Analog Activity/Digital Passivity

Exposed film I’m developing 8 rolls at a time. Ah, the good old days, when photography meant working at it.

“Certainly it would seem that TV could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rather than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love.”- Thomas Merton, 1948.

At about the same time as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was complaining about the “inert subjection to vulgar images” produced by the then-new technology of television, German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger was making a similar point about the typewriter. Heidegger did so by harkening back to another philosopher, Plato, and his critique of technology and its effect on how humans create their worlds. Plato claimed that the ‘technology’ of writing degraded the primacy of the spoken to the detriment of our sense of reality; 2400 years later, Merton and Heidegger would be doing the same for the typewriter and television. Each in some sense represents a degradation of the human ability to experience the real by abstracting it a degree from reality. By removing the speaker from the spoken, Plato saw writing as a first step to the dehumanization of communication; by veiling the essence of writing and script, Heidegger claimed that the typewriter “withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man experiencing the withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.” In other words, the typewriter, like writing for Plato and television for Merton, removes us a certain degree from experiencing the thing itself by doing it and in so doing makes us passive observers in what were heretofore active experiences.

I couldn’t help but think of Plato (and Heidegger and Merton) while bulk developing a ridiculous amount of film that I’ve accumulated over the last few years. The COVID quarantine has given me the perfect opportunity to finally do what I’ve been putting off for years. I’ve been shooting film and then throwing the canister into a bag full of other exposed films with the understanding that I’d get around to developing it all someday. That day has finally come. I’m bulk developing and fully scanning 8 rolls a day until the backlog is resolved…after which I intend to be a dedicated film photographer again, keeping to my promise to immediately develop and scan what I shoot. It’s a great plan that makes me happy, because I really do love the hands-on experience of shooting film, the deliberateness and intentionality of the practice and the end result of a physical thing that I can file away. Granted it’s a PITA, but the doing of it brings me back to a place where photography is both a creative pursuit and a craft, and it has the added benefit of connecting you back to your photographic tools in a way that’s missing with the quick and easy experience of digital.

*************

I Found This Among What I’ve just Developed – Lexi, Who We Just Put Down After 14 Years, As a Younger Pup, Ever Hopeful of Snagging a Bit of Pizza. An Unexpected Gift From a Roll Exposed Long Ago. Makes Me Smile Even Today.

Aristotle spoke of entelecheia, where the end and actuality of a thing are internal to its own activity. He thought the most rewarding experiences are those things we do solely for the pleasure the doing itself generates and not those things that are done as means to an end, and he thought that entelecheia was most often a result of solitary pursuits. This has always been my experience of photography: I do it for the pleasure of doing it, nothing more. And I do it to be in my own head and no one else’s. The end results – boxes of prints and innumerable binders of sleeved negatives and hard drives filled with DNGs – are secondary results of the process itself and the rewards those processes afford us. I think that’s why the transition from analog to digital has been unsatisfying for many of us. It lessens the creative involvement inherent in physically instantiating activity and replaces it with the passivity of pressing buttons and being given a result with little physical or psychical work involved.

Doing film photography is to reorient yourself to our own embodiment. You are creating something instead of entrusting the decision to a computer and an algorithm mindlessly running in the background. It is also to be disengaged from the virtual environment, which is always fundamentally social in nature. Our use of technology militates against solitude if we define such as the absence of input from other minds. Doing photography digitally is always, at base, a collective creative pursuit even when no others are physically present. Whether via the use of apps that presuppose other’s connection to our pursuits, or simply the use of necessary technologies that are the results of input from other minds and their implicit creative biases, your creative digital decisions will always be, to some extent, circumscribed by the decisions of the people who’ve programmed the digital tools you employ or are on the receiving end of your digital solicitations.

17 thoughts on “Analog Activity/Digital Passivity

  1. Dave

    Amen. The nice thing is, that we don’t have to. We can still shoot digital, when it makes sense and we can shoot film when we want to enjoy, create and have fun. That said, i’ve shot just several hunderds of digital images compared to several thousands of film frames.

    Reply
  2. Stephen J

    The thing is Tim… Where does one draw the line?

    As we get older and our eyes become less adept at judging the intensity of the light, do we give ourselves a little headroom by using a light meter?

