Recently I was on Facebook and noticed a post from a friend. He had posted a photo of his family of young children looking at a couple of film cameras. They had explained to the kids how before phones and digital cameras that photographs were made with film. They told them the film was kept in the camera in the dark, then rolled up, brought to a store for development of the negatives using chemicals in a darkroom and then the photos were made onto paper and then you could take them home.
My friend related how the kids couldn’t believe that was how we used to make pictures in the “old days”. It was seemingly incomprehensible and complicated to them and they were glad to have phones and digital now to make their pictures.
This discussion started me thinking about the rabbit hole that is photography. When I started photographing in my teens, photography was well entrenched as a form of art, communication, inquiry, illustration, marketing, news and more. The process of photography as I knew at that time in the late 60’s had already gone through many changes as to the process of arriving at a print. From the earliest camera obscura hand tracings/drawings to the most popular print processes – daguerreotypes, salted paper, calotypes, albumen, ambrotypes, tintypes, Woodburytypes, carbon, platinum & palladium, cyanotypes, photogravures, silver gelatin and gum bichromate.
These are many of the mainstream processes that sought to bring the photographic process to the main stream of the public conscious as well as public acceptance and use for the everyman. In my attempt to review this growth perhaps my observations are nothing more than something I am able to comprehend as a microcosm from the macrocosm that is life. As I reviewed the transition or the growth of photography is seemed it was indeed cyclical in its growth and change.
Starting with the arcane, photography had been seen as something only a few individuals could really understand or practice as it was too difficult and required too much from the individual to understand or practice. Looking back at the list of print process from above is it any wonder that the public thought of the process as arcane. It was akin to witchcraft, alchemy, magic, complex science and chemical process that only those with access to the chemicals and needed implements to produce an image. Who among our grandparents or in my case great-grandparents were able to afford much less understand the process of producing a stable photographic image in a darkroom?
As the process evolved, it became more streamlined and progress was made in making it easier to practice by the everyman. By the 1900’s George Eastman introduced the Brownie camera with the marketing phrase – “You Push the button, we do the rest.” And with that it became a traditional process embraced worldwide and practiced by the masses. Film was the unifier in bringing the ease of making a photo to the world. This year it is estimate over 3 trillion images will be created and shared. And all from this idea of making photography accessible to all.
But as the process again evolved and changed to embrace the new computerized ability to create photographs and display them instantly on the camera and then later print, film became at best a passing fad and an archaic tradition practiced by the old and the those who embraced the purist notion of photography.
When I was in Afghanistan in 2002, I was handed a digital camera and told to take photos and write articles of the Afghan National Army, Coalition Forces and our interaction with the local nationals.
I mention this only because it was amazing to me how the general populace, isolated and without any computers or access to electronics knew about digital cameras. This was the first time I used one and it was really rather primitive, but it did what digital promised. When I recorded photos while I was out on missions, many times children and adults would crowd around and want to see the photos of what I had taken, of themselves and would react excitedly at seeing themselves.
This was immediate feedback that film could not provide unless you had a ton of polaroid film. As the digital process improved and with the great improvements in the software to transform the electrons into hard copies, the film and previous photographic processes indeed became even more archaic, eventually becoming irrelevant to the current generation.
The idea that a computer and the resulting hardware and software could produce a image as detailed, nuanced in tonalities and rich in depth as the traditional process seemed as if it would never occur within my lifetime. (And in these instances, I am referring to the fine art black and white print.) And yet here I am, personally using software and hardware to produce the images I thought were beyond us or me. And as for the resulting prints from black and white, I have merely a personal preference for the look and feel of the silver gelatin print. They both yield images that can and do yield beautiful works of art.
Technology forced change, and again the process has continued to evolve, taking some with it to embrace and grow with others left to the side or behind to slowly die in obscurity. Or so it would seem. As the technology changes, going from the traditional to the archaic only seemed to diminish those who did not want to embrace a new way of seeing or perhaps thinking, resulting in a feeling or being an inferior artist or purveyor of a defunct technology that could and would never compete as an accepted means of creating art.
But I have to ask the question, if traditional methods of photography are archaic because they are completed in a darkroom with chemicals or processes that require knowledge of process only practiced by a few, does that make them any less relevant? What about painters? Hell, there have been painters since the dawn of man and yet they have stayed as relevant as when the first painter made images on cave walls. While the process may be archaic to the standards of the young and the less educated, it is my opinion, that it does not make the process less relevant in producing art or expressing the vision of the artist.
Which brings us to the process being irrelevant. Are any of the photo processes really irrelevant? And to whom are they irrelevant? The uneducated, the ignorant, the critic stuck with a limited education and understanding of the photographic process? And what determines if it is irrelevant? A child may look at the process and go so what and return to ease of the iPhone with all its computing power to produce seemingly instant photographic works of technical art, but how long until these processes become just as archaic and irrelevant to the next generation?
Personally, I relish the labels that set me and others photographic artists apart in the photographic world. There were few of us who have literally ventured into the darkroom. The boom of the digital aid allowed me to obtain darkroom equipment I would not now own. My personal budget just did not allow for the purchase of the enlargers and so on to produce consistent beautiful darkroom images. But as photographers shed the archaic for the new technology, these items became available to me.
And as time has gone on it seems the niche of chemical darkroom process photographers has grown and has a least kept the processes from dying, gained new relevance and indeed kept the materials for the chemical darkroom alive.
And as I mentioned I like the labels of being arcane, traditional (maybe purist in some instances), archaic and irrelevant. Kinda the attitude of underestimate me and let me know how that works out for you!
My personal goals and vision of what I wanted to accomplish have been grounded in the analog systems of photography and digital has allowed me to expand on that vision by imagining what more can be done. The graphic above may be circular but it seems to me that it is an infinite circle or spiral as new ideas, technologies and artists emerge in the realm of photography. We are not irrelevant as long as we are living and growing. And we become the repository of the knowledge and practice of where we came from and where we are going.
So, pass it on, and revel in your labels as an artist, but don’t hold to them so tightly that you never grow into what your potential as an artist moves you to become and express. Labels are just that, labels to place you into a simple niche. And none of us are simple and never fall into one niche.