Photo A: A Man With a Leica, Circa 1950. Photo B: A Man With a Leica, Circa 2015. What Does The One Have to Do With The Other?
I love Leica film cameras. And as much as I love Leica film cameras, I remain profoundly ambivalent about Leica digital cameras. God knows I’ve tried to like them. I own an M8, my second, bought shortly after I sold my first and regretted not having it around. It’s an interesting digital camera, unlike the bloated plastic and magnesium monsters offered by Nikon and Canon. But the economy of means possessed by the film cameras somehow feels absent in the Digital M’s, the traditional M’s restrained simplicity having crossed over in the digital models to an ostentatious austerity, attention to necessary details having evolved into the excessively fussy.
The digital M’s even look inauthentic in some undefined way, maybe in the way a self-consciously “retro” edition looks in relation to the real thing. If it were just the aesthetics of the cameras themselves, I could overlook it, but it’s the experience the digital versions provide that’s unsettling for me. Every time I use my M8 it feels odd in some way, like a simulation of the “real” experience I enjoy when using a film M. The cameras themselves might share a similarity of form, but that’s where the similarities end. The respective experiences themselves bear almost no relation to each other. You might as well be engaged in different activities. And isn’t that traditionally why photographers have loved and used Leicas; why they’ve always paid a premium for them, the simplified elegance of the photographic act they allow?
The tools you use to create structure what you create. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford argues that genuine agency arises in the context of submission to the tools we use, tools that have their own intractable ways. The important thing to remember, if you agree with Crawford, is that the experience we can have is dependant on the tool we chose to use. The design of a tool conditions the kind of involvement we will have in the activity. Some tools are better adapted to the requirements of skillful, unimpeded action, while other tools can prevent skillful self-assertion and can compromise the experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world.
I would argue that this is especially true for photography. You can choose digital technology for its quickness and ease of use, but at the certain cost to your own creative autonomy and of your experience of the craft you are engaged in. Or you can use traditional analogue processes and more fully engage your own skillful involvement to create something.
Valentina, Red’s Java House, San Francisco, Arista.edu 400 @800 iso in Diafine.
While the digital/analogue argument will seem a tired exercise in nostalgia for most photographers, there remain deep biological factors at play that militate against it ever being completely resolved for some of us. Historically, creating something required a tactile interaction with materials and substances, the result of a deep intelligence that could not be learned without material manipulation and embodied experiences and an understanding of the cause and effect relationship that exists between actions and their consequences.
The hand and handiwork is a major thing that sets humans apart as a species. The earliest divergence of the species that evolved into modern humans began with an evolutionary reconfiguration of the hand allowing sophisticated tool use. You can make the case that this is, literally, what defines us as human animals, and argue that rationality, what is commonly understood to be the uniquely human, came along as a byproduct of the use of tools, as sort of a evolutionary development of the neural software necessary for tool use.
Digital virtuality is propelling us further and further away from physical, tangible experience. What is lacking in the new digital photographic paradigm is the physical experience of photography, the activity that has traditionally constituted photography, the physical making as part of the creative process. The singular final print, the end result of a chosen process of varieties of film, the mechanics of the camera, the physical activities of developing and printing.
We are in danger of losing the sense of the photograph as a physical thing. A photograph is not only seen—it is touched, read, received and manipulated. It is fully appreciated only as a product of this physical relationship, and in that relationship it will always remain elusive, a handmade object irreducible to any single dimension. The most detailed digital rendering, what you might view on your computer screen, preserves only a vestige of the physical photograph’s real, dynamic nature. Yes, you can print a digitally produced photograph, but how many people do?
Contemporary photography has a certain look, a function of its technology. It’s the reason many of us still shoot film. Some of us still see certain creative possibilities in ‘The Film Look’ that aren’t given us with digital capture. So, if and when digital technology advances to the point that it can reproduce the appearance of films and formats precisely, will the process of analogue alone be enough to keep some of us using it? For hand made processes, where their idiosyncrasies are intrinsic to the print, undoubtedly. But what of industrial films, which were designed to react with light in a consistent way without variation?
To paraphrase Elliott Erwitt, photography should be taken seriously and treated as an avocation. We should love the doing of it and do it for that reason. And I think a big part of this is engagement in the process, and in that respect I find traditional photographic processes much more rewarding, partly because they embody a certain set of skills that reward detailed attention and experience. The analogy to cooking comes to mind: Taking photos digitally and editing them on a computer is like cooking a TV diner in a microwave. The film process is a gourmet meal cooked with attention to every step in the process. Film process – how demanding it is to use as a craft — is its enduring strength, but it’s also why film is now a niche with no aspirations to popular appeal, aimed squarely at discerning users, while the convenience of digital has made it the tool of choice for the average guy who just wants to photograph something.
Analogue users belong to the future because they are guardians of the past. Let’s hope we film aficionados, the people who occupy that niche, are able through our efforts to keep film alive for future generations. Technological change is too often a “Faustian bargain” in which something is sacrificed in order for something new to be gained. Will we sacrifice what is of real value in the photographic experience for the new we’ve gained?