Category Archives: Philosophy of Photography

Being a Photographer in the Digital Age

Does Using One of These Make You a ‘Photographer?’

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.”

…or Must You Use One of These?


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.

On Making Pictures

by Rob Campbell

I don’t think there’s anything new to be said about the relative merits of film and digital capture, and apart from pointing out the differences in highlight roll-off and stuff like that, I do believe most of us would experience difficulty telling the results apart, equally competent photographers a given.

Instead, I think I’d like to talk about making pictures, and the differences that mental approach will inevitably bring to the exercise.

The greatest question regarding approach starts, obviously, right at the beginning, with the word why? Why make a particular photograph?

I suppose the answer to that will vary from person to person, but in my own case, photography has lived two distinct periods: the professional one which really began before I owned a reasonable camera or even had a business, because for the life of me I can hardly recall a time I didn’t want to do it every day. I just had this thing about it in my head. The other part, the later manifestation of the bug, happened post-retirement when I became an amateur. And the two experiences are totally different. If anything, the amateur status was infinitely more difficult to handle because, for the first time, I was faced with the complex character of motivation which, when left to be subjective and divorced from economic survival, has a really tough time forcing through enough energy to get up and do. Some of you familiar with the work of the famous Black Trinity of Bailey, Donovan and Duffy may remember the difficult Donovan quotation which I paraphrase as best I can: “The problem for the amateur is finding a reason to make a photograph.” Think about that for a moment and you’ll see what he meant.

However, once one gets over that initial hurdle (for me it happened after the death of my wife when photography really came back into my life as a form of instinctive therapy that allowed me to escape from the endless, destructive-because-useless churning of emotions built around loss), new departures become possible.

Instead of the easy route of the assignment which brought with it not only the motivation, direction and pleasure of the shoot itself, but also the added sense of validation by virtue of the assignment coming one’s way, I now discovered another buzz: the kick found in taking what life offers in the most mundane situations, looking at it, and seeking out ways of making snippets of it distinct and, with luck, interesting.

One can do it anywhere: walk down a city or village street and look into shop windows. Immediately you see two worlds. Put them together, wait until people move into places where you’d like them and make the exposure; wait until there are no people. Go out in the rain and gaze at the puddles. They become mirrors, and show you a different topsy-turvy world of reality. Photograph it; you always knew it was there, but shooting it and working on it makes it something quite else. Give it a title and you add yet another layer of meaning – or just fun, that maybe only you understands. But that’s cool too.

Some folks, with more nerve than I, go out and photograph people they don’t know and manage to make great images that carry massive doses of ambiguity, humour or even sadness. Street’s a wonderfully broad canvas: think Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas, Robert Frank, HC-B and so on and on, and they are all quite differently doing the same thing: catching the magic of the real world without having to create new bits for it. Now that’s a talent of both vision and reflexes!

I have no doubt that the exercise is much easier to pull off in cities like NY or Paris than in a small town somewhere in the sticks, if only because in the city you do become pretty invisible and people are already tuned in to studiously ignoring everybody around them and avoiding any eye contact whilst, at the same time, being on guard. Where every tourist has some recording device in front of his face, only your own conscience makes you stand out as something else. The rural town or village is a different thing: everybody knows everybody else, and whatever you do, you get noticed, even if you’re doing absolutely nothing more than breathing. And you can be sure you’d also be noticed if you’d stopped breathing. You can’t bet on that in a city.

Maybe the best one can do is play with reality just a little bit. If you don`t play with it, then I hardly see a reason to make the photograph at all: you contributed nothing and life would have existed in exactly the same way with or without you. Make the difference. But most of all, make it for yourself, and not for anybody else. Everybody else already wants too much from you. And hey, don’t waste money on crazy equipment: it can be done just as well on a shoestring, and if you really, really need that exotic lens, get it second-hand, because after the first flush of pleasure it brings, you’ll find yourself right back where you began, wondering about what to shoot and confusing that thought with what you need to buy in order to shoot the next variation of the same old things.

For anyone seeking inspiration, I’d suggest simply looking at a lot of photographer websites and finding something that really appeals, and then going out and shooting your own version of it. It’s not plagiarism, because you won’t ever find the same circumstances, your vision will be quite different, but you will still be able to make use of the sense of genre. Grasp the genre for you, and you are already on your way.

© Rob Campbell, 2017

The Camera Always Lies – But So Do Your Eyes

By Christopher Moss. Mr. Moss is a retired family physician who has been taking photographs for 45 years, still with a strong preference for film

I was thinking recently, as all photographers probably do, about the way I make photographs. I’d had the experience of taking a few rolls of film and finding one or two pictures that worked out particularly well, and had enjoyed the experience of discovering a nugget of what seemed like gold amongst the dross. This was the one that started me going:

I’ll admit that this kind of found photograph is how I make the pictures I feel the most pride about. Perhaps I’m gradually learning to better predict what will work out to be pleasing, but I don’t have the temperament or the skill to plan a photograph in advance, arrange my subjects, and then take the image I had envisioned. Having thought about it for a few days, I started on a line of thought that led to some ideas, currently only dimly perceived, but again with a nugget of truth.

Photo-realistic Painting versus Photography

Somewhere in the early seventies, my father, once an amateur photographer and by then obsessed with painting, had taken me with him on a day trip to London to visit several art galleries. I think he was looking for inspiration, and we both came away with one painting in particular as memorable. Below is Annigoni’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth: This was my first exposure to a photo-realistic painter, and we spent some time with our noses as close as we could, marvelling at the invisible brush strokes. My father had principally made the trip to look at Impressionists, and he was of the view that a clever painter wouldn’t try to record exactly; he would hint at things and let the spectator’s brain fill in the details far more accurately than a brush could do. But for all his skill, Annigoni, and photo-realism in painting receives little respect, and the first assumption I’m going to make is that this is because he doesn’t show us the world changed slightly through his painting, he simply records it like some kind of human Xerox machine.

Years after this visit, I came across Anthony Burgess’s definition of art as the use of a medium, so arranged by the artist as to re-present the world to an audience in such a way that it teaches them something new about it. Well, Annigoni didn’t show us something new, only what was there already, and which we think we already can see. There might be another factor at work, though this is pure speculation: if you have ever seen the drawings of savants who have that particular gift you will have been amazed at the accuracy of their draughtsmanship, and perhaps you will know that unlike the way we might draw by first making an outline and then refining it, savants tend to start in one corner and fill their canvas with complete and finished detail, gradually working across until they reach the other side.

Truly, brains be different. It may be that gifted photorealistic painters are also working in some way alien to the rest of us, and that neuronal atypicality which we often characterise as cold, aloof, and mechanical discourages that introduction of that human element that makes an artistic representation have the quality that Burgess referred to—we learn nothing new in seeing it as there is no sense of seeing through another’s eyes. And yet, photographers are given that respect for their work. The camera, which is said to never lie, is being used to present us sights that do more than simply record a small slice of reality at a particular moment. How is this the case? Why is photography worthy of more artistic respect than photo-realistic painting? I’m going to suggest that it is because the camera does lie, in that it does record the world in a different fashion than our own eyesight, and there are simple optical (and far more complex neurological) reasons for this. We’re going to have to delve into the physiology of human vision.

Eyeballs and Image Processing

This isn’t going to be hard, as I’m simply going to remind you of the things you ought to have been taught in school biology classes. Eyeballs are often compared to cameras, and the analogy holds true from the cornea backwards, but not once we get to the retina and the complex image processing that takes place in the optic cortex. Both are light-tight containers with a hole in the front. The cornea and lens function together to focus light rays on the light-sensitive film, sensor or retina. The iris functions just as the aperture of a camera lens does, controlling the amount of light entering and subtly altering depth of field. But things break down at the retina, where instead of pixels or grains of silver halide evenly suspended in an emulsion, we find the light-sensitive nerve endings known by their shapes as rods and cones. Rods are very sensitive to low levels of light, but pretty much only detect light or dark. Cones are far less sensitive, requiring more light to respond, but they can detect colour. A tiny area at the centre of the retina on the optic axis called the fovea is populated with mostly cones, and when you look at anything, you are using your fovea. This gives a well-focused, high resolution colour image. The rest of the retina is mostly populated with rods, giving a lower resolution image, with relatively poor colour vision. Because nearly all of our optic cortex is devoted to processing the input from the fovea, we see whatever we are looking at very well – it’s sharp, clear, detailed and has exquisite colour rendition.