    How about “auto focus”?

    Personally, I value the light meter, but I would rather misfocus and have the chance of finding something that I didn’t see when I made the original snap. One also avoids the added bulk and weight of the mechanism involved.

    But my biggest problem (and why most of my pictures are junk) is trying to get too much stuff into the frame, I never seem to remember that “elimination” is the key aspect of composition, even if one gets everything else wrong. The resulting clutter is something that really bugs me.

    I have been following some of the webinars that Leica are currently offering, and I see it in my assignments, the result is more confused than concise.

    Reply
      1. Stephen J

        His pictures are quite busy indeed…. And none the worse for it!

        I “unfortunately” missed the latest Webinar, I was putting lard on the cat’s boil.

        Reply
        1. Rob Campbell

          Yeah, but his pictures are powerful. Or at least, the ones we get to see look that way.

          He understands the power of graphics, and is lucky in having the visual mind that both sees and seizes at the right time. I wonder what his hit rate might be?

          Rob

          Reply
          1. Dave

            He said that the most important part of his gear are the shoes or something like that 🙂

  3. Leicaphila Post author

    …or maybe that’s just how you see and that Leica webinar is going to change you to be like everybody else. Thank God Garry Winogrand didn’t take any webinars.

    Reply
    1. Stephen J

      A bit Tim… The follow up to the particular webinar, was marked by the presenter’s mania for cropping, and following your comment, I realised what he was doing.

      I still can’t compose for shit, so imagine my surprise and sense of achievement when I do get something right.

      Reply
  4. Rob Campbell

    1. ” Plato claimed that the ‘technology’ of writing degraded the primacy of the spoken to the detriment of our sense of reality…

    By removing the speaker from the spoken, Plato saw writing as a first step to the dehumanization of communication”

    Plato just wasn’t geared up to cope with the world of now. Without some form of recording, he would today be unknown: would that be something he might have preferred? Where would Willie Shakespeare be without the written word? Far from dehumanising anything, the written word opens the door to better speakers than might be the mere writer, who can deliver that written word in so many creative and inventive ways. Of course, if Plato had been speaking about preserving a truth, that would be something different. Was he confusing truth with reality?

    2. “In other words, the typewriter, like writing for Plato and television for Merton, removes us a certain degree from experiencing the thing itself by doing it and in so doing makes us passive observers in what were heretofore active experiences.”

    Film’s no better, just a different form of something running interference, if you like. At the camera stage, they (film and digital) are identical – should you so wish them to be. I see no greater wickedness can be attached to a digital file than to a silver negative: content is what counts. Logically, the best experience, then, must be had in the being there without any kind of camera at all. That could also apply to any painter. Those damned brushes are a pain – always too fine or too broad!

    Leaving your films hanging around waiting to be processed is of itself an interference with the moment: they will
    have recorded something that differs from your romantic memorising of it, and the longer you wait the worse, with the added risk that latent image degradation will have contributed its own handwriting according to both the manufacturer and your treatment of the exposure.

    3. “Doing film photography is to reorient yourself to our own embodiment. You are creating something instead of entrusting the decision to a computer and an algorithm mindlessly running in the background.”

    Insofar as you are speaking about printing, you are right that wet printing is far more visceral: a truly satisfying thing to do (when you know how to do it well) and quite disappointing when you fail. A computer-processed print is not the same at all: you can keep on changing and tweaking things until your imagination runs dry and you get bored. But, importantly, if you already have mastery of your printing, you will be able to call upon that darkroom experience as a kind of yardstick of when to declare that enough is really enough: you get it when something looks too far-fetched to be convincing. It’s a bit like religion: from the darkroom comes a kind of visual moral compass.

    But either way, you are not entrusting your pictures to the decisions of “computers and algortihms” unless you simply sit back and run along with some plug-in you got for Christmas. Using a computer and Photoshop intelligently is still your hand at the tiller, and no greater a cop-out than using standard developers that will, usually, render far better results than trying to be your own alchemist is likely to bring. Don’t forget: the Box Brownie was also pretty automatic!

    Minimalism has its charms as well as its limitations; doctrine is not to be trusted.

    Rob

    Reply
    1. Stephen J

      So Rob, how do you make a wet print from a digital file? Do you perhaps make a digital negative first?

