« The Tom Liljenquist Civil War Bequest | Main | Permanence and Impermanence »

Wednesday, 06 October 2010


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

"Most photographs turn out to be about history and the passage of time, eventually."

I sooooooo agree, Mike.

I use to say that kids are reason why one feels the passing of time. Each time I look at my daughter, a little woman now, I remember her when coming out from the birth room, on top of her mother.

We have countless pictures of kids, and some video tapes as well. I have never felt older than when browsing those pictures, or watching those videos.

But hey, that's life and being able to watch your kids growing up is the best privilege one can ask for.

Huh. It's the Zander Johnston Rephotographic Survey. Less facetiously, shades of Nicholas Nixon's sisters-in-law.

'today's digital pictures tend to have a "look," too' -- it would be interesting to elaborate on this. Do you mean the very clean, "noise reduced", look? Something else? One thing I wonder about is what you mean by "the picture"? Part of the reason why older technologies produce a particular look is because they take a particular physical form -- a Kodachrome slide, a C-print, a daguerreotype, and so on. But digital photos can take any number of physical forms, with varying properties. What do you think is common to all the forms a digital photo can take? Not trying to quarrel with the point -- trying to develop it.

And not denying that history and the passage of time are very important, I take it you mean photographs "turn out to be about history", among other things. For instance, Zander's graduation picture and the Civil War portraits are also about how people want others to perceive them. But then don't all pictures (not just photographs) turn out to be about the passage of time? "Thou still unravished bride of quietness,/Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,/Sylvan historian, who canst thus express/A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:"... (If anybody doesn't recognize the quote: John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn".)

" today's digital pictures tend to have a "look," too, one which will be subtly distinctive years from now. Just as the look of the technique of the tintypes and the ambrotypes in the previous post telegraph the era in which they were made."

That is exactly correct, and I can't really figure out why this should be the case. Digital is infinitely malleable and changeable. Digital capture has the potential for a huge range of interpretation depending on the vagaries of sensors, camera and default processing. There is then no end to the adjustments and alterations that can be imposed upon all those 1's and 0's by software after capture. And yet, there is a remarkably consistent look to digital imaging. I don't know if it's 'herd thinking', or a regression to an obvious mean, but the result is plain to see. Most color digital work ends up with a kind of 'digital velvia' palette, bitingly sharp edges and waxy, plastic areas of homogenious color. I find myself working hard to avoid the digital cliché appearance, aiming instead for color and surface textures as close to my (admittedly quirky) perception as I can get. This may also be why I find digital conversion to black & white so appealing; there's some personal interpretation involved. At least it doesn't look exactly like the other 50 billion digital images out there.

"Most photographs turn out to be about history and the passage of time, eventually."

So true, and well said. And yet the same can be said of most art forms, even writing. All tend to capture and edit moments in time of reality, and use the conventions, language, and technology of the day to do so.

I'm in very strong agreement with you about both those things: the look (not just the content) of current digital work will be very representative of the early 21st century and most photographs do turn out to be about history and the passage of time.

Being aware of that second point when taking pictures might sometimes lead to a certain conflict: do you take a picture that you feel might be interesting to look at in ten or twenty years' time but which looks somewhat dull now? Better still, can you get completely past the current ordinariness and get the composition just so?

The first point—that current digital photography has its own, distinctive look and colour palette—is one I make to people whom I help with digital workflow. They are often attempting to make the camera and lens combination invisible and transparent.


My digital work looks as close to my film work a I've been able to get it (HP5+/Perceptol/200ASA).

My 5Dii (and the 5D before it) have been set on B&W, yellow filter since the day I bought them.

I have heard it's possible to shoot colour with a Canon 5D - but that's what I have an S90 for.

"Most photographs turn out to be about history and the passage of time, eventually."