We actually have very little idea what we are seeing in our peripheral vision, and we can’t find out by trying to concentrate upon it – the moment we flick our eyes over to something at the periphery we see it instantly with the fovea and we are convinced that it was this sharp and this clear all along. This is the trick used by our visual system to make the most efficient use of our neural capacity, a kind of just-in-time image processing that lets us manage— very well—with only having good vision at the fovea. If it were possible to record the image in our brain it would probably seem unbelievable to us, sharp, detailed and coloured in the very centre, but low resolution and unsaturated outside that centre.

A camera does a far better job across the whole image, where degradation is quite small at the edges and corners with well-corrected lenses. Not only does a camera allow a sharp image in the periphery, it does something we cannot with our eyes—it allows an unfocused image in the periphery. But didn’t I just say our peripheral vision is low resolution? Yes, but we can’t tell that it is so, because as soon as we look there it sharpens up instantly courtesy of the fovea now pointing in that direction. Another difference lies in the field of view. It’s often claimed that a ‘standard’ lens, say 50mm focal length for a 35mm format camera, is a natural choice as it mimics the field of view of the human eye. That might be close to the truth for one eye, but we have two, and our brains seamlessly meld the images into one larger field of view. The field of view of a single eyeball is roughly the shape of the lens in a pair of aviator-style sunglasses, being limited above by our brows, below by our cheeks, and medially by our nose. Laterally, the sky’s the limit, most of us having the ability to see slightly behind us by a few degrees. Two eyes together are processed by our brains into a very wide strip, much wider than it is high. If you have access to a large white wall it is interesting to walk up to it until your nose just touches it, Using a finger you can detect the edges of your field of view whilst keeping your eyes fixed straight ahead. Above and below your finger will appear at your eyebrows and at your cheekbones, but laterally your finger will be off the wall and, at arm’s length, somewhere out in the plane of your ears before it disappears. Even a Widelux doesn’t come close.

So when I say the camera always lies, and so do your eyes, I’m really saying they don’t see things the same way, and neither corresponds exactly with the other. Cameras allow for another distortion that we don’t have with eyeballs—the depth compression that comes with varying focal lengths. You’ve all seen photographs of a figure silhouetted against a sunset, in which the figure is unnaturally large against the sun, both appearing to be roughly the same distance from the observer. Finally, one realises that painting is a third way of seeing, of recording a view of the world that doesn’t correspond with our inbuilt vision, nor with that of a camera. It allows perspectives to be changed, colours altered, details to be represented accurately or not, all in ways that don’t match what we are used to seeing. The very perfection of a photorealistic painting (and now we know that isn’t a good name for it!—it would be better called after the way it mimics the brain-processed image we perceive from our own eyes), is perhaps why we don’t care for it as art.

The Camera’s Lies Are Its Art

So now I’m beginning to understand why a photograph that appeals to me has that effect. It differs from natural vision in several ways, and it is these differences that make it worth contemplating. For example:

1. Change in field of view. I particularly like the square format, which restricts my view to something quite unlike my own vision. In itself, that immediately primes me with the knowledge that I am looking at something created, an image rather than reality. Obviously, I can arrange subject matter within that frame in various ways, emphasising some things, minimising others, employing dead space and so on, but all the while manipulating the effect on the viewer. Other formats allow other effects, and for anything other than square I can influence how it affects you simply by choosing landscape or portrait orientation. Naturally, choosing an unexpected orientation gives even more control.

