This past summer I was having lunch with a photographer originally from Europe who has lived in Canada for over 30 years without loosing his strong accent. He has been a champion of the digital medium ever since the early nineties and has taught digital imaging to many photographers, myself included. In recent years I always saw him carrying a nice DSLR-digital single lens reflex camera, however what he brought to our lunch was a used Leica M4P he had purchased recently. I suddenly remembered that a year ago he had me pose for a portrait in front of a huge wooden 8x10 view camera on a massive tripod, and produced an unbelievably detailed image in which I look somewhat stiff.
It occurred to me that my colleague was perhaps having a digital vs. analog middle-age crisis and I decided (after a beer or two) to ask, politely, what was causing his apparent retreat from digital photography. After much hesitation and a long pause he leaned towards me and whispered that he did not think that digital images were real because, he thought, they have no permanent physical form. He said that the more unreal images he made the more unreal he felt himself, and that he was afraid that all that would remain as a trace of his life in this world would be a collection of slowly deteriorating CDs with no CD drives to read them. As he described this to me I noticed that my friend (after 3 beers) was growing slightly transparent, almost as if he was loosing substance and I got worried. I protested that images on film have no more reality than images on disk since the film is no more than a container, and that it also deteriorates if not stored properly.
I added that, in time, he could transfer his digital image collection to DVD-R disks thus reducing the number of disks and giving his images more permanence. My colleague, a recent victim of the quick obsolescence of computer gear and digital technologies (we are now looking at the disappearance of the audio CD due to the popularity of MP3 players and music trading on the net) was not convinced at all by my arguments. He coolly observed that you can at least see the image on a negative or a slide conferring upon it a real physical dimension, whereas 1s and 0s on disk are too abstract, too unreal. He has now gone back to shooting black & white film and archival wet darkroom processes! My friend, not one to join clubs that will have him as a member, may be just over-reacting to the enthusiasm with which the new photographic correctness (digital is better) is being pushed by the industry and its allies. I also suspect that at this time in his life he needs to hold on to something solid, and for him, paradoxically, that solid thing may be the illusion of truthful representation provided by straight photography.
Another player on the ice is Adrian, a graduate student in Photography at York University in Toronto, and an artistic collaborator of mine. Adrian received a degree in fine arts from the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto and has been a free-lance photographer and fine artist for a number of years. Adrian is representative of a large number of traditionally trained photographers who continue to work with film cameras and to make prints in a darkroom. Among this group of players there is a persistent irrational belief that no matter what anyone might say film and paper are better overall. Certainly, film, chemicals, and paper are mature technologies that have achieved a high degree of refinement.
There is a mixture of budget considerations and a need for security at work in this group. Adrian though, received a digital imaging education in the mid-nineties at Sheridan Institute of Technology and has been working with scanned film images for a number of years. He has not made the jump to shooting digital yet though, and has continued to make unmanipulated photographs.
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