What does it mean to be a “photographer?” Is it the knowledge of necessary concepts like luminance and illuminance, ‘camera exposure’ versus ‘photographic exposure’, lens transmission variables and exposure latitude; understanding meter scales, light ratios, tone reproduction curves etc, and knowing how to use this knowledge to produce better, more consistent photographs? Or can it simply be someone who owns a camera and uses it with intent, without a firm grasp of the physical realities involved and the underlying processes by which one’s photographs are produced?
I suppose this is a debate which occurs whenever technological advances transform the manner in which a given task is accomplished – what is it that constitutes that task and defines those who practice it? What is essential, what is peripheral? 100 years ago ‘traditionalist’ practitioners could define photography skills as those involving the creation and development of wet plates and an understanding of the mechanics and use of view cameras; they would have looked suspiciously on Oskar Barnack and his toy “camera.”
All of this was brought home to me recently when I went to visit my brother. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years; we had lost touch the way grown family members sometimes do. This was a trip to reconnect, to catch up on what each of us had been doing with our lives. What I learned is this: he’s now an avid photography buff, having developed a passion for photography in its digital manifestation. He’s the proud owner of some serious kit – a Nikon D810, D5100, a number of huge bazooka-sized pro Nikkors, all the associated computer programs with which to ‘develop and print’ the end results. And, truth be told, he’s got a good eye, and if there’s any area he lacks technical knowledge the camera will usually take care of that.
With digital tools he has the capability of producing technically excellent photos I couldn’t be capable of, even today, 45 years of experience behind me, with my Leica film camera, my 21/35/50 mm focal length manual focus rangefinder lenses, and my roll of HP5. As for matching his Photoshop skills, I’m not even going to try. I’m clueless. Which left me with a certain depressing realization: the skills I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating, the arcane knowledge acquired through decades of dedicated interest in traditional silver halide photography, is essentially now worthless as a badge of expertise. I’m now just an old guy toting around an outdated camera using an obsolete exposure medium, head filled with useless arcane information. Meanwhile he’s effortlessly pumping out 30×40 color prints, tack sharp corner to corner.
Stroebel’s “Basic Photographic Materials and Processes”
Growing up, I had been the one fascinated by photography – the cameras, the darkroom, the smells of the films and chemicals, the various skills you needed to correctly expose a film negative, to develop it and print it. While my brother was out being a normal kid with normal interests, I was voraciously reading books about photography – The Time/Life multi-volume photography series, the 15th Edition Leica Manual (still a great book), John Schaefer’s Basic Techniques of Photography Volumes 1 and 2, and, finally, as a student, slogging through Leslie Strobel’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes, a dauntingly obtuse textbook that’s formed the backbone of most serious American collegiate photography programs – building and maintaining darkrooms, immersing myself in the minutia required of being a dedicated film photographer as opposed to a generic happy-snapper with a Kodak.
What came along with such dedication and mastery was a certain condescension towards the happy-snappers. We were ‘real’ photographers, with a seriousness of purpose and a body of knowledge and practical skills we used in pursuit of meaningful photographs. They pressed a button and dropped their film off at the corner pharmacy, willfully ignorant of the processes by which the pushed button resulted in the 4×5 photo held in the hand. Trying to explain to them how that happened was like trying to explain to your Golden Retriever how his dog food got into the can.
Today, that sort of differentiation – the ‘serious’ photographer with his earned body of knowledge, versus the enthusiastic hobbyist – means little in actual practice. More than ever, the cameras we’re offered allow us to do amazing things, almost effortlessly, things even the most accomplished practitioners of film photography would have found difficult if not impossible back in the day. This is wonderful for the average guy, a levelling of the playing field by removing technical mastery from potential results. Now, anyone with a “good eye’ can be an exceptional photographer.
However, I still stubbornly subscribe to the notion that it’s a mistake to assume technological advances resulting in easier use of technologies will always be a net positive. Every new technology contains within it both a blessing and a burden. Unfortunately, in the digital age the debate is largely to those who see the incredible power of new technology but are mostly blind to its significant downside. And then there are the few of us in opposition, seeing mainly the burdens and blindly ignoring or discounting the blessings.
The entire philosophical premise of my blog, if it has one, is that there needs to be a dissenting voice to counteract the headlong embrace of digital technologies, even in light of their obvious benefits. It’s larger than the facile dismissal of the consequences of an inevitable generational shift, you know, bleeding edge hipsters versus us edgeless oldsters. There are very important issues involved, and photographic culture ignores them at its peril.
If I put aside my bruised ego for a bit, my resentment in having my skill set made obsolete, I can isolate my discomfort with digital technology by pointing to its ‘virtuality.’ Peel back both the experience and the results, and there’s very little “there” there. It all seems rather thin and formulaic, devoid of a robust sense of mastery. You end the day with nothing of substance except more files on your computer and at best a vague sense of agency; you’ve pointed your camera at things, pressed the button, viewed the virtual results on a screen of some sort, maybe shuttled the file over to a printer that spits out a print. What mastery might be involved usually seems to be in the service of manipulating results to fit an idealized Hyper-reality, a sort of Madison Avenue transcription of the real into the simulated realities of advertising and entertainment. Unfortunately, the world I live in little resembles the world I see depicted in car commercials. What’s the point in technologies that assist us in pretending it does?
So, I will continue to use my mechanical cameras and continue to believe in the power of agency – making a thing happen through my intention and action. I will continue to delight in the “kurr-thlunk” of a mechanical shutter which physically opens a window through which light passes and impregnates a strip of cellular material with the evidence of its presence. I can then process this material – itself an embodied physical experience – and I’ll end up with a negative, a physical thing I can physically manipulate to produce one more physical thing, a photograph. The entire process will embodied from beginning to end (by embodied I mean the exact opposite of virtual; in embodied processes I’ll get my hands dirty by interacting with brute, physical things, things like mechanical shutters that respond to the exertion of pressure , rolls of film, acetic acid, squeegees, D76 at 1:1 dilution, varying weights, sizes and grades of paper etc).
Digiphiles often have what they consider a reasonable retort to a traditionalist like me – They’ll reply that, in photography, you don’t get points for difficulty. Correct, as far as that goes. But we’re talking here of photography as a practice, as a thing that’s done and gives value in its doing. And I think it gets back to a certain level of agency – I did that; I made the decisions that produced that photo as an end result, and I made those decisions from a history of embodied experience, a history of failed and successful photographs that taught and refined my skills in so doing. Or… I pointed the camera, after first selecting an appropriate mode offered me by my camera manufacturer, and created that jpg I’m sending you as an attachment to my email; you’re welcome to print it out should you want a hard copy.