© 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".