Paolo Pelligrin’s Mosul Girl

Paolo Pellegrin’s Refugees from the village of Bajurbuk, near Bashiqa. Told by ISIS that they were to be moved to Mosul the following day, the village residents fled their homes in the middle of the night and took refuge behind Peshmerga lines. Iraq, 2016, © Paolo Pellegrin

I ran across this stunning photo in The Guardian the other day. It’s by Paolo Pellegrin,  a member of the Magnum Photos agency and winner of ten World Press Photo awards. There’s something timeless about the photo, harkening back to the best photojournalism of the Leica era. What interests me is his choice of B&W, which is a conscious nod to the traditional mid-century photo journalist aesthetic even though he’s fully digital – he shoots with a Canon 5d with a limited selection of lenses. Unlike most zoom-happy digiphiles, Pellegrin restricts his use to 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm primes, which itself betrays his film era roots. He retains some misgivings about digital: “In general, I embrace digital photography as an evolution of the medium, but I dislike the ease with which it can be manipulated. When you deal with charged issues, like people in war, you need to be able to trust the photographer.”

Unfortunately, IMO, he hasn’t reached far back enough for the traditionalist nod. The photo, which I grabbed from his website and thus presumably is printed to his specifications, suffers from that ‘thin’ ‘brittle’ look of much of digital B&W ( Heidegger calls animal consciousness “world-poor” in contrast to human consciousness [he’s wrong]; I think of digital capture as “reality-poor” in contrast to film capture [I’m right]). It would be much better as a ‘film’ image I think, so I’ve taken the liberty of reconfiguring it to how I see it. You may or may not agree.

What’s instructive is how easy it is to convert an obvious digitally captured image to one that looks indistinguishable from something shot with an M4 and some Plus-X. That being the case, do we really need those old film cameras or is that just one more affectation the passage of time is proving wrong? More interestingly, is the “film” look itself now an anachronism, a ‘manipulation’ that Pellegrin thinks we shouldn’t trust? If so, are we now then, by default, stuck with world-poor digital rendering?

That’s Better (Apologies to Paolo Pellegrin)

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8 thoughts on “Paolo Pelligrin’s Mosul Girl

  1. Gavin Lowe

    The answer to your question is ‘No’. We are not stuck with ‘world-poor’ digital imaging. Digital can’t reproduce colour slides. My father’s kodakchromes from Antartica in the mid-late 1950s are so much better than a scan of them that it is not even close. Just hold them up to the light to see the difference. That is just 35mm. Try the same on a lightbox with medium format or large format and it is even more so. Next, consider a scan of a black and white negative and a contact print. I have been scanning and also darkroom printing my father’s Rolleiflex and Leica negatives from them 1950’s and 1960s (and Graflex 6×9 from the 1940’s). The Leica negatives were taken with a iiif and a collapsible Summicron. In every case even a simple contract print without any manipulation is just so much better than a scan that I have stopped bothering to scan them, and am just wet printing them. Finally, if we consider large format and all the printing processes with that (carbon prints, platinum prints, salt prints) – these are in a different universe from digital and an inkjet print. But you have to leave the computer screen to see it. It is the computer that is ‘world-poor’.

    1. Keith Laban

      And yet those ‘world poor’ computers and digital imaging cameras enable us to see detailed pictures of the birth and death of stars and galaxies billions of light years away.

      Having used transparency film for more years than I care to remember I do miss viewing them on a light table, but if you want digital images with the pop of a transparency then consider the ‘Duratran’ materials combined with Lambda processing.

      Film and digital capture are different, they have unique qualities which can and should be used to advantage.

  2. Rob Campbell

    A lot always depends on your scanning skills.

    I earned most of my keep with Kodachrome 64 Pro, FP3/4, HP3/4 in my 135 format cameras; with roll film, only TXP 120 and various manifestations of Ektachrome. (I found my CanoScan to be a wonderful little device for scanning 135 format films, including for Kodachrome.)

    The real problem that all of the transparencies faced was down to reproduction which, unless in the form of an enlarged duplicate transparency, usually ended up flatter due to the paper on which the things were printed, the inescapable fact of the matter being that transparencies are viewed by transmitted light, whereas print by reflected, and hence the loss of snap. Sadly, a transparency on its own is but a work in progress: it requires another step for comfortable viewing. Pojectors? You really can be bothered with all that stuff today? Light boxes? They are as variable as uncalibrated monitors.

    Frankly, I have my doubts about calibrated monitors too, much of it being human-dependent.

    In the end, unless for business, photography is simply to be enjoyed or, otherwise, abandoned. Which system people decide they want, can or can’t afford to use is their business, there being no absolute rights and wrongs in such situations. If Leica is too expensive, one must buy something else. The Leica isn’t the key to photographic success: the photographer always is. However, beauty of engineering design has its own value, and that is unquestionably Leica’s forte.

    The way I have come to think about it is this: without digital I would have stopped making pìctures back in the late 80s, which is pretty much what I did do until I bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D200, which I am using to this day, its big sister D700 having locked her mirror irreperably to death. (That malfunction has put me right off buying another dslr; on checking the Intenet for solutions to the problem, I was amazed to see how frequently dslr mirros lock up, something I’d never heard of with film slr cameras. It also makes me wonder about the reliability of IBIS systems that have the sensor dancing around all the time in a variety of directions; just doing a simple dust-removing shake seems dodgy enough to tempt reliability and the return to the proper position.)

    Importantly for me, without digital, I’d not have my web site, which I enjoy – even if it does sometimes demand too much attention and brings along its own frustrations.


  3. Rob Campbell

    Sorry, but I can’t agree about digital being “thin” in comparison with film. I used to feel something similar a while ago, but not any longer. Differences certainly exist in prints – some darkroom paper surfaces looking worse or just as bad as some digital ones. I’ve never seen anything to beat a well-glazed WSG, especially on double-weight papers that improve the entire physicality of the print, but matt darkroom prints suck too. IMO. But as here, on a monitor, film seems to offer little advantage… the huge advantage of film prints over digital prints is when printed very large; grain is less offensive than pixels, and often adds to a feeling, a look.

    The Pelligrini shot doesn’t move me positively, in either version; it’s just not a nicely exposed image, and even the subject does little for me. Light is key in all photography; only if you do find yourself in a war situation should you accept badly exposed negatives or files and lousy light.

    I tried out Tri X in the Nikons from time to time, but unlike its big brother TXP 120, which at ASA 400/320 gave me a wonderful tonal range in that larger format (the reason I used it for fashion and portraiture in the first place), it just never worked well (for me) in the small format; there, Ilford’s 135 format HP3/4 were far better toned, if you needed fast film. I put all that stuff through D76 1+1.

    There’s a commonly held fallacy that you can rate film higher than the maker’s ratings; you can do anything you want to do once you have bought the film, but the reality is that by rating film at a higher ASA rate than the manufacturer does, and then extending development to compensate doesn’t cut it: all you’ve done is raise the highlight density, creating blocked highlights and rotten contrast. You can’t reveal what was never captured. Another thing to bear in mind is this: even if somebody rates film at an elevated level, there is the little matter of where the guy is actually pointing his meter. The fact that many “name” photographers claim to shoot at very elevated exposures doesn’t make any difference to the physics and chemistry: equally as many photographers still believe that a wide-angle lens gives you more DOF than does a telephoto. Wrong: all lenses at the same aperture and magnification give the very same DOF. Perspective, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. Photography is full of myths.

    I have been shooting some local stuff (linked below) on my remaining digital camera: I hardly think anyone would accuse the snaps of being “thin”. And exposure for most of those shots was based on the highlights, not the shadows. Digital has a pretty wide DR which allows for capture of quite a good range of tones – even in very contrasty Spanish light – and even with the exposure emphasis on protecting the highlights and letting the shadows sink or swin all by themselves.

    Of course, there’s the matter of what type of look the viewer likes: some love gritty, technically deprived images, and a badly-exposed in extremis one, is perhaps better than not getting anything at all, but as a means of normal shooting, just as habit, that’s a strange course to take. That said, I did go through a period where I added grain to many digital pix just to see how it looked. In the end, unless it’s for money, it’s all legit and brings some pleasure to our lives.


  4. Gavin Lowe

    I believe each to their own. My scanning skills, such as they are, are elementary and undoubtedly I am bad at it. I am not a photojournalist or a professional photographer and I only make pictures for my own pleasure. For myself, if I am not carrying a (film) camera and I see something that I would like to photograph I never think ‘oh I wish I had a digital camera’, and I have stopped bothering to use the iPhone in those circumstances because it just does nothing for me. Incidentally, the latest OS for iPhone has included an automatic brightening on all dark photos. Goodbye moody night time shots.
    When I was a child growing up in Latin America we had a phrase for something being too easy; it was ‘facil’ said briskly and with an uplift at the end of the second syllable. It is difficult to explain the exact equivalent in English (the same goes for the word ‘simpatico’) but when we use the the latin word ‘facile’ it does get it a bit, that dismissive and slightly contemptuous flick of the head when saying it. If something is ‘too easy’ there is little satisfaction in it. For 2700 years we have had objects with ‘[x] me fecit’ carved on them. The impulse to make something and say ‘I made this’. I don’t get that impulse if that starting point is a computer wrapped in a camera body, but I do if I am holding a film camera, and when it comes to ‘operating’ a camera I get pleasure from using a film Leica or Rolleiflex or a wooden field 4×5, and from making my own prints with chemicals and paper.

    1. Rob Campbell

      Doing it with chemicals and paper was the way it was done prior to digital – obviously enough – and the darkroom was an expensive learning room. I had the good fortune to start my career in an engineering company’s photo-unit and spent five or six years doing very little else but print, and as it wasn’t a commercial unit that had to turn a buck, there were no constraints on paper etc. and the idea was to get the best result possible. After about a year of that, wastage was minimal: we could all read a negative straightaway; maybe one test print and we were home.

      Now the point of mentioning this has nothing to do with the blowing of personal trumpets, but it does have a lot to do with printing digitally: coming from chemicals, one historically understands how prints can look insofar as tones are concerned, and that’s quite an advantage when it comes to looking deeply into the eyes of the monitor. The basic thing is, I think, that the temptation to go nuts with the technology is easy to resist because there’s this built-in safety filter from earlier experiences that prevents the worst new excesses from taking root in the psyche and becoming the norm. Apart from just looking silly, a lot of “extreme” printing ends up looking pretty dated and, not only that, dangerously committed to an era or passing visual fad. That’s when the return to a more normal, classical look becomes such a breath of fresh air and so rewarding to do; it’s a kind of return to the womb, as it were, to the golden standard. In a way, it’s like returning to home cooking after a prolonged stay at some hotel: if you have a great cook at home, what a relief that you can get back to stuff you trust and know wasn’t messed around with in some kitchen that never sees the time to get thoroughly cleaned out.

      However, it’s a bit heavy to state that “Digital can’t reproduce colour slides.” With the tools and the knowledge available, it can, and even sometimes improve on them. Really, it’s much the same as how a clever Photoshop artist can immeasurably improve on a straight-from-the-card file. Like I mentioned before, I believe a transparency is doomed to being a work in progress: on its own, it has a very limited abilty to be viewed to best advantage. And it’s a one-off, not a great position in which to find itself: so vulnerable. 🙂

      I live in Spain: latin-based languages are certainly different in how they can be used to emphasise things; English, too, can be very cutting when it so chooses, and the sweetly voiced female putdown is a specialty. Funny thing: I got used to hearing American speech in movies etc. using the word “man” as a form of casual address; only after I came to live here did I realise that the word “hombre” is used in exactly the same way, and as Spanish predates movie American… guess it all goes back to those Romans!


  5. Bob Palmieri

    I must say, in this instance the grain, contrast, etc. of the “film look” does grab me harder, and pulls me into looking at her eyes more immediately.

    I feel that Grain Animates.

    Incidentally, the choice of 28, 35 & 50 mm lenses resonates with Salgado’s reported use of 28, 35 & 60mm lenses on his Leica reflexes back in the day. Speaking of grain & contrast, if you’ve ever seen one of his big exhibitions…. man…. loved that rendering in his (and his assistants’) hands.

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