Don’t take the title the wrong way – I’m not going to trash digital photography or even personally abandon it. What I can say is that this weekend, for the first time in twenty five years, I went from taking a photograph to printing it without any involvement whatsoever of a digital camera or a scanner.
In other words, the old fashioned way of making photographic prints.
Now, you might ask – why, in this time of digital supremacy and with so many tools available to produce any effect you want from your digitally acquired images, would anyone choose this path?
Partly it’s a nostalgia trip. I’ve done it this way before, it’s fun to try again. Partly, it’s to see just what chemical printing can do these days. There have been technological advances, even as the methodology as a whole has become relegated to a niche. Partly it is to defy that digital look, so ubiquitous and so beguiling in its reproducibility, sharpness and vