Gimme That Ole Time Photography

Recently I bought a new camera. In large part it was an investment, because I really enjoy photography but my retirement budget canít absorb additional expenses for things such as film and processing. So I bought a digital camera. I already had a computer, and have learned how to manipulate and print photographs. I can have all the fun and satisfaction of working in photography with very little expense. My initial experience with this new technology has been gratifying.

Thereís another reason, too. Iíve been immersed in computers since the first personal-sized models came out in the 1970s. The idea of computer-based reproduction and manipulation of photographs appeals to me, assuming the quality and cost are within my limits. And now they are.

The trouble is, sometimes it doesnít feel like photography to render an image on a computer screen. I miss the darkroom with its smells and yellow gloom. I used to spend long hours hunched over an enlarger and trays of pungent fluids, magically turning light into images. Images that I created, images that gave me a feeling in my gut, images that somehow represented my own, often very private, reality. For me, photography has never been simply a matter of pointing a camera at something and then waiting for the results to appear at the drugstore. That was for snapshooters, the customers that George Eastman had in mind when he invented the Kodak. "You push the button," he said, "and weíll do the rest." No, to me photography has more to do with passion than with catching a likeness of Aunt Mary to paste into an album. Not that I have any problem with taking snapshots. I have hundreds of photographs of my family preserved in my computer, from more than a hundred years of people pushing the button and leaving the rest to the drugstore. They are a priceless collection of relationships revealed, almost my whole identity encoded in little images of people. Itís just that they are not photography.

This mystique I treasure is not only of my own work; my heroes are the realists of the early twentieth centuryóWeston and Adams, mostly. But Stieglitz, who first promoted pictorialism, that school dedicated to making photography look like painting (so it would be considered "art") and who then embraced the stark realism that spoke in layers of meaning, "straight photography" that revealed visual metaphors, all that tugs at something in me. I think I can never be that good; Iím too green, and always will be. My reach will ever exceed my grasp.

Maybe my association with photography is just that. Like a fiddler who plays recordings by Heifetz, or a sand lotter who goes to cheer at the World Series, I have a place in my gut that responds to great photographs.

And now, I admit: sometimes digital photography, especially after itís in my computer, feels like cheating. When I can make a dramatic image out of a very ordinary exposure, Iím aware of the shortcomings of my camera work. Even when itís pointed out to me that some of Man Rayís most famous works were extensively manipulated (in the darkroom, not the computer), and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy specialized in photo-montage to present "a tumultuous collision of whimsical detail from which hidden meanings flash," I doubt my own inclinations to present my insides visually. (I present my insides all the time in my writing, but thatís another story.)

So, recently, when some people in our local camera club got into a debate about the value of digital photography, I cringed. I identified with the "purists" who depend upon chemistry to create their art and see computerized imaging as "for those who canít do the process of real photography." If anyone can easily produce such remarkable effects in the computer, then the results are not worth much. The complaint feeds into my self-doubt. Because I havenít lugged a 20- by 28-inch wet-plate camera and darkroom up to Yosemite Park like Eadweard Muybridge, then my meager images are insignificant. And if I add some "punch" to an otherwise bland photograph, Iím further demonstrating my inept abilities. In a word, Iím faking it. It helps little to read that Muybridge probably "doctored" some of his photographs in printing by combining separate negatives of landscapes and clouds to produce his acclaimed prints.

When photography began, nearly two hundred years ago, there were people who predicted the demise of painting, for who would want to pay for an imperfect rendition of a subject laid down with a brush when they could get a "perfect" image of reality made with a camera. Painting didnít disappear, obviously, and perfection by any name still evades us. Chemistry-based photography wonít disappear, either, even if it has to survive in the darkrooms of a few dedicated adherents.

"That ole time photography" only goes back as far as personal memory. Itís a rare photograph today that was exposed on a wet-plate, and nobody claims that the value of it resides in anything but curiosity. Eadweard Muybridge, were he working today, would, no doubt, use the processes that he feels most comfortable with. In 1867 he was using state-of-the-art technology. Would he shun that of today? We can still admire the work of Edward Weston, even without knowing of his meticulous procedure: "My way of workingóI start with no preconceived ideaódiscovery excites me to focusóthen rediscover through the lensófinal form of presentation seen on ground glass . . ." Ansel Adamsís systematic investigation of light and dark areas of a subject can still be used with minor adjustments by a photographer using digital camera and computer. Eventually, I have no doubt, there will be 8 by 10-inch digital accessories that could be used with Edward Westonís favorite camera, to make an image even he could be happy with, were he still around.

He might also miss the smell of acetic acid and the yellow gloom over his trays of chemicals. No technology, however, could replace his eyeóthe eye of discovery.


April 25, 2003

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