2. Changing the palette. There’s a good reason why black and white photography survives, in that it forces us to concentrate on shape and form, on patterns, placement and contra-positions, on light, dark and contrast. Colour can be rich and fascinating, but it hasn’t those same qualities, and is best used for documenting a scene rather than presenting it in a new way. Placing contrasting colours in counterpoint would be an exception, as in an abstract photograph. Toning a print adds another layer of manipulation, creating an influence on the way an image is perceived—John Berger’s 1972 BBC documentary Ways of Seeing discusses this using the example of how an image will change its meaning when different music is played as it is viewed (by the way, that series is on YouTube and deserves a close look if you aren’t familiar with it).

3. Playing with differential focus. This is the big one for me, as it is something completely unavailable in ordinary vision. A portrait with the subject in focus and a pleasingly blurred background is something I can study in a photograph. It gives a sense of 3D like depth that is nearly as good as with a stereoscopic camera. With vision, the background is sharp as soon as I look at it. A photograph with huge depth of field (think of an f64-style landscape) isn’t interesting in this way. It’s interest is in the content, if the content itself is interesting. Any Ansel Adams landscape falls into that category and we can all agree he was very successful with them. Furthermore, the use of tilt-shift lenses can alter perspective in quite unnatural ways as used in architectural photography, and exploiting the Scheimpflug principle to the full with a view camera allows thin planes of focus to be angled in unusual ways that can appeal. The depth of focus is only a few inches deep here, but the plane of focus travels back from the corner of the vehicle to the window:


Our natural eyesight, photography and painting are three separate ways of representing the world around us, with less overlap than at first appears. All three tell their little lies, and it is in these differences, often unconsciously perceived, that each can teach us something new about our world. Poor Pietro Annigoni, for all his wonderful skill, still has Rodney Dangerfield’s complaint: “I don’t get no respect!” Maybe I now understand a little bit about why that is.

[Editor’s Note: For those interested in visual neurobiology and how it structures what and how we see, Margaret Livingstone’s Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing is an excellent full-length treatment of the issues discussed above.]

Thinking About Photography

 I think it’s time to put the shoes on again…

By Dr. Henry Joy McCracken. This is an expanded version of the article which first appeared on Dr. McCracken’s excellent blog

Over Christmas I had some time to walk around Paris, which I never tire of doing, and to think once again about photography and film photography. In 2016 I had decided to try the project of shooting (at least) one roll of film each week and posting the best photographs from each roll on 52 rolls. I quite enjoyed this and I got to wondering as I did when I started film photography in 2015 what the origin of this attraction really was. As a scientist, of course, I want to understand! I tried writing about this on Leicaphilia, but I learned a lot about photography in 2016.

So I started to read more books with the idea of eventually perhaps writing an article for EMULSIVE. Early on, I came across on a quote from John Szarkowski, writing in the 1960s, which I thought was great:

“Photography had become easy. In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had “created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? …They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases…” (John Szarkowski, from “the Photographer’s Eye”).

Szarkowski’s introduction is one of the most interesting things I have read about photography. He was concerned with creating a new language to describe photography which was not based on the pictorial traditions of the past. Photography is not painting after all. This book was the exhibition catalogue for a show he organised at MOMA, where he was the director of the photography department. Many of the excellent photographs in that book are from unknown photographers. His quote just demonstrates to me that at each period in time people have had the same complaints as today. Mobile phones are destroying photography!

 Mobile phones are destroying photography (with Yeti)

Moreover, there is no special reason that film photographers should not not suffer from the same equipment-malaise afflicting some digital photographers today. The image below is of a 1952 newspaper I saw in a recent exhibition, where Cartier-Bresson reluctantly explains his philosophy in taking pictures (if you can read the captions they are particularly amusing to us today, especially about how to take pictures at night with very slow film, just think of all those people who complain that their highly sensitive digital cameras are not sensitive enough):

“Du bon usage d’un appareil (Using a camera correctly)”

Of course, he studiously refuses to talk about lenses and emulsions!


But — this is the question — is there really, really a qualitative difference between digital and film? This of course a subject often discussed here on Leicaphilia. I would need to look at more recent books. After a visit to a show at the excellent Maison Europeénne de la Photographie, I went downstairs to their well-stocked library, and asked them for a few books about photography and digital imagery [Editor’s Note: The Maison’s library is one of the coolest places in the world if you’re a photographer. I recommend everyone spend a few weeks there buried in the books]. A very helpful librarian gave me a pile of books to read. I even left at mid-day, went out in the freezing cold streets on the last day of 2016, ate a sandwich, and came back again. It was kind of fun, it was like studying again as a student. I came across some interesting ideas, some of which I discuss in my article, “”What I learned shooting film for a year for 52 rolls”. Here I would like to expand on the first part of that article.

Now let’s go to the library…

So, what do the philosophers have to say today? Around this time, I heard about the death of British critic John Berger, who was famous for his influential “Ways of seeing” series. The first episode, which you can see here on is excellent (and you should be thankful that the shirts are only in black-and-white). It starts with Berger taking a knife to a painting in a gallery and ends with him turning to the camera and insisting that we must be skeptical. Many of the ideas in his program are taken from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction”, which essentially says that each work of art there is an “aura” which is diluted when it is removed from its original context. It makes sense, I think everyone would agree that Caravaggio paintings are better in churches rather than in art galleries or at home on the sofa.  And what about today, with our endlessly reproduced digital images?

 Look closely!

Trying to answer that one I quickly got deeply into writings on photography and images, featuring such luminaries as Sontag, Barthes, Baudrillard, Sartre and more recent writers like Manovich and Lechte. I even came across Flusser, previously mentioned here on Leicaphilia. Being the empiricist that I am I quickly felt I was on unstable ground because a lot of the writings seem to be based on reasonable-sounding assertions which are in fact mutually contradictory. You basically get to choose the point-of-view you like the sound of. So, that’s what I am going to do here, because the point for me is to try understand the emotional reaction one can have when confronted with different kinds of images. What’s worse, considering these philosophers, and I am sorry to level this old criticism: many of them don’t even take photographs!

Well, the one who does take photographs is Baudrillard, so perhaps we should pay more attention to him. His idea in Simulacres et Simulation is that today in our society the (symbolic) representation of things has actually displaced the things themselves [Editor’s Note: Thomas de Zengotita’s magnificent book Mediated is a must read for understanding how representations drive how we think and act]. He has a ‘hit list’ of what bad things can happen to images, and the last one sounds to me suspiciously like a digital image: “it bears no relationship to reality and is its own ‘simulacra'”. So this seems to me what digital images are, simulacra, and perhaps we instinctively realise this when confronted with a purely software-defined image which has been stripped of it’s “aura” by incessant (perfect) digital replication.

 Is this part over yet?

In the end is seems the key difference between film and digital is the mutability of the digital image and how the content of that image is largely defined by software. You might argue that the same is true for film, just substitute “chemicals” for “software” (in my readings I learned that, amusingly,  motion-picture films are only ever processed by “open source” developers, ones for which the chemical formula is known). But there is no guarantee that the digital image is real as it is detached from reality: the link to the underlying physical support is most definitely broken. Moreover, there is no reason either that digital imaging should resemble “photography” as the idea of capturing only a single image a time is now completely arbitrary. It is worth remembering the world’s most popular camera, the iPhone, is largely so successful because it has the best software and not because it has necessarily the best lenses or detectors.

Then, of course, there are all the considerations of what the images actually look like, and how the processes of producing images and photographs are different in both cases. It seems to me now that those are secondary concerns, although they certainly influence how the image is created. Leica have now expended a lot of effort in producing a new digital rangefinder which has exactly the same dimensions as the film cameras which made them famous, but it seems to be missing the point. You can feel that there are earnest people at Leica HQ who understand film, and who sense that something has been lost. This is after all the company that brought us digital cameras which only take pictures in black and white or which have no displays to review images. And today although they have now perfectly replicated the action of taking a photograph with a film camera … it is still a digital camera, even if it is a bit smaller, or has no screen, or only takes pictures in monochrome. Amusingly, an internet search for one of the photographers promoting their new camera (Matt Stuart) reveals that he shoots 2-3 rolls on a film Leica for his personal photography each day, despite also having a previous-generation Leica digital rangefinder.

Another Parisian moment (at the observatory wall)


My artist friend Danny says that in his field the debate between digital and analogue ended years ago. There was just one close-to-retirement prof in his department who taught the students how to scratch film negatives. Fun, but much faster in software. It’s hard not argue with the statement that the most important thing is the content of the image itself and not the support it was produced on. One of the philosophers I read (you can guess which one) insisted that, in fact, the image does not exist as a physical object. This certainly goes in the direction of the equivalence of digital and analogue technologies.

But… there is a difference. My conclusion is that I will continue to shoot film. I would love to just make contact prints for a year and not scan anything because the act of scanning and “dematerialisation” of the negative is a pretty contradictory activity after all that I have said here. However, that would mean a lot more time in the badly-ventilated Observatory dark room…

Renouncing the Digital Feedback Loop (Reclaiming Your Autonomy from Technology)

A sloppy, irresolute photo taken with a film camera

Photographs are everywhere, and it’s easy to lose sight, or not even see, their reality as things in themselves. Most people have a simple way of understanding photographs, as reflections of existing  states of things. The belief is this: photos represent the world itself, even if they are windows from a particular point of view; the photographic world and the world out there are essentially the same. I call this the ‘naïve’ view of photography.

This naïve view begs the question, of course, of what to do about black and white photography. Most things “out there in the world” are not exclusively black and white or tones thereof. So, black and white photography, even within a naïve view, is an abstraction.

What of color? Well, we can agree that the color of the scene presented doesn’t miraculously transfer itself onto a roll of film or a sensor. The process of “reproducing” color photographically is a transcription, the same as any other image making process, an attempt to ‘re- create’ a state of things via an abstraction. Like any abstraction, what is transcribed and the transcription itself will always vary to some extent even when the intent is to be as “accurate” as possible. How its ‘re-created’ is a function of two things – the choices and skill of the photographer and the potential offered by the tools one uses.

So, if photos are abstractions, we have to, in the jargon of semiotics, ‘decode’ them (make the intention behind them understandable), because ultimately photographs are about communicating something. How do we do that? As a photographer and not a philosopher, I’d suggest that a successful photograph is one where the photographer’s intention has been realized, where a human’s intention overrides any intentions inherent in the camera itself.



Vilém Flusser was a Czech born philosopher of language and communication who wrote verbose philosophical tomes no one reads anymore, assuming they ever did (that’s him, above). In 1983, prior to the digital age, Flusser wrote Fur Eine Philosophie der Fotografie (Towards a Philosophy of Photography) in which he argues that cameras themselves have intentions (I presume, were you to cut through the ponderous academic jargon, he’s really talking about camera manufacturers driven by profit motives). He lists them as follows:

  •  to place the camera’s inherent capabilities into a photograph;
  • to make use of a photographer;
  • to create a feedback relationship between photographers and the camera and its products which creates progressive technological improvement so as to produce “better” photographs;
  • to produce “better” photographs.

All of which is to say, in common parlance, that the photographic tools you use and the capabilities they offer you will tend to structure the types of photographs you produce with them, by naturally pushing you in the direction of utilizing what they (the photographic tool), not you, might do best.  Examples of this phenomenon would be the “bokeh” craze currently all the rage with a certain type of gearhead, or the current fetish for sharpness, where the benchmark of the “quality” of a photograph is determined by how resolute your corners are.

Maybe it’s just me, but photographic aesthetics seem to have changed markedly since the inception of digital photography, to my mind for the worse. Optical characteristics have increasingly replaced emotional resonance as the criterion of a “good” photograph, the result of a repressive stranglehold of sharpness and resolution on the photographic imagination which is itself driven by the particular characteristics of digital capture. Flusser would say that the camera has made use of the photographer, its intentions having triumphed over the potential intentions of the human, the result of the inevitable feedback loop between tool and user. I would add that, as far as creative possibilities are concerned, this is a step back rather than a step forward.


Of course, you could argue that the same logic applies to traditional film photography, and you’d be correct up to a certain point. The types of photographs you’re able to take with film also structure the results you get. With film photography that structuring typically takes the form of limits on what you can do, circumscribing your ability to take photos in certain situations or producing results within a limited aesthetic spectrum, setting the parameters within which the photographer must work as opposed to actively pushing him in a certain direction. There’s a big difference.

Above is a photograph by Antonin Kratochvil, a Czech born photographer and a personal favorite of mine. He’s long been known in journalism circles for his idiosyncratic approach, both technologically and aesthetically. Fellow photographer Michael Perrson describes seeing Kratochvil in a Croatian refugee camp using two old Nikons with beat-up, generic 28mm lenses, cameras “that looked like they could no more be traded for a pack of chewing gum than be a tool to make professional photos,” other photographers snickering at the Eastern European hack. Pictures he shot there would find their way into Broken Dreams, his award-winning monograph of the ecological devastation of Soviet era Eastern Europe.

As Perrson notes, what makes Kratochvil a great photographer is not his equipment but rather his unique sensibility. “He believes in the craft of photography, the skill and the ability of the photographer not to let his tools control his actions.” This simplicity releases in him the freedom to see things in unique ways. Kratochvil himself laments the ever-increasing incursions of technology into the photographic process – “technology has made it so that anyone can take ‘competent’ photos. It follows that if anyone can do this, where is the respect?” For Kratochvil, the camera is simply a tool; seeing is what’s important, and a given state of technology should never compel you to see the world in any given way.

Kratochvil strikes me as a very wise man in addition to being a superb photographer. But I’m certain that most smug digital technocrats, those whom digital precision and technical perfection have led by the nose, will find his work naive and technically amateurish, as if that was the sole criterion on which photography might be judged. Such dismissiveness is the tribute the inadequate pay to the articulate.

Photography as Magic


We’ve all got one photo we’ve taken that resonates with us. It won’t win an award, which isn’t the point. The point is that It has a meaning for us, and we keep coming back to it when thinking of the photos we’ve taken we really like. Above is mine, taken in 1970 when I was 12 and just learning the fundamentals of film photography. It’s of two kids in my neighborhood. Nothing special, but it reminds me of my  childhood – my aspirations, the shape of my personality even at that early age, by extension people now old, people now dead. The kid down the street who died way too young; the dog next door I adopted as my own because I wasn’t allowed my own pet; friends I’ve lost touch with long ago; my father, long gone.

I thought it was cool simply as a good photo back then. I still think it’s cool, and I still think it’s a good photo. Not bad for a 12 y/o kid. But it’s become something more than that for me now. Each time I look at it a rush of involuntary memories come back to me, memories shaken loose by a simple decision, long ago, to point my camera at something and click. This is the enduring magic, for me, of photography. Photography can make you feel young again  – or yet. It can give you a visceral connection to the past, providing a clarity that memory, always reconstituting itself, cannot. In spite of its inherently abstract nature – the reality that stasis is a constructed illusion, as Roland Barthes spent a book arguing – it still can possess an authenticity that can’t be rationalized away. Those people there, in that picture, once stood in front of that camera, 50 years ago, just like that. That, to me, is magic.


Life is Good

20160930-r1099706-editAbove is a picture of what’s currently in front of me, Friday, September 30th at around quarter to 5. The wine is a Dutton-Goldfield Russian River Zinfandel, circa 2006. I uncorked it last night after arriving home from an 85.5 km ride at 28.6 average km/hr (statistics courtesy of Strava) on my Formigli custom made road bicycle, but, feeling slightly gassed, corked it back up with the idea that I’d drink it later (today).

Next to it sits a Leica IIIg with incredibly cool Carl Zeiss Jena f1.5. It sits on a book I’m currently reading, and enjoying – Frederic Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking. Next to me, snuggled up against me, is Buddy, a curious looking hound I rescued from the local APCSA a few years ago, who just happened to become my best friend. Lucky me. The IIIg has no reason to be here except that I’m just enjoying its company. While it’s loaded with a 36 exposure roll of HP5 (after of course, snipping the film leader just so to make sure it’s loaded properly), I don’t anticipate I’ll be using in in any capacity. I’m just admiring it. I brought it out here just to look at it while I enjoyed my Zinfandel.

What’s the point of this? Who knows.