I think anyone really interested in photography as art gets to a point where he or she realizes that it’s all been done before. Usually better too. Realizing that, the photographer looks around at all currently fashionable trends and despairs at the relentless technical perfection and concurrent artistic bankruptcy.
It’s almost enough to make you stop dead.
But not quite. What’s the cure? I found that moving away from the mainstream and back into a niche is bringing unexpected dividends and rewards. Dividends in terms of learning, rewards in terms of reawakening the wonder of photography that originally drew me to the art in the first place.
My own niche exploration came out of my return to film photography. Although you can still find color negative film at your local Walgreens, and, provided you use a C-41 process film, get it processed there, albeit for a price about twice what it used to be, it’s clear that film photography has passed out of general popularity. As for black and white film, you’re only going to find that at a specialist camera shop. Expensive too there, so I rely on the online stores such a B&H, Adorama and Freestyle Photography.
Black and white is easy to develop at home, requiring only room temperature, a thermometer, measuring flasks, chemicals, and a light tight developing tank. Color, less so, largely because higher and tightly controlled temperatures are needed. But I may yet venture into C-41 processing. Not, however, the E-6 process used for the slide positive you see scanned above – that I sent to a commercial developing lab.
What is common to all these photographs, the lab-developed color above or the home-developed black and white below, is the restoration of an element absent from digital photography, namely anticipation. Only when I began again to shoot a roll of 36 35mm exposures did this delight make itself apparent. The instant gratification of a screen view of your digital shot seems like an absolute advancement over the patient waiting for a film to be completed, removed from the camera, developed and printed (or, in my case, scanned). And you cannot argue with the ability to instantly review your shot for composition, exposure and lighting that allows you make corrections that might enhance your picture right there and then on the spot.
So why sacrifice that for a process that might, on completion, reveal a wretchedly poor shot that cannot be done over?
Because even that wretchedly poor shot is going to be more emotionally and intellectually involving than many a digital shot, most just tiny variations on a theme that offer nothing except repetition and redundancy. All nearly perfect and all boring. Photograph inflation, one might call it, and just as devaluing as monetary inflation.
Too much of a good thing. And no mistake, digital photography is a good thing. The advantages it offers over film photography, speed, sharpness, low light sensitivity, ease of reproduction and storage, are all quite real and unassailable. But none of this is necessary for good photographic art, even as it encourages in way never seen before in photography a type of technical achievement that so easily seduces the photographer into believing the photograph has inherent worth simply because it is sharp, colorful, in focus and matches the ubiquitous rules of composition (such as the rule of thirds) that are relentlessly repeated by the popular photography websites and best selling books.
Hence the proliferation of millions of similar shots, each devaluing the other.
At least in my eyes. Others, I know, feel quite differently about it. Enjoying a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of “I can do it like the pros”, relishing the ease and speed, the ability to share instantly with friends and family.
None of this appeals. There’s a good reason I don’t own a smartphone despite my frequent use of the internet via computers at home and work. I like boundaries, I like to savor the moment and I like to open my eyes to what’s going on around me. Validation through social media, or indeed through any social interaction, is not something I am looking for. Perhaps that’s the real reason I find today’s cookie-cutter proliferation of digital photographs unsatisfying. In almost every case, display is accompanied by the ability of the viewer to appreciate, via likes, loves or favorites, your work. It becomes, whether intended or not, another form of social interaction. A means of gathering warm strokes. The trouble, for me at least, is that once the accumulation of appreciation surmounts the desire for self-expression, the road to artistry becomes closed, walled off by a sense of doing what others like rather than what you, yourself, like.
The perpetual problem for all artists. Easier, by far, for me as my artistry is not the means I use to generate my living.
So let’s continue this path onto dusty roads, long abandoned by most, and relish the moment.