Sunday, January 7. 2007
Billions of pictures are made with the diabolically clever automatic cameras, pictures that satisfy the snap-shooter but do not often reveal evidence of imaginative visualization....
- Ansel Adams, Examples, p. 73.
Explaining his fondness for film over digital photography, Oleg Novikov says, the [photographic] result, of course, is important; however, I would not want it at the cost of missing the process of exploration. In other words the experience of photographic exploration may be as important as the images obtained. But several decades of rapid advances in photographic equipment (of which digital is only the most recent incarnation) have obscured for us this importance of practice (or experience) as opposed to product. As we turn increasingly to the equipment rather than our own talents to accomplish a photograph, we distance ourselves from photographic practice and diminish photography as a source of artistic inspiration.
Removing creative fulfillment from the productive process, our modern approach to technology relies on the ideal of fulfullment from product alone: if we get a better pair of shoes in the bargain, who cares how or by whom they were made? But as E.F.Schumacher shows in Small Is Beautiful, this assumption violates human nature:
The type of work which modern technology is most successful in reducing or even eliminating is skilful, productive work of human hands, in touch with real materials of one kind or another. In an advanced industrial society, such work has become exceedingly rare, and to make a decent living by doing such work has become virtually impossible. A great part of the modern neurosis may be due to this very fact: for the human being defined by Thomas Aquinas as a being with brains and hands, enjoys nothing more than to be creatively, usefully, productively engaged with both his hands and his brains. (p. 149)
Thus, what the modern process yields in product might be more than offset by what we lose in experience. This exchange of process for product is nowhere more evident than in the transformation in photographic technology since 1950. Simpler, more standardized cameras once required considerable experience, dexterity, and concentration to use, but became transparent as a tool once mastered. Now we have sophisticated, constantly evolving cameras which work and "think" for themselves but whose controls are opaque even to professionals.
All this automation would be desirable and even necessary were we only interested in quickly obtaining as many properly focused, evenly-exposed images as possible. However, for those interested in the art of photography the speed or ease with which an image was acquired does not increase its appeal. In fact the time and effort invested in a photograph often enhance its appreciation as art.
So for example an exquisitely timed, framed, exposed, and printed image of Alaska by Ansel Adams inspires not only because it pleases the eye but, to the extent that we understand it, due to the effort Adams put forth. The same goes for any art form, be it music, classic cars, cooking, literature, sculpture, etc. Knowing more about the artistic process brings us to a level of appreciation beyond the sensual by revealing the special meaning a gifted artist imbues in his work.
Ansel Adams, Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, 1947
This creative nuance is the individual artist's unique stamp, an ideosyncracy that sets his work apart from the work of machines and the work of other artists. It also sets this work apart as a clearly human artifact, signifying that a conscious, deliberate act of creation is embedded in the object. This trait is always found in the advanced work of accomplished artists, and is what allows the connoisseur to identify the author of a work of music, sculpture, painting, and even wine or cooking. Often the nuance is at odds with traditional usage of the instruments employed, demonstrating the artist's mastery of his medium. For example John Coltrane used the saxophone in unprecedented ways to generate melodies no one had imagined, resulting in the "Coltrane sound." Had he simply attempted the most accurate or acceptable rendering of familiar compositions Coltrane's name would long since have vanished into obscurity.
Ceteris paribus, the less technology employed in a work of art, the more likely it will reflect the unique individual actions of the artist. For example, a kindergarden class can generate a great variety of curious images within an hour of learning how to finger paint. Supplied with video cameras for the first time, the same children might generate far more output, but the result would not be authentically theirs. The finger paints are simple to use so they become transparent, allowing children to express their vision. A video camera largely controls its own output, which though it may yield much data that could be refined into an interesting production later, will probably not be what the child intended.
A finger painting.
Just so, in the typical digital camera, we have a powerful instrument, but also one which is highly automated, self-correcting (focus, exposure, field depth, ISO), and prolific by its very nature. In order to fully control the device many buttons, knobs, menus, and features must be mastered, and its prolific nature lends itself to obtaining vast quantities of similar images rather than small quantities of unique ones.* By preconfiguring the digicam in certain ways the number of controls required are greatly reduced, but is this not in effect reducing its functionality to the level of a film camera? To the extent that a tool requires that I reduce its sophistication in order to express myself through it the tool is overengineered for the task. It is likely to rob my art of spontaneity and directness by distracting my ability to express ideas as they come to mind. This can be especially true in the case of photography, where Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment is sometimes fleeting.
