The Final Photographic Performance   

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This week I wrote to photographer and blogger David Lockwood (https://davidalockwoodphotography.com) about why he seemed to be returning to film. His replied, “The whole process of using film, gives me a feeling of accomplishment; probably like the painter putting on the last brush stroke. Film gives me a feeling of control over the final image.” And regarding film vs. digital he wrote, “The question of film or digital shouldn’t really be asked, it’s a bit like asking why does one paint with oils, and the other watercolours. Both can produce an image, but both give a totally different sensation to the mind eye.”

During the time I taught photography in the 1980s and 1990s for the University College of the Cariboo (now Thompson River University) my students used film. In my initial lectures I would tell them that as well as learning to acquire skills using a camera, they would need to learn how to become proficient in negative development and printing. I would emphasize that those serious enough to strive for a perfect final photograph would come to realize that what they did with the camera was only the beginning, and that their final print would set them apart as photographers. I would quote famous photographer Ansel Adams who said, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance…”

Film has now been set aside by many of those serious about photography, although I expect artists will use film creatively for years, nevertheless, even with advancing photographic digital technology Adams’ words from the past are still significant.

I intend to spend time discussing Mr. Lockwood’s insightful thoughts about film photography later, but first I want to say a few words about digital image making.

The digital camera doesn’t make a picture in the sense of light permanently imprinting itself with different intensities on a chemically sensitized surface like film. Instead there are sensors and in-camera computers processing light from thousands of photosites that we transfer to our computers as data files for conversion into countless pictorial possibilities.

I once attended a photography workshop during which one of the speakers said in the past he would get up early and drive to some scenic location hoping to capture an exotic sunrise, after which he would package up his film and send it to the lab and leave all decisions to some technician’s personal vision. However, now he transfers his image files to his computer and he alone controls how his photograph will be processed for viewing and finally printing.

As in the days when I processed negatives in special chemicals and manipulated prints by adding and subtracting light, I now use computer programs to process my RAW images in my quest to perfect my vision.

I say the same thing to modern photographers as I did to my students, that what they do with the camera is only the beginning,

The image on exposed on film, although now a RAW image file, is only the “score” to the “final performance” – the photographic print.

A young photographer came into my shop announcing, with some kind of misplaced pride, that he would never use PhotoShop on any of his pictures because he was only into true reality. Although I didn’t comment, I thought about the manufacturer presets that were applied in-camera to his image files and the limited colour spaces his inadequate JPG files gave him, and his confused notion of photographic reality.

If he really wanted to step away from the unreality of computerized image making he should talk to David Lockwood who wrote, “The camera, light meter, film, paper and chemicals all go towards producing a single and unique image. That does not happen with digital; from the moment the shutter is pressed, the whole thing becomes a cloning process from which endless exact copies can be produced.” However, as Lockwood also says, “The question of film or digital shouldn’t really be asked… Both can produce an image…that give a totally different sensation to the mind eye.”

 

 

19 responses to “The Final Photographic Performance   

  1. A very thought-provoking and balanced post. Comparing the two approaches it is not a simple “either—-or”. Both have virtue and can even be intermingled. I could never call myself a good photographer but what I produced with film and darkroom gave me so much more satisfaction than digital processes which I have to follow because of ageing eyesight. It is not a new situation – camera clubs used to reject slides as not being the photographer’s work. I can remember a club I was in refusing to accept colour prints, since few photographers made their own. So the debate is not new. Des.

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    • Thanks Desmond, I am glad you liked my post. Yes, I expect there might be discussions regarding how an image -photograph- was made, depending on rules of each club. The debate will always continue hopefully in a supportive fun way.

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  2. Something that regularly invades my mind too… great article! 🙂

    One thing that gave me a shiver is that example of someone taking his film to a lab and let them decide what he has seen… But then maybe I am too much of a control freak and have always been (which pushed me into a darkroom in the first place, I think…)? 😉

    And a big grin for the chap who ‘wants to keep it all natural’ – no Photoshop…

    Maybe just a small addition:
    Someone who takes a picture (preferably with a smartphone) and then right away says ‘ow, I’ll correct that in Photoshop…’ Hmmm.. that’s not how it should be, is it (even if it may happen to anyone under difficult circumstances) ? Of course, in the meantime he/she has informed everyone around he works with Photoshop, a ‘real’ photographer… 😉

    Thanks for your thoughts on the subject! 🙂

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    • Thank you Nil. And I absolutely agree with you. But I know you remember that we have been “fixing” things in postproduction for years. I saved lots of photographer’s butts with what we once called “dark room wizardry”. I am sure you remember mixing chemicals for more (or less) contrast, both negative and print. I preferred dichroic and cold light enlargers to the standard condensers because I could get more grey tones. There were specialized papers from around the world and, of course we made overlay masks to add whatever we thought might make a picture better. However…..photographers no longer need to be wizards or even very knowledgeable regarding photography because there are all sorts of programs that will “save” a crappy (cellphone?) image.

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      • Oh yes! How could I forget after all the hours and days I spent in the dark? 🙂 Carrying ice cubes to my dark room on hot days to keep the temperature of the products within range was an extra bonus… Those were the days I prayed for a real Belgian summer, something around 20°C… And not too much light, please, when I finished and got out… 😉 It seems of another life now…

        Not having that background does make a difference – but to stay on the positive side, maybe it is also a bit of freedom to experiment without all that knowledge looking over your shoulder?…

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  3. I think Lockwood’s last quote sums it up completely. One isn’t better, it’s just different. That goes for all the little “battles” that seem to have cropped up since digital photography came out and has offered us almost unlimited options as to what we do with our images.

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