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Sunday, March 18, 2007

On Beauty and Old Ways

The non-sarcastic version of the post below is: "progress isn't everything."

Granted, progress is good. For the most part, modern improvements come about because they're needed. (Or wanted, as we sometimes discover after we have them.) Not everyone can afford wholesome, natural food ingredients, for instance, much less a wooden sailboat. And no one wants or advocates a return to the horse as the primary means of human transportation.

Indeed, I've sung the praises of digital and all it can do. It enables photographers, and helps enable certain kinds of work. I'm not against it.

Still, in almost all of the "old ways" I mentioned, there is some sort of merit. Each has certain aspects that are distinct and unique, and therefore rewarding, or pleasurable.

Mainly, what the old ways have to offer is beauty. I mentioned the word only once in the post below, with respect to handmade furniture, but it goes for many of the other things I mentioned as well. If you haven't seen a few dozen examples of either platinum prints or dye transfers—well, you need to, that's all.

(I do think inkjet prints can be lovely, too. Just not in the same way.)

It's in this way that I already appreciate film. It will become a connoisseur's medium, a distinctive craft that can rise to the level of art in the right hands, much as handmade pottery or letterpress books or copperplate etchings are now. It makes no sense to depend on fine things for our happiness, but the appreciatipon of fine things can be nurturing and enriching. In times to come, few people might appreciate silver prints, and fewer will own one, and fewer still will make them. But they will continue to have a certain beauty to offer, the sort of beauty that can enrich us. The sort of beauty on which it makes no sense to turn our backs.

That's my take, for what it's worth.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, in non-sarcastic mode

Featured Comment by Paul: Mike, it's time to introduce you to Allison's Law:

'You can be certain that a technology is truly dead when people start to pay good money just to experience it.'

Steam locomotives (more running now than in 1960) are the uber-example, but there are plenty more.

Particularly with something like film, which will never lose its marginal usefulness anymore that oil paints will, the afterlife of dead technologies may ultimately be more satisfying than their 'useful life.'

Featured Comment by Chris: I explained it to a friend this way: imagine that Gibson and Fender came out with digital stringless guitars. Sensors on the neck recorded every finger push, bend and slide, pressure perfect. Synths and effects on board. The notes were always in tune with each other. Sound quality was always constant and there were no strings to break. In ten years, every band in the world was playing and recording with these. You have to hunt for strings for your old guitars, they’re getting scarce. That collection of awesome vintage Stratocasters and Les Pauls you have, you might get half of what you paid for it on eBay. No one has the patience for anything you have to stop and tune anymore. That, I said, is how it feels sometimes….

Featured Comment by Jeremy: You have to give it time. It takes many decades, sometimes centuries, for a technology to reach a level that satisfies viscerally. Using Maslow's pyramid to imagine how technologies develop is useful. Manufacturers have to keep addding value to their products. Once they've covered the left-brain attributes they'll move to tackle the right brain ones.

Take for instance the early days of computerised typography and typesetting ('70s–'80s). They mimicked the typewriter! Awful. Scientists everywhere were publishing their articles, very many even their textbooks in them. It took the disgusted Stanford professor Donald Knuth, who was old enough to remember the days when textbooks were objects to behold in and of themselves, 10 years of solitary work to "port" the glorious craft of typography and manual typesetting over to the computer. Thus was born TeX.

Now here's the sad news: Technologies today are replaced by new ones so quickly they may not have the time to go much beyond the convenient.


Blogger Big Mac said...

I just finished reading this before visiting your blog!

1:28 PM  
Blogger Player said...

The way I see it, Mike, is that if your main interest is photographic memories (snapshots), or making money (pro photography), shoot digital. If photography is more a means of artistic expression, shoot film, preferably b&w. If you have many interests for your photography, shoot both.

As long as artistic expression through photography doesn't become obsolete, why should film become obsolete? I know it's not as com-pletely simple as that, and photography IS photography, whatever the medium, but just as analogue recording is richer and more expressive than digital recording, film is analogous.

