementary. The picture looks like it might have been taken with a 35mm camera on, say, Ilford HP-5 Plus. Yet it wasn't. It was taken with a DSLR. DSLRs, of course, are color devices: that's how they see; that's how we see with them. Technically, on the other hand, they are tri-color devices like some of the kludgey, Rube-Goldbergian early color cameras—each photosite, if it were naked, records only luminance, but they're overlaid with red, green, and blue filters to form a Bayer array, from which a complicated algorithm extracts color information. But the interface—all we see—is in color. They're black-and-white devices adapted at considerable complexity to become color devices.
And then this, originally a color file, was converted—after all that!—back to black-and-white, or monochrome, in Photoshop.
And actually the picture couldn't have been taken on film, or at least not nearly so conveniently. Because I tried various "virtual filters" to get the values (the word refers to the lightness and darkness of tones) to match.
And it's an apple. What's the significance of that? The late John Szarkowski, the most influential curator of photography in the second half of the 20th century in America and maybe the whole world, was obsessed with apples. He knew intimately their lore and botany and husbandry. He grew them and loved them and had a weakness for pictures that showed them. I saw him one last time just before he died, at a talk he gave at the Milwaukee Art Museum. He talked about apples. I never see a picture with apples in it without thinking of him.
Naturally, and without any doubt, I can appreciate the fallout of advantages from the whirlwind development of digital imaging over the past decade and a half, and I'm well aware of digital's efficiencies, its workflow and visualization advantages, its flexibility and controllability, and its convenience*. And yet I feel a certain persistent mourning for the death of silver photography. In a sense, it is, or was, my culture—it's how I've come at history and science and the world of appearances for much of my life. I'm steeped in the practitioners, the techniques, and the accomplishments of the medium's past. Without photography's intellectual traditions I wouldn't be interested in it. In the same way, I'm not going to suddenly jettison all the work I did in the film-only era.
As one final convolution for Color Picture, yesterday I uploaded a TIFF file of the picture to an outfit in Boston called Digital Silver Imaging, which (among other services) takes digital files and makes prints of them on old-fashioned fiber-based black-and-white paper. I'll be interested to see how they do with it.
Just one last layer on the onion.
*How I feel about it aesthetically is...let's just say, another essay.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.