Digital photography renders a certain look, nothing much like the film aesthetic. Whether you find it better, or worse, is a matter of preference. Among traditional photographers i.e. film photographers, it’s become a cliche to complain about the sterility of the digital photo when contrasted with the thick, expressiveness of film. It’s the reason why many of us claim we still shoot film. The film look. Some of us, having trained our eye with a lifetime of looking at and creating images captured with film, much prefer the film look. Its familiar, understandable, capable of being manipulated in manners we’ve learned through trial and error to create what we want to communicate.
Which poses a question: If and when digital technology advances to the point that it can reproduce the appearance of films and formats precisely, will the processes of analogue capture alone be enough to keep using it? For hand made processes, where idiosyncrasies are intrinsic to the print, undoubtedly. But what of industrial films, which are designed to react with light in a consistent way without variation? Now that we can mimic the film look with our iPhones and a 5 dollar app, what further purpose does the slow-mo variant – loading film, tripping mechanical shutters, rewinding film into cassettes, waiting for the results while we employ arcane development procedures – serve? All this so we can escape blown highlights? Or is it so that we may continue to claim photography as a learned craft, our expertise hard-won, allowing us to look down at the happy-snapper as a trivial dilettante, engaged in something beneath us?
Only the most shallow, or willfully ignorant, can deny the revolutionary nature of the changes being wrought by the “digital revolution.” Unlike film photography, where an image is transcribed physically onto a material substrate, digital media translate everything into “data”, waiting for a machine to reconstitute it. Digital photos are coded signifiers, usually clicked on a screen, infinitely repeatable abstractions in which original and copy are exactly the same, yet just as easily transformed into something completely different.
The 2D experience of digital tech is fundamentally at odds with the physicality inherent in human perception and action. There are very deep biological factors at play in creative endeavors. The hand and handiwork is what sets us apart as a species. The earliest divergence of the species that would evolve into modern humans began with an evolutionary reconfiguration of the hand allowing sophisticated tool use. This is, literally, what sets us apart as humans and defines us. Some would argue that rationality came along as a byproduct of the use of tools, as sort of a evolutionary development of the neural software necessary for tool use. This evolutionary heritage has obvious implications for our lives as creators. Humans have an innate need to physically master things as part of the creative process. The physicality of the process is a large part of the need it serves. The musician with the violin, the painter applying an impasto of paint, part of the need creative processes meet is necessarily physical. A large part. Creativity doesn’t just meet emotional or intellectual needs. It should meet physical needs as well.
From earliest humanity, creating something has necessarily required a tactile interaction with materials and substances along with 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 our actions and their consequences. In photographic practice, this meant first understanding the mechanics of the camera, an understanding of cause and effect with respect to the aperture, shutter speed, the clunk of the shutter, the movement of the film thru the camera, the nuances of the chemical development process, the laborious printing until we finally got the one print that conformed to what we saw in our mind’s eye. Now, the skill required of photographers is the ability to manipulate surfaces without any real understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved, where the machine is smart so that the human can remain stupid.
A few years ago I saw a Walker Evans exhibit at the Getty in Los Angeles. Small, simple 5×7 contact prints of work he had done in Havana in the 50’s. Something about the photos themselves, their physicality, the jewel like beauty of the photograph as a physical thing, how each print embodied an irreducible idiosyncrasy, moved me profoundly; beautiful photos that could not only be seen, but also touched, read, received and manipulated. It seemed as if they could only be fully appreciated by means of this physical relationship, and in that relationship they would always remain partly elusive. It was what made the work so beautiful to see.
Even the most detailed digital rendering, viewed virtually, is able to preserve only a vestige of the physical photograph’s real, dynamic nature, a handmade object Like Walker’s contact prints, irreducible to any single dimension. The are, rather, visual wallpaper, endlessly replicated, and so numerous now as to render us numb to whatever physicality they might possess. For better or worse, they are no longer analogue, palpable, singular in its object like a traditional work of art.
It has become unfashionable these days to speak of the problematic consequences of the digital revolution. All the more reason to do so. I am not a Luddite, or just an old guy asserting the tyranny of the traditional status quo. I am noting that the path we choose often determines our goal, and the goals digital capture holds out to us as photographers are becoming radically divergent from photography’s traditional aims. What is being lost in the new digital paradigm is the physical experience of photography, the activity that has traditionally constituted photography, the physical making of one unique and idiosyncratic thing as part of the creative process. Do you feel as if you’ve created something when reviewing an image on a screen? Yes, you can print a digitally produced photograph, but how many of you actually do?
Digital technology is propelling us further and further away from the idiosyncratic and tangible unique creation. Now we have a movement of electrons and the inscription of 1s and 0s housed somewhere ethereal, producing an endlessly replicated synthetic universe viewed through a screen. We are losing the sense of the photograph as a unique physical thing. There is lived-in feel of a beloved photograph that you’ve taken, developed, printed, matted and framed and that you’ve had hanging on a wall somewhere forever. You have a connection to that one photo – how it was taken, how you developed it, how you chose to print it, how you framed it. All tangible qualities, something more than a jpg nested on a hard drive with a few thousand others, or displayed as a screensaver on a smartphone.