The point is to use whatever medium helps you the most to achieve your goal, and to talk of film as being obsolete is like saying that, generally speaking, artistic expression through photography is obsolete.

There will always be artists creating art, but to lose a valuable tool for that artistic expression would be nothing short of tragic.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Leo said...

Film and the silver image are beautiful. Unfortunately film doesn't grow on dealers shelves, It takes thousands of people and large machines in a long pipe line to get that roll of film or paper to the end user. I'm sure the last rolls of film will come off those machines in the next few years and will be frozen for the last users. Unfortunately it is not a process that can be duplicated in your basement darkroom. Unlike clay pots and wooden boats I think traditional film has seen it's better days.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Paul Leidl said...

Well said Mike. I doubt if the haunting beauty of Sally Mann's photographs could be replicated in Photoshop nor would they be the same if she used a digital camera. There is also something to be said about the process of using mechanical film cameras that has an affect on one's work. Using a manual focus 3mm camera, a twin lens reflex or a large format camera, limits one's parameters-slows one down- and that can be a good thing, depending of course on what you are doing.. Bonus too that those old cameras just feel so solid and good in the hand...

2:34 PM  
Blogger rob povey said...

I agree that film will become the preserve of a few, just as doing your own darkroom prints is amongst film users already.

To those who love and use film they will continue to do so and will love the result.

I don't agree though on the use of "connoisseur's medium" this does seem to be a bit "high brow" and condescending on us non-film users.

Each to their own I say. Time for a truce in the film v digital debate??


3:30 PM  
Blogger Martin Storz said...

Looking on photography in magazins, galeries, in the internet etc. my first idea never was, which camera? brand? lens? film? digital? was used.

I know, that real "amateurs" (in the sense of the word!) always have a strong relation to their tools, their technics, me included.

But for you, looking at my miserable picture, it may be not from great interest, what kind of origin this picture had.

Recently I saw an exibition of Robert Lebeck here in Stuttgart.
No doubt, he used film, it was the prädigital aera.

But - with all my respect and admiration for a great photographer - I saw some sympathetic inadequacy in these pictures, that told me, its not the camera, not the film, not the sensor, not the print and not the technical elaboration, that make a photo, but the photographer and its ability to arrange an instant, to tell a story in a kind, I had to listen.

So, really, I don't understand the discussion!

4:36 PM  
Blogger erlik said...

Just as a point of interest, anything can be replicated in Photoshop. Anything. It's just the matter of having the right person do it. But since not every person could create Sally Mann's photos, not every person will be able to do anything in Photoshop.

While I have no experience with film, I know that film offers - do not want to use past tense :-) - something that digital cannot. the richness of transitions and tones. There's also something human in the limitations of the grain.

But even now digital photography doesn't have to be soullessly clinically clean and neat. Why do you think there's so many filters for Photoshop that simulate grain, scratches and imperfections? If you want to show imperfections that make something appear more humane, you've got a very wide choice...

5:40 PM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

Shoot with what you enjoy working with, and don't worry about what others are using or what they think about what you use. It's just that simple.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Paul Leidl said...

"Just as a point of interest, anything can be replicated in Photoshop. Anything. It's just the matter of having the right person do it. But since not every person could create Sally Mann's photos, not every person will be able to do anything in Photoshop."

Perhaps. Photoshop is a powerful tool of which I know little. And of course Sally Mann's photographs are her unique way of seeing, as was Arbus' work very much her own vision. My point is that one's tools are important too.They can constrain one or free one.

I do not mean to presume, but I guess that Mann uses film and a LF camera because it suits her way of working. Perhaps she likes the self imposed limitations of working with an 8"x10" view camera?

As for using filters in Photoshop to create an "old" or "scratchy" effect.. well that may be great for graphic designers. but I prefer to do what I can in the camera.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Kiliii said...

Mike, I'd have to disagree that noone wants horses back as the primary means of transportation. I do. Or ven better, foot transportation.

Why? Because foot transportation demands one thing-- small closely knit communities where people live in close proximity to each other.

