In a recent post I wrote little about Gerry Badger’s book. Gerry Badger: The Genius of Photography – Book
Much as I enjoyed his writing and over all thesis there is one comment that he makes that stopped me in my tracks and with which I find, after a little thought, I disagree profoundly. This is also something that coincides with me thinking more about the teaching of art, specifically photography, generally. So, I thought I would save this little rant for a separate post.
The comment in question comes right at the end of the book, in the final coda, “Anyone can do it” (Badger, 2007, page 233) and is worth quoting in full:
“Photography has gone electronic, and in the very near future film will be an almost extinct process used only by a few Luddites, as will the whole business of making prints with messy chemicals in home darkrooms. The darkroom will be the computer screen.”
Not only do I think this is wrong but it is also wrongheaded and in the long term I fear it does photography as an art form a disservice.
Yes, photography has gone electronic, with digital camera and phones, that is inescapable, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Socially the impact of the democratisation of photography has been enormous. Not all of that impact has been positive – there are an awful lot of bad pictures out there – but there has been a great deal of good, not least, for example, in the rise of the citizen journalist (or whatever the right phrase is). But that does not mean that analog photography is, or should be, dead, or confined to an eccentric, lunatic fringe. No, it is not now going to be mainstream, but it is nevertheless still important.
Firstly, it is clear from an artistic point of view that there is still room, and an appetite, for the use of film, and indeed other analog processes such as pin-hole cameras (such as the work of Michael Wesely – there are various articles on the net that discuss this work, here is just one example, which will have to do until Wesely gets his own website up and running: https://pocketmemories.net/ideas/features/michael-wesely-experience-time-longest-exposed-photographs ), solargrams and cyanotypes, to name a few. It was striking that one of the images in the Taylor Wessing show was a tin-type. Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016, Sunderland – Exhibition Yes, it is a bit niche, but that does not necessarily mean that it is not a valid artistic approach.
There is also clearly a wider appetite for analog photography outside the perhaps cloistered realms of contemporary art photography. Take a look for example at www.lomography.com. There is no shortage of makers of analog film (pace the demise of Kodak) in various formats, form 35mm to 120 and beyond, and suppliers of developing equipment and chemicals (“messy” or otherwise). Setting up a proper dark room apart, the chemicals and other kit needed to at least develop film negatives is not expensive or difficult to come by, nor indeed, as I have now discovered, is it particularly difficult.
Perhaps more importantly there is a recognition of the importance of film photography in some educational institutions. By coincidence I note that the August 2017 issue of British Journal of Photography has a section within it on education. At Ostkreuz School for Photography in Berlinall new students get to play around with pin-hole cameras and then with an East German beginners’ camera from the 1950s as ways of learning the fundamentals of photography (pages 36 – 43).
Of course one can cover the same basics without having to use film. The same can be done with a modern digital camera, and the OCA course follows that particular route. I can well understand that it is not going to be desirable or practical for all new students to get into film as well as having to lay out for digital kit. Nevertheless, I can see from my personal point of view the benefits, and have gone down this route myself as an addition to my learning.
I mentioned in relation to Exercise 3.3.1 that I still have two film cameras, an Olympus OM10 (which unfortunately is not really usable at the moment as there is a problem with the coating within the lens which has broken down) and a Zenit EM. Since then I have also invested in a Leica M3 – fifty odd years old but still a fabulous camera. Using this has been something of a revelation. Even using my DSLR in manual mode there are still things that the camera does for me (as also do the Olympus – which is actually semi automatic unless I use a manual override on it – and Zenit, which at least has a built in light meter). With the Leica I have to go right back to basics and do everything. The camera does nothing for me – apart from taking the final picture. OK, I use a modern, digital, light meter app on my iPhone but nevertheless it is still a question of setting ISO, taking a reading, choosing aperture and shutter speed, and then focusing manually.
It is a much slower process than shooting digitally but I see that as a benefit as part of my learning. I am forced to think more about each of the technical elements of taking a picture. I also have to think more carefully about composition and getting the shot right, or as right as possible, from the outset. It is not really practical to shoot off frame after frame and hope to catch the right moment as you can when shooting digitally. I did notice that when I did the Decisive Moment assignment I was more shutter happy in my approach than considered and observational. Going back to film is, for me at least, a welcome corrective.
I have not yet used the Leica for any of the course work. I need to get a new scanner to digitise the negatives before I can use any of its output for the course and there will probably be limits to how much I can use it, given that for now at least I am limited to black and white film as that is all that I am currently set up to develop. To this extent Badger is correct, at least for me, that the darkroom is indeed a computer screen. Nevertheless it has had an impact on how I now use the digital camera. It has made me think more and not just hold down the shutter release and hope for the best. (Whether any of my pictures will be better as a result still remains to be seen!) The fact that digital is now dominant does not necessarily mean the end for film.
Oh, and by the way, I object to the misuse of the term Luddite, which, if nothing else, shows a lack of historical awareness. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia entry on the Luddites:
“The group was protesting the use of machinery in a “fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labour practices. Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste as machines would replace their role in the industry. It is a misconception that the Luddites protested against the machinery itself in an attempt to halt progress of technology. However, the term has come to mean one opposed to industrialisation, automation, computerisation or new technologies in general.”
On this basis I would be, and indeed am, proud to claim to be a Luddite, albeit a Luddite working within the digital realm!
Badger, G, (2007). The Genius of Photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited.
British Journal of Photography, Issue 7862, August 2017