Agreed, which is why when I chose not to go pro 30 years ago, I decided to document my life's journey, and named my blog "Postcards of a Life Well Traveled"

My first experience with the digital "look" was in mid-October 2003, when I was among several aviation and photo geeks who gathered mid-morning near Howard Beach, Queens, NYC, to photograph the last few takeoffs of the Concorde SST. I was shooting Fujichrome 400 (a somewhat new film that reviewers raved about for being both fast and fine grained); a photographer next to me was shooting with a Nikon D100. I stopped on my way home at my favorite photo lab and ran my film through the E6 line, then inspected the frames on the light table. They looked positively brilliant - bright, colorful, sharp, clear. Even the lab owner, who saw lots of pro stuff go through his E6 line, was impressed. I scanned the best frame and submitted it to one of those moderated airline photo sites (can't remember the name now). My photo was rejected for being too grainy. So I ran it through a beta version of noise/grain softening software, which smoothed the graininess of the blue sky but also blurred the fine markings on the British Airways Concorde, resulting in another photo site rejection for the shot not being sharp enough. The guy next to me with the D100 (same location, same time, similar lens), had his grain-free photo accepted to the photo site. That's when I decided I also wanted the sharp, grain-free look of digital.

...agree with Geoff Wittig.
I find myself wanting to "dumb down" the digital perfection that comes out of my 50D. ...almost wishing for some sort of accepted standard of digital baseline, consistent across brand platforms...maybe like shooting Tri-X was something of an accepted baseline for B/W...there would be differences in IQ between larger/smaller formats or between brand or quality of lenses, but largely up to the skills of the shooter...and film processor/Lightroom operator, of course. I still like my 5DMkI...it shoots a nice "flat" image in RAW, like the camera has no opinions of what my work should look like.

Tiemann: "it's hard to believe [that] was a year ago!"

Last Spring, my wife and I travelled across the country to attend our daughter's college graduation. Let's talk, "it's hard to believe!"


Seeing your kid's pictures just above those Civil War soldier kids portrayed in the Liljenquist Bequest threw me into a melancholy reflection about tragic constants and recurring themes in your nation's history.
From my side of the Atlantic, it would seem that the embers of the Civil War are not quite spent, that the appetite for strife and self-destruction is not quite extinguished. Those who ignore history are joining those unable or unwilling to learn from it, in an unholy and deleterious alliance.

May Zander be preserved. May you all live long and prosper.

(Yes, in an age of cheap plastic everything, including cheap plastic personalities masquerading as Ancient Testament prophets, even simple good wishes sound like a catchphrase from a TV soap. Worse, they sound like sci-fi.)

Tick, tock, the passage of time.
Was waiting beside the desk of the out-patient heart clinician's office at the local hospital about a week ago. This is a weekly visit for me; post major cancer, and a severely damaged heart due to the effects of the chemo used to place my cancer in some form of remission. A young female comes to the desk to register to see one of the other nurse clinicians and the clerk asks her date of birth which was 1994.
An instant feeling of ancient for me. Was May 1946 that long ago?

There is often some sadness associated with being reminded of the passage of time. Your son is a handsome young man and was a beautiful baby. I hope he appreciates that you have documented his life with the skill of a photographer and the interest of a loving father.

About that "digital" look -Fovean sensors definitely produce a different look from Bayer array sensors. I personally like the digital looks. Even though I used film for decades, I do not prefer the film look. I prefer the digital look. It seems people are always trying to make new technology look or act like old technology. I am not sure why except for familiarity. Videographers are always trying to get that film look, too. In the process they have to degrade there images by reducing the frame rate and using other effects. Film has been around a long time. Digital processes will probably change a lot faster.

Is old technology really better, or do we just have a fondness for it?


I agree. And going further, there seems to be a look that defines how we recall each era. Before about 1950 the world was gray, then it was dull in colour. By the 70s Kodachrome defined the look and then from the late 80's velvia and other high saturation films. Now the world is perfectly clean and even more garish - the colours are almost primaries - with edges so sharp they go beyond a crisp winter morning. Add in the casual use of 'retouching' and our perception of the world has gone from duller than reality to hyperreal.