Often we think of the skill the decisive moment required of him, but a larger and often overlooked aspect of Cartier-Bresson's work is the joy he found:
"Photography is not like painting," he told The Washington Post in 1957. "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative," he said. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."
It's this "creative fraction of a second" that keeps skilled portrait photographers alive, inspired, engaged. Recognizing and capturing such a moment for posterity is not only a practical exercise, it's great fun. There is more to this than the technical production of an image: it engages the brain, the senses and the hands. The brain must imagine a view of the subject, then use the senses to predict or arrange the arrival of the subject at its decisive moment, and then use the hands to permanently record this vision.
To that extent the artist and his audience understand the process of photography as an end of itself, apart from its product. To emphasize the efficiency, speed, or ease with which the image was captured misses the point and reduces the practice of photography to mere drudgery, reduces artist to mere technician. Instead of honoring the level of craft needed to produce a photographic work of art, emphasis on product alone reduces art to no more than craftsmanship. Though artistic photography requires considerable technical skill, in true art skill takes a back seat to vision. If vision is to lead in the photographic process, the artist must master his equipment to the point that he can focus on his vision instead of the camera. To this extent, a simple, unvarying tool that offers complete, intuitive, and direct control is the ideal instrument, and at present that tool consumes photographic film.
*So for example if I wish to slightly overexpose an image to bring out shadow detail, I must override the digicam's automatic settings, either by enabling spot metering, aiming at a dark object, holding the shutter halfway down, and then aiming back at my subject, or by overriding the meter by some number before going back to my subject. While these techniques can be mastered, with a manually operated film camera one directly opens the lens up or turns down the shutter speed without resort to menus or buttons. Other things being equal, the simpler controls of the film camera give me a more immediate means of acting on an idea. Or as Schumacher says it gives me a greater opportunity to be "creatively, usefully, productively engaged with both [my] hands and [my] brains."
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What is usually consudered visual "fine art" is art using materials and equipment no longer used for the commercial production of images, i.e., art produced using outdated technology. Etching, aquatint, woodcuts, stone (or recently metal) based lithographs, silk screen...all of these were reproduction methods at one time used commercially for newspapers, books, posters, fabrics. Film based photographs were seldom exhibited as fine art before the advent of highly automated film cameras, and the new technology of digital cameras.
Maybe the older technology is considered an art medium because it requires more physical and mental involvement than newer technology. But then why was it not considered an art medium when it first evolved.? Perhaps the less appealing reason is, that at least in the past, fine artists and fine art collectors were terribly retarded in accepting new methods. Contributed by a trained fine artist
As each step in automation takes us toward higher speeds in generating and reproducing images we lose the human touch. To a society accustomed to etchings and lithographs a photo was cheap and unimpressive. Now that etchings and lithographs are a great rarity and most of the images we encounter are video (on TV) even a well printed photo seems like fine craft. Meanwhile etchings, lithographs, and silk screens continue to appreciate due to their scarceness.
I'm not opposed in principle to new methods. My issue with digital cameras is they are being touted as a total replacement for film by people with a profit to make. So I'm presenting another point of view.
I have some concerns about where digital is leading us, but I don't agree with a lot of your arguments.
If the value of a work of art is determined by how much effort went into it, then perhaps film photographers should go back to smearing emulsions on glass plates instead of buying pre-fabricated film, or ditch their Leicas, Hasselblads, and Nikons and use homemade pinhole cameras exclusively instead. Or better yet, maybe they should stop snapping photos altogether and learn to sketch or paint what they see. After all, there's more thought, skill, and effort involved in a painting than in twisting a few dials on a camera and pressing the shutter release button.
I don't see what difference it makes whether you're pressing the button on a DSLR or a film camera during that "creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture." All that matters is that you're pressing it at the right time. You're not any less of an artist for capturing the image to digital.
I agree that digital cameras have too many bells and whistles, but having auto-this and auto-that and auto-everything is something that started in the film era with SLR and point-and-shoot cameras and is not new or specific to digital.
The overwhelming majority of people who use cameras (including professional photographers) are not artists and are far more interested in convenience, expediency, and cost-effectiveness than anything else.