Jan 23, 2012

choices not versus

© Rineke Dijkstra

I've been stewing over this post for the past few days. The film vs. digital debate is tired, and I don't want to stir the pot here, but I do want to get a few things off my chest. I think there is a conversation to be had about film and digital photography without having it slide into an us versus them, or them versus us, debate. We are all them and us. Great pictures get made, every day, by talented, hardworking, resourceful photographers with a battery of different tools.

The fact that we have the options, and the idea that those options might be jeopardized, is at the heart of the issue for me. Last week, Kodak applied for bankruptcy protection. The (eventual) death of film was declared. Yet, the same day, as I read the newest issue of PDN, the stark contrast to that news couldn't have been more evident. There was Rineke Dijkstra shooting film, Shelby Lee Adams also pulling sheets, and Danny Clinch talking about the breadth of tools he employs to make photographs - both film and digital.

As photographers, we somewhat bend to the fact that technology, our tools, define us. I'm not saying the cameras we choose, but the machine in general. It has limitations - it's a perfectly imperfect machine. On a more romantic day, I would argue otherwise, but as I write this I'm feeling a little more pragmatic, as I think about the reality of having less possibilities. Less resources.

At the end of the day, I don't care where a photograph comes from - good work is good work. Period. But, I also find great joy in trying to put myself in the heads of other photographers, I enjoy the idea of process, and decision making.

I've been thinking a lot about Joel Sternfeld lately. His new body of work First Pictures is an interesting example. Let's strip away the digital/film issue and concentrate on his use of different formats, different tools. he couldn't have made those first pictures with an 8x10. Conversely, he couldn't have made American Prospects with 35mm. And, iDubai? That's another discussion. The differences between the works are important - there is much to learn there about him, history, color, and photography in general. Sternfeld is going to make good, thought provoking, and many times difficult photographs, regardless of the tools he uses. However, I think its important to recognize that this decision in regards to the tool is an important one, and in no small part dictates how he approaches his subject. The same could be said for all of us.

© Joel Sternfeld

It's this decision making aspect that makes me uneasy about the idea of Kodak packing it in. Currently, the digital formats that are in the same economic universe as most of us is limited. 35mm equivalents are it (as incredible as they are). Medium format digital or 4x5 back? Forget about it. With the (future) death of film also dies choices. I think (hope) our history as photographers lives outside the technology, but only if we are spread across a wide and varying spectrum of choices in tools, and don't let the market dictate those choices.

A good argument could be made that Kodak's ambivalence to the revolution is in large part to blame for the vs. problem. To be fair, conversations like this probably aren't helping. We live in an interesting time, no doubt, and I can't help but think what the present would be if Kodak had embraced digital photography as an extension of a heritage, instead of something different and threatening. And, found a way to bring all of it together as an image making culture of choices. Had the wherewithal to follow "you press the button, we do the rest" with an embracing "we are all photographers".


dogu said...

While the past may not be repeated, it's important to think about what's happened before when tech changed. If we look at music, vinyl (dead with the advent of mp3) is surging back as a niche product. In the visual arts, ancient methods like painting, wood cuts, and pen and ink still exist.
Worst case, the cost of making film goes so high it just disappears. Given the rate at which ccd capacity is growing and price is dropping, I'd expect large format digitals to gradually become available. More likely, somebody will buy up the film making tech and do small batch processing. Costs will be higher than today but you'll still be able to get film.
It's going to be an interesting dynmic.

ben said...

dogu, thanks for your comment.

In regards to vinyl - the music industry is an interesting example, but I'm not as concerned in the end product (the vinyl) I'm more interested in the act of recording. I won't speculate here, as I know nothing of the music industry, but if that were my world I guess my interest would be in the production. Again, I won't speculate.

This is an interesting dynamic, and I agree, film isn't going to die. And, let's be honest, it's expensive now, regardless of its niche interest. I guess my larger point is that just being available isn't good enough. We're pricing new photographers out of being artists. The prices and the cries of "film is dead' only reinforce the decision for new photographers that DSLRs are the only relevant option. The market is driving creative decisions.

patcaribou said...

i totally agree, "a good photograph is a good photograph", regardless of camera type or process. however, each technology carries its own unique style and unique set of limitations. kodak's film division is still profitable, i think because most serious (art) photographers still shoot with medium or large format film; alec soth's amazingly poignant, sharp and detailed portraits have a certain style that cannot be reproduced using a camera phone or even an expensive digital camera. however, one could make the argument that even with film, the final product nowadays is usually digital, because the negatives are typically scanned in to a computer, adjusted in photoshop and then printed with an inkjet.

ben said...

good Points, Patrick, and I don't disagree, and actually your final point is an important one in several contexts.

What I'm most interested in though, is not artists who have found their way, but younger photographers. I've been thinking about this in the context of teaching - where is the bridge between digital and film? How is Alec's process relevant to a kid just starting out? With the price and ultimate scarcity of film, where is the future for these kids, and how do I navigate that?

Speaking of Alec, he said recently (can't remember where, and I'm paraphrasing) that one of the problems with new technology is that photographers don't have the time to truly master their tool. I think this is spot on, and something I've been thinking a lot about with my classes.

Anyway, will do another blog post later to wrap this up and put it to bed. Thanks for your thoughts.

patcaribou said...

yah. film probably won't go away entirely but its price could eventually make it a tool exclusively of the "rich". but maybe not. i took an alternative processes class last year (e.g. cyanotype, kalitype, platinum - palladium, etc...); the "old school" contact printing methods that were invented in the 1800's. There are only 2 places left in the world which still manufacture the chemicals; 1 happens to be in Santa FE. Some of the chemical kits are expensive (especially if they contain platinum), but some are actually quite affordable. (luckily we only had to pay for paper and brushes for the class..) Nonsilver printing is considered a "niche" with only a handful of practitioners but price-wise its not out of reach to the average joe. i think one of the things that has helped keep film affordable is the movie industry since they use so much of it, but i'm not sure where they are in the "transition" to digital (and how that would effect the price of film). but perhaps one of the upsides to digital is that its better for the environment since you're consuming less materials and water, and not using as many toxic chemicals.

Jin said...

I think you're right that it's about formats and not medium. 35mm film has been eclipsed by digital cameras and the film industry has suffered because most of it was propped up by consumer use. Most professional artists who still use film are probably using the larger formats and those are not relatively expensive in comparison to their digital equivalents.

I shoot film because I love 6x7 and there's no digital camera under five figures that will give me the same result. It's expensive compared to shooting 35mm digital, but it's not compared to medium format digital. If someone markets an affordable medium format digital camera, I'd be on it in a heartbeat, because it's the format that I love. I love the latitude of film, but have no nostalgia for all the scanning, spotting and lab turnaround, which just get in the way of me being able to assess my images quickly. I just want the right tool to do the job I want done!

ben said...

Thanks for your comment Jin.

I too, am looking forward to getting behind a digital 6x7 in the not too distant future.

Gustaf said...

Besides the long term future of film, a more immediate concern might be the access to good dedicated film scanners. I live in fear of the day when my medium format scanner dies as there are no spare parts available. The only currently marketed alternative as far as I know is a Flextight which is pretty close in cost to digital medium format cameras. Also, sign me up for that digital 6x7 please.

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