I sometimes question whether shooting film is even reasonable, given that my children will look at pictures that imply they were born several years earlier than is really the case (plus it takes me much longer to deal with than digital). However, I still like film and I have some concerns over my ability to maintain an active archiving strategy for my 'digital assets' - a phrase I hate with a similar passion to 'human resources' or 'human capital'.


I don't know if it's a digital vs film thing so much as the fact that a much higher percentage of photographers have much more control of what their images look like and are more able to tune them to the current sensibility. The current practitioners of tintype, Daguerreotype, and wetplate photography that I know of produce distinctly modern work.

It's sort of like watching an old period film, where it is supposed to be a biblical epic but everything looks straight out of 1960

Dear Andrew and Geoff,

I think I can illuminate some (not all, by any means) of the differences. Keeping in mind that this is following Mike's "tend to have a 'look'" qualifier. IOW, we're talking about typicals, not universals. There are any number of exceptions.

I'm also (atypically for me) lumping the making and the printing of the photographs together, since what most people see is analog prints from analog photographs and digital from digital.

1) Grain and sharpness tend to be visibly linked in analog. In digital, grain is usually much finer than sharpness.

2) Digital makes strong edges crisper and clearer but it tends to suppress low contrast detail, especially low contrast fine detail, relative to analog.

(This is normally not inherently good or bad, merely different, but in extreme cases of data massaging produces the unfortunate look that Mike calls "watercolor" and I call "vinyl.")

3) Color fidelity. Digital overall has distinctly better color fidelity, but skin tones are flatter with fewer subtle variations. May be related to (2).

4) Digital tends to have a longer, more linear tonal scale. Higher exposure ranges are rendered than in typical analog. Also there's less midtone snap, but also less highlight and shadow compression.

Again, these are the tendencies; that's what defines a "look." There are many analog and digital photos that are exceptions to the rules.

OTOH, off the top of my head I'm not coming up with a single photograph that is an exception to all four of these rules. Hmmmm...

pax / Ctein

Think of a photograph in its truest sense, that is, as attempting to capture what the eyes see. In my opinion, today's unprocessed digital photos have less of a "look" that any previous technology, including both film and early digital. (By unprocessed digital I mean straight out of the camera.)

Oh, and what's a Grecian urn? About $15 an hour, I would guess.

The photos from the Civil War are timeless in just the way that your photos of Zander are: we recognize human experience whenever, and wherever, it actually happened. I'm so pleased to see both. Cheered to see Zander, saddened to see the girl holding her father's photo. So it goes.

Meanwhile. You yourself pointed out in a post a while back how our idea of the published color photo, and so of the color photo as such, was influenced by Velvia. And anyway who could resist those 'bright bright colors' of Kodachrome? So is it any wonder that the jpeg engines of cameras go for just that thing? My personal problem is that my photographic career, such as it is, started with making zillions of slides of vivid tropical scenes, and only after rediscovering photography much later, in the digital age, have I begun, slowly, to find a less eye-popping and more persuasive way of doing it, against the grain of the jpeg engines and the Camera Raw default settings.

Funny you post that now. The other day with your post about the senior portraits, my first thought was, oh my god, how fast the time passes, I remember your pics of Zander being a little boy, and suddenly he's almost a man! Unbelievable...

"Digital is infinitely malleable and changeable. Digital capture has the potential for a huge range of interpretation depending on the vagaries of sensors, camera and default processing. "

Well, somehow the digital look is the facette of sharp edges and waxy surfaces. That's what people today just love to have the photos look like, and if you decide to make HDR it's possible to exclude the early digital era and date the photo to somewhere within the last 3 years.

It's not that a digital photo could as well look totally different, it's that that is what's "typically" digital and separates the vast majority of today's photos from what was popular 10 years ago. Like the cliche yellowish polaroid snaps, or the pinkish prints from the 60s.

