I’ve been thinking a lot about the decade (or by now, decades, I guess) old debate of analogue vs. digital when it comes to photography.
There’s much to be said for each side. And I agree with both of them. One is faster, more economical. The other more permanent and deliberative. And whoever wants to discount one or the other as a whole is arguing from personal incredulity, from a limited horizon, an inability to see what uses a world population numbering in the billions could find for literally any technology ever developed.
I love the analogue world, and I love the digital world. I grew up during what is now recognized as the digital revolution. But for a while the old and the new way of doing things existed side by side. Pictures of me as a child were, by necessity, all on film. The first digital picture of me was taken at a trade fair in my home town of Ulm, Germany sometime during the late 1980s. I have long forgotten which forward-thinking company had set up a booth with their then high tech instruments to take pictures of willing attendees. But I remember that my parents sat, one after the other, both me and my brother on the little chair the photographers had set up, and had our pictures taken.
Today these pictures exist only as a faded black and white needle prints of low resolution, hanging on the wall of a staircase at our parents’ house. In what presages a huge problem of today’s digital world, long time archiving of images and documents, the only reason the images still exist is because they were printed out. No one in the 1980s would have thought to offer digital media of raw image data as the end product of a photo session.
My first cameras were 35mm point and shoots. Most of the slides and negatives I took with them during the ’90s still exist in boxes somewhere. Ready to be rediscovered. Analogue has an edge on digital here. In a hundred years, barring flood or fire, they will still be there. But while archiving is always on my mind (I’m a historian, it comes with the territory), the main thing I’ve been thinking about lately, is the problem of scarcity in photography. It’s way of approaching the taking of pictures, and it’s a different but related issue to the archival one.
With film, the number of pictures one can take at a time is limited. 1 for sheet film. Typically between 9 and 36 with various types of roll film. I’d wager the most you can get out of a regular 35mm film cartridge and still achieve acceptable picture quality is around 75 half frame shots. But half frame is not a typical format. For most people the magic number is between 12 and 36 frames before you need to pause and reload. That’s between 12 and 36 pictures before you need to decide to spend time, money, and effort reloading your camera and taking additional pictures. Compare that to a 32GB SD card, an average size these days, which depending on resolution and quality will easily hold up to a couple of thousand pictures. It’s no contest.
Yet, I don’t come away with more keepers when I go out with my digital camera, compared to an analogue one. Digital is like commercial fishing with a net. Analogue is standing in a creek with a fishing rod. Analogue teaches you to get it right, and to move on with your life if you didn’t. Much like pen on paper, what’s written cannot easily be erased. Like most things in the world, that can be a good thing, but also a limitation.
Garry Winogrand, who used to take hundreds of shots in one outing, constantly reloading his Leica with yet another roll of 36 exposure film, has been called the “first digital photographer.” That’s not wrong, when you look at his approach, which used to be atypical, and now has become commonplace because of digital technology, the great enabler. His standing allowed him a way of working inaccessible to those who did not have the name, or the money.
I recently read an article about a photographer who revealed the process behind a stunning portrait he had taken. He had set his camera to take the maximum of consecutive shots per second, picked it up, pointed it at his subject, and let fly. He ended up with more than a hundred similar pictures, and one that was worth keeping. He took it, and cropped and post-processed it to his liking. I was dumbfounded. That was not what I had come to regard as photography. That was shooting some video and then choosing and cropping out a freeze frame.
But I caught myself. I should not discount the image because of the way it was created. Instead, I should acknowledge that someone had found a way of working that let them produce stunning imagery. Why should I care how they did it? As with every technology or technique, as the field matures you need to do something different to distinguish yourself. That might include getting better at whatever that field defines as craftsmanship. Or it might mean redefining what is needed in order to be where you want to be.
We can bemoan that working photographers today do not even know the basics anymore. But it certainly doesn’t help that many of these complaints have an air of ageism – towards young people, in this case – and sexism: an old guard of very technically well versed male photographers needing to reassure themselves that young people, and young women especially, can’t be good photographers just because they produce good images, as long as they don’t understand the arcana of the techno-priesthood. Because reasons. But who gets do define what the basics are 175 years after photography first came into the world? Who after all, are we to judge today’s farmers for not being able to plough a field with a team of oxen anymore?
Myself, I’ve made peace with the inadequacies of each approach, digital or film. I don’t raise my eyebrows anymore when pros and amateurs alike clock in at 500+ photos per day. I’m no purist when it comes to using filters before an image goes into Photoshop, getting exposures right in camera, or getting shots spirit level straight. Turns out, you can fix things in post. Whether you choose to or not is nobody’s business but your own. But when it comes to my way of seeing, I’m still much more of an analogue photographer. I remember the first time I finished a film, the 12 exposure roll that came with a red Konica Pop Super I was given for my ninth birthday, and was shocked to realize that I’d blown the opportunity to take any more photos. I remember how carefully I then planned how many shots I had for any given period of time, be it a trip, vacation, or other event. I also recall that, when I first entered the digital age, I would shoot with no abandon, capturing dozens of frames of the same thing, and somehow never being quite inspired while doing it. Whereas, when I picked up a film camera again two years or so ago, it became part of who I was, and of how I saw things. When shooting digital pictures, I now usually leave the huge memory cards at home. Instead, I’ll go out with two or three 1GB cards. At the highest picture quality setting, that’s 27 exposures in my Fuji X100s.
After that, it’s time for a roll change.