Not long ago, back in the time of film and chemicals, photo-labs and darkrooms, I used to teach a “How to Use Your 35mm SLR” photography course. Non-professional photographers needed help—serious help. They didn’t understand the most basic principles of photography, and because of that their results were miserable. The sophisticated automation, touted by the camera manufacturers promising to give you professional quality images, just made their desperation all the deeper. Loads of automatic settings and zillions of obtuse options turned those beautiful cameras into bedeviling beasts. If you didn’t understand the basics of photography, you weren’t going to understand how those advanced features worked or how to make them work for you. Yet, despite the difficulties, the general ease of taking snapshots with simpler cameras essentially made everyone a photographer. If you could hold a camera and push its shutter release, poof, you’re a photographer.
The students knew there was more to it than pushing a button. And they realized, from their own attempts, how elusively difficult it was, even with an expensive camera, to make a merely good exposure, let alone a strong, well composed image.
In the far past, the simplicity of the snapshot was not always the case. Early photography was an arduous undertaking. It required formulating and mixing your own chemicals, coating the light sensitive emulsion onto glass plates, wielding a heavy, cumbersome view camera, loading and exposing one plate at a time while it was still wet, and developing it immediately after exposure. If you wanted to go out on location, you had to carry everything everywhere you went—the chemicals, the camera, tripod, plates, plate holders, tools, and the entire darkroom—yes, the whole room. Later, dry plates made the process somewhat easier by allowing you to prepare a larger number a plates in advance. Then you could go out, make your exposures, and return later to the darkroom to process the images. Still, glass plates were bulky and heavy. Cameras were bulky and heavy. You didn’t just throw a bag over your shoulder with a dozen 36-exposure rolls of film and scamper off to create the next great cover photo for National Geographic. But the turning point for making photography accessible to everyone goes back over a hundreds years.
The blame for making it happen can be put on one name : Kodak. George Eastman, the company founder, was instrumental in making photography easy. He had a keen interest in photography, but he lamented the laborious nature of doing it. He took the dry plate technique and applied it to a newly available material, celluloid, to make roll film, put it in a simple handheld camera, and sold the whole shebang for 25 bucks. “You take the picture. We do the rest,” was the motto. After making 100 exposures, you returned the camera, and for $10, Kodak would process, print, reload the camera, and send everything back to you. Photography made easy. Kodak grew to become a Fortune 500 company and a Dow Jones Industrial giant. Then came digital.
It was only about ten years ago that film was still the best capture medium. Pixel count was getting up to the film range, approximately 25mp for 35 mm quality, but the dynamic range (range from light to dark or shades of gray) was still lagging behind film. And photography, despite the ease and convenience of roll film and cameras with tons of electronic automation, was still a craft that required dedication, education, and years of experience to master. But that was a short couple of years from the time digital finally caught up to, and surpassed, film. Although there’s no one person or company to blame this time, the strides made with digital imaging are no less revolutionary than the invention of roll film, perhaps even as revolutionary as the invention of photography itself. Just look at what any yokel can do with the microchip camera built-in to any pocket-sized mobile device. Think about what the average amateur used to get out of a roll of film. Likely more than half of their exposures had at least one basic technical flaw, even if only slight—out of focus, camera motion blur, bad lighting, over/under exposed, poorly composed. Maybe, if lucky, there’d be a half dozen sorta-maybe-kinda good shots out of thirty-six. Compare that to today’s digital cameras. Chances are good that at least thirty out of thirty-six shots will be sharp and well exposed—not perfect, but good—and waaay better than what the same person could do with a film camera. Digital is a metamorphosis in image making.
It does not mean that there’s no skill required. A good eye for composition takes a little talent and a lot of practice. Knowledge of light, lighting, color, and composition remains essential. Careful consideration of a myriad of variables, fine tuned exposure, and the experience that comes only from years of refining one’s skills are still necessary for creating outstanding images. But with today’s digital magic, a know-nothing simpleton can get results never before possible. It’s no wonder why photography continues to be devalued. The words “art photography” may need to be in scare quotes. Digital has overtaken writing with light, and made it, as with other skills, common and easy.
Sounds like I’m finding the changes deplorable. No, I don’t. Digital is the best thing to happen to photography, and almost everything it touches. It’s the latest turning point in history. One which may, in time (we humans are slow learners) take us to new places—should we not foul it up in the meantime.
I love digital photography. It gives me the freedom to concentrate on something other than technicalities. It’s nearly WYSIWYG. And there, hidden under the obvious, is one of the new challenges. Because the screen does not show a perfectly accurate representation of what you get in the final output, a good photographer must translate in their mind’s eye the screen image into the intended image. That requires mastery. Still, what you see is close(ish). It does away with Polaroid test shots, or wait-and-see what comes back from the lab. It takes the fear out of photography. Only professional photographers who grew up on film will understand the significance of fear. It was always looming over us, bar none. With fear out of the picture, creativity can rise to the top.
At some point in time, the realization that good photography still requires highly developed talents will come around. Then, reconsidering, maybe not. Photography has been around for nearly 180 years and it remains the bastard step-child of art. There are many explanations for its degradation—it’s too real, too easy, too common, too mechanical, too digital, too lowbrow, too gauche, too ordinary, too cheap, too reproducible, too reproducible.
Photography is possibly the most loved art form in the world. It amazes. It captivates. But the ambivalence towards photography—the love/hate, priceless/worthless, high-art/low-craft—continues to baffle me, while at the same time I believe I understand what’s behind these attitudes. Writing with light is the living-dead.