Mike, Zander's photo also made me realise how long I've been reading TOP. I remember a small boy from the early days of TOP! Thanks for sharing so much with your semi-anonymous readers, and - last not least - you have all reason to be a very proud father!

"Most photographs turn out to be about history and the passage of time, eventually."

That's probably the most interesting thing you've said on this blog to date. From my perspective, at least. It's a thought I'm going to have to sit back and chew on, if you catch my drift.

"Most photographs turn out to be about history and the passage of time, eventually."

I love when an off handed comment can subtly, ever so slightly, change your outlook on photograpy/art/life. I think I'm going to go out this weekend and make some photographs and for the first time keep in mind the passage of time.

Mike - are you being mischievous here? Are you saying all digital photos have a "look" - maybe the same look, as previous commentators have implied? And, if those digital photos have a "look", what can we compare it to? Without comparison, there is no "look"

That Tri-X shot certainly has a VERY distinctive look, even scanned and viewed on my monitor. The silver grays and very sharply detailed face and hair and hands and shirt are beautiful and timeless. And one can still shoot Tri-X today and make prints like that. Amazing.

How long do you suppose it will be until all we have to do is select the "LEICA LOOK"
scene mode on our wizbang digicam,or perhaps
the early "MINOLTA ROKKOR",or even a "MAMIYA SEKOR TWIN LENS" look,wow;the possibilities are as endless as the steady stream of endless trash that passes off as
photography today.You are absolutely right,
its about History and the passage of time.

There is nothing like having a toddler round you to realise as adults that childhood is nothing but an ephemeral episode in our existence and whatever we try to do to make our kids realize this again they won´t perceive this until they also become parents.
"there is a remarkably consistent look to digital imaging."

Well I feel it´s because colour is difficult to work with and most of us have never worked in a colour lab. Just because digital is infinitely malleable and changeable doesn´t in the end make it any easier. Personally the only way I´ve managed to accept my digital images is by using plug-ins which simulate good old film. With film it was easier, just buy certain film to get certain look and nowadays we all go for the straight and easy a bit of levels, curves for contrast and a lot of saturation. It´s complicated to recreate in our minds how Kodachrome interpreted green, blue, yellow, white and of course red.

"From my side of the Atlantic, it would seem that the embers of the Civil War are not quite spent, that the appetite for strife and self-destruction is not quite extinguished."

Kevin Phillips, in his book American Theocracy, makes an excellent case that the repercussions of the Civil War and its aftermath are still casting a very long shadow over American politics.

Phillips was one of the original instigators of the current neoconservative resurgence (he wrote the epochal book "The Emerging Republican Majority" when he was a strategist for Richard Nixon), but he's an apostate from Movement Conservatism now and he's really one of the most interesting social-political-historical writers working today. His only problem is that he's not got the populist touch, so his books aren't widely enough read.


"Is old technology really better, or do we just have a fondness for it?"

I didn't mean to cast this in value-judgment terms. I *can*, but only with regard to personal taste, and in this case I didn't...just sayin'.


I dunno about you but I like the Tri-X one better:-)

Mike -

I didn't mean to imply you did ... just sayin'.


I just put together a similar double picture of my son; one from when he was about 5 years old, and one from when he was about 25. The first picture was from my darkroom days as a young mother, the second from my daughter's darkroom days in high school.
Sam died in January of this year. He was 35 years old. There will be no more pictures.

I am so very sorry....


Wanted to share this after reading Stephanie's post. Several years ago a friend of mine, manager of the local camera shop was approached by a lady wanting to know if he still had the negatives to her daughter's wedding which had occurred some ten years earlier. He looked at me, thought for a moment, turned to her and said indeed I do. You could tell her heart was deeply touched. She then proceeded to tell us how her daughter had been tragically killed in an accident. This mother wanted to recall a happier time; those photographs would help her do exactly that. It's been said you can't stand in the same river twice, nor can we relive a moment, except with a photograph. That's why photography far transcends mere equipment and is like you said about the passage of time.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007