      It seems to me that with film photography, and subsequent digital manipulation from a scanned digital impression of the resulting negative, you have cut out the genuinely redundant part of the process. You have replaced the “Barry Bucknell” part of the process, the darkroom, with new processes that unlike the full digital process itself, enhance the realisation of the original creative thought, rather than detract from it.

      I agree that by employing any manipulation with pre-programmed “effex”, you are then passing the information that you recorded onto silver nitrate to the programming department of your chosen software provider. However, if you are interested in developing your own skills and you employ a genuine replacement of the darkroom, one that is more akin to a real darkroom, one that enables enhancement, rather than transformation, you are furthering your own creativity, rather than transferring it.

      Personally, I have settled on a very small application called Iridient Developer, which only really allows the user to perform darkroom techniques, like waving your lolly sticks about. In other words, you are taking charge of the printing, and depending on how it turns out, you can then decide whether to hand the resultant file to a printer or leave it as a file for display on some sort of screen.

      The chosen printer can be your own expensive ink-jet device, or it can be sent to a third party printer who employs the economy of scale to provide you with either an inkjet print or a (so called) “c type” print which is essentially the same as that produced in the old fashioned darkroom. That type of printer uses light sensitive paper and effectively mimics “sans déchets” the best that the most seasoned darkroom boffin can achieve.

      I dunno about you, but like Tim hints above, the storage of boxes of prints that you will never look at again, represents both a physical burden and a massive waste of trees.

      What is more, by taking over the darkroom process you have further enhanced your creative skills. I mean, if you are going to insist on using darkroom printing, why not insist on using wet plate processing too?

      Some discoveries or enhancements, like those of Mr. Eastman and Mr. Barnack have enabled more people to examine their creative side, others have not hepled that at all, including the present controllers of the above mentioned manufacturer, who seem to be dedicated to making jewllery rather than creative tools, as I have found out to my cost.

      Of course none of the above does anything for my inability to produce a decent composition from the outset, but in this discussion that is neither here nor there.

      Yesterday, I was rooting about in one of my attics for something or other, and I came across a stack of all the framed prints that I have accumulated in my life, beginning from a weird acid enhanced view from a houseboat in Weesp (nr. Amsterdam) in 1979, through about six or seven family pictures of the kids when they were still kids up to the first couple of frames that were hanging in my last house, produced by the above method.

      Currently, I have five single frames and one small triptych “hanging” in various rooms, they represent the very few snaps that I am happy to let anyone look at as they should be.

      Of course, I have hundreds of thousands of snaps that pop up on one screen or another that keep one amused for a few seconds, before they vanish again for the foreseeable. That in itself is more of a memory jogger than part of the creative process, it is where the ephemera of the suitcase full of kodak instamatic snaps now resides, all in a little lacie SSD, not getting in anyone’s way.

      Reply
  5. Hank Beckmeyer

    Thank you for this – good timing for me personally, as I was going through a bit of a re-think with regard to how much film I want to shoot vs digital. One does what the other cannot, and vice-versa. One seems to have more potential, but that may just be a ruse.

    Also, the introduction of a post tag “Aristotle and Photography” was long overdue in the inter webs.

    Reply
  6. Pieter de Koninck

    In the spirit of Plato et al, I suggest that by scanning and not wet printing your negatives you are degrading your photography. The darkroom printing experience is a large portion of the art of film photography. Don’t deny yourself that part of the magic.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      It’s a cliché, but nonetheless true: there’s something beautiful about seeing that print coming into view in the dish. It’s one of the thrills that keeps you interested in photography when you start doing it seriously enough to try doing your own printing.

      Whether or not it’s connected with the concept of virginity – once lost never recovered – but the first print coming out of your expensive printer isn’t the same quality of experience at all. It will forever feel mechanical, which it is, but also because there is no visible development in the image, the human, emotional feeling of “is it ready, does it need more time, must I snatch it or has it reached finality?” but just a cold spewing of the final product from out of the jaws of the machine. And the goddam noise of its birth! The birth of a wet print is accomplished in a respectful silence or, alternatively, and depending on midwife confidence, the celebration of Chuck Berry driving along in his automobile, his baby beside him at the wheel. And yeah, I can remember very well dancing on the spot as my prints came to life in the tray. No such buzz with a machine, Barbarella’s experience notwithstanding.

