My 04/06/08 Missoulian column
I thought the rest of the world had gone to digital photography, passing me by, but just last week I went modern myself. Now, I’m up to speed and have found that digital makes photography easy again, though I’m not getting rid of my old film cameras just yet.
What took me so long to go to digital? I liked my old film cameras, with their substantial bodies and thick glass; the “ceremonial” process of developing black and white with stainless steels tanks and chemicals and a watch; and being able to hold the negatives up to a light after it came out of the wash to see what I had.
I went digital because I figured it was time for photography to be a little easier. I’ve never been that into color film processing at the department store, and cranking up the darkroom to develop and print black and white is a lot of work. And, I wanted to be able to easily use software such as Adobe Photoshop to prepare photos for printing and the Internet rather than having to develop, print and scan my pictures and negatives as I’ve been doing.
For me, as it must have been for others, moving from film to digital was a paradigm shift, both in terms of the technology and the thought process involved in snapping pictures. The change in technology is obvious: from chemical film and paper to pure digital information, from storing negatives and prints to calling an image up on the screen. What can you not do with digital images? They can be easily printed (directly from a camera, in some cases), tweaked with Photoshop or with a free photo editor on the Web, uploaded to a blog or a photo service such as Flickr, loaded into a photo frame at home or even a pocket photo viewer for the grandparents. These days, it’s straight from the camera to the rest of the world.
But this paradigm shift got me thinking about information in this day and age. I’m no philosopher or neuroscientist, but it seems our thought processes have been altered in some way by new forms of information and new ways information is presented. While newspapers are still printed on paper and can be paged through by hand, they also are becoming available in virtual form on the Web, and are hyperlinked, searchable and interconnected. Newspapers aren’t newspapers anymore; they’re something else entirely.
In the “old” days of film cameras, I’d concentrate on the image in the viewfinder and the action taking place. After the film was processed, I’d look through my contact sheets to see what I had. I had to be conscious of what I was photographing because it wasn’t possible to stop halfway through to review my pictures.
Photography was as much the action going on as the imagination of what would be there after the film was developed. When the contact sheets were dry, I could see what happened during the roll and almost read what I was thinking as the action was happening.
Looking at my sheets, I can remember that wedding on the street in New Delhi. I can see how I came across it on a side street, how the party nodded when I held up my cameras, and how I circled around the celebration and how they soon forgot I was there. The musicians played, the families danced to loud Hindi pop, and I moved on. Now, I can see what my thoughts were at the time and how I saw it happening.
In the digital world there also are new decisions – among them, which photos should you keep? With most digital cameras, you can review the photos you’ve just taken and delete any you don’t want to keep. With film, you’d end up with numerous prints and negatives that were seldom thrown away.
I have to resist the urge to delete photos right away, because I’ve found that as time goes by I reappraise what I’ve shot and have found images that I like much better than others. I don’t know if our perceptions of photographs age like a fine wine, but I do think we see our own photographs differently as with time.
So, with my digital camera I feel as if I’m tethered to my MacBook and iPhoto and Photoshop software, but it’s still easier to download the images, and work with them than it is to process the film and scan my pictures and negatives. My film cameras aren’t going on eBay anytime soon; they’re in the closet and will be used again.
I won’t prognosticate about the future of digital imagery, except to say it will continue to change – like everything else – and we’ll have to keep up with the technology. Digital images will become more integrated into life and we’ll soon think it was never any different. (“Photograph” is an interesting word – do we need a new term?)
I’ll soon have a hard drive or two full of images instead of more boxes full of negatives, contact sheets and prints. But light looks different now – in my mind’s eye, light is no longer black and white, waiting inside a camera to be revealed in the darkroom. It’s bits and pieces of data waiting to be downloaded. But digital makes that easy.