When it comes to film vs. digital, the consequences are considerably less than what it comes down to when we talk about things that are impactful on the human scale.

That's my feeling.x

2:26 AM  
Blogger erlik said...

> As for using filters in
> Photoshop to create an "old" or
> "scratchy" effect.. well that
> may be great for graphic
> designers. but I prefer to do
> what I can in the camera.

Fair enough.

But, without any intent of turning this into a PP vs. no PP or film vs. digital thread, sometimes postwork does create an additional dimension. Take for instance Eastern Kentucky field by Mark Tucker. In fact, take the whole Eastern Kentucky series of his. I like the series immensely and don't think it would look as good without the postwork.

2:34 AM  
Blogger Matthew Miller said...

Here's something to reflect on in considering one of your comparisons: that of fine furniture. These days, very little fine hand-crafted furniture is made with old-fashioned tools. Even those who collect them tend to actually work with as modern and high-tech tools as they can afford -- and, high tech composite lumber where it'll help the structure.

In photography, shouldn't the concern be about the photographs, not the capture technology?

2:04 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"In photography, shouldn't the concern be about the photographs, not the capture technology?" IS, isn't it? I mean, if you take any reasonable cross section of this blog, aren't we mostly concerned with photographs and photographers, more than with capture technology? I don't think that means we can NEVER turn our attention to capture technology. So we do, once in a while. At the same time, we're not ignoring the work.


3:03 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I'm back near a PC after 10 days of lugging my old fujica through glaciers and forests in Ushuaia. WALKING all the way through!! My God, when are these travel agencies going to see the future and make golf cart roads through it all??!!!

8:02 AM  
Blogger Robin Dreyer said...

My friend Jerry Spagnoli wrote a catalog essay for a show of alternative process photography last year which he began by saying that there is a theory that says that a technology can't really flower as an art form until it has ceased to be useful as a technology. In other words, traditional photography is dead--now we can do whatever we want.

I work at a craft school (Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina) which has a photo program. We keep debating where that program should go, and I have pointed out several times that our other programs (ceramics, weaving, glassblowing, bookbinding, blacksmithing, printmaking, etc.) are all based on obsolete technology, so we could just continue to teach film, paper, and chemistry photo classes like we've always done, and our photo program will finally be like everything else we teach--creative work using tools and materials used to be standard technology.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I'm late to this party (by almost 3 months), but can't resist pointing out a parallel in another area that has always been dominated by high tech -- of the day.

Amateur Radio. There are probably a few readers of this blog that are at least familiar with hams, if not being one themselves. There has long been battles waged (some very heated) over the next perceived wave of radio technology, and whether it makes the previous one(s) obsolete, and whether it will just plain ruin ham radio (as we know it).

A recent example is the dropping of the Morse Code (CW) requirement from U.S. amateur licensing. Heralded as the death of ham radio, and CW, in particular, there has instead been a resurgence of interest in the mode, thanks to groups determined to honor the heritage and history of CW.

From an old fart standpoint (and I qualify as one, having been continuously licensed for 37 years), there is nothing sweeter than listening to a CW signal, reveling in the syncopation of the dots and dashes, and realizing that the equipment used to send such signals can be made literally simply from parts from any ham's well-stocked 'junque' box.

And who can resist using 'fine-art' keys, such as the ones that G4ZPY makes to order at his web site:
At Dayton this year, his booth was clogged with folks oogling over (and ordering) these handmade keys.

With one of those fine keys on your desk, I'd say the word would be 'inspiration'. If you have any appreciation for fine workmanship, and the heritage that these keys entail, you would be inspired to try your hand at CW, or to use it more often, just for the sheer joy of it.

Most recently, we are experiencing the 'analog' vs 'digital' conflict, as folks start to experiment with digital voice modes, and applications like Echolink, that allow hamming from your desktop computer, using VOIP-to-RF gateways, or directly from computer-to-computer over the Internet (the latter mode being hotly debated as 'not really ham radio').

Sound familiar?

10:59 AM  

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