      But Pieter, as I have said before, printing wet prints is an expensive experience, and that fact can’t go away, only get worse with time. The entire analogue experience is expensive. It is also very damaging to the environment. I remember way back in the 60s or 70s that it became illegal for us in Britain to pour photographic chemicals down the drain. (This had nothing to do with the economics of silver recovery, which was already an industry serving the larger photo companies.)

      I remember that a speculator had gobbled up most of the silver market, with the likely financial impact that was going to have on the entire photographic business; I wonder if he got out in time? Wish I coud now remember his name, but it’s gone.

      Reply
      1. Pieter de Koninck

        Darkroom printing isn’t really that expensive. The paper costs are comparable to inkjet stock, chemicals less than ink cost. And there is no maintenance per se. No print heads to clog, streak or otherwise ruin a print. Where I live the city offers a household hazardous waste program and will pick up my used photo chemicals, so nothing goes down the drain. For me the magic happens every time I print, especially when dodging and burning–almost like an incantation over the print to bring out something special. When I hold up a good print that I have made, I feel that my skill and craftsmanship was responsible for every step of its making, from the choice of camera, lens, film and exposure to the film developer and final print. And a great silver print just has a look that is really tough to accomplish with ink on paper.

        Reply
        1. Rob Campbell

          Costs: truth to tell, I have not recently costed out the relative prices of raw materials for wet vs digital printing – I’m going back to my last prints made on digital, which were on an HP B9180 A3+ printer that I loved for black/white. I had settled on using Hahnemuehle papers that cost an arm and a leg. Sadly – or fortunately – HP abandoned that machine and support for it, and I decided that I wasn’t going to replace it because I was sick of seeing a build-up of box after box of prints that I never opened after the first flush of pleasure at seeing again my own things on paper had given way to the realisation that it was a dead-end process: it wasn’t turning into earnings or going anywhere interesting – I was just going to keep on doing it on remote until the battery ran out.

          I have never seen photography as an excuse to spend money. Even when I was working and pretty much everything was tax-deductible, I only bought stuff for which I already had a need. As a child, I fell in love with the ads for Leica etc. on the pages of the glossies: they looked so cool, not that I would have thought of using the word cool in that sense in those days. They held for me the very same glory of exquisite industrial design as was Rolex to hold, many years later.

          I had tried to keep on printing wet here after I moved from the UK, but having spent a lot of money on air conditioning etc. I realised that I couldn’t filter out the salt and grit in the water supply well enough to ensure clean negs. Also, washing prints for an hour uses a lot of water that it’s not really socially acceptable to do an island with not a generous supply of water of its own. As for short-wash resin-coated prints – I hated the look and feel of them, and hated even more the non-instinctive (to me) use of filters for getting contrast control. I undid the convertible darkroom features that had been built into the office and printed nothing again. Professionally I didn’t need to: I had turned completely to transparencies.

          Most importantly, though, is that with wet prints I printed only on WSG as well-glazed as I could manage to get it. My brief foray into glossy digital was disappointing.

          I have abandoned printing completely, and today feel no regrets because my life simply has no demands for actual printwork anymore. I believe that for many people the allure of wet printing lies in getting something right. That is kinda lost on a professional who has always done his own printing: he expects to get it right – it’s what he’s supposed to be able to do all the time. The mindsets are different both by definition as by experience; you can’t go back to a time before you knew how. Having said which, were I to be stuck back into a darkroom again today, almost forty years since I made my last real wet prints, which I’d been doing professionally almost every day for twenty years, I would not be at all surprised to find that it would take about a day of it to get my bearings back again. That’s using the materials I used then!

          😉

          Reply
  7. Rob Campbell

    “He said that the most important part of his gear are the shoes or something like that.” – Dave

    When asked what advice he could offer aspiring photographers, David Bailey maintained the same position. And it’s accurate: you have to get your ass out there and walk, preferably into as many offices as you can.

    Maybe if you don’t seek a career out of it, just street pictures, a pair of skates may be a better option. The late Bill Cunningham made a great, unusual professional career of it in NY using a bicycle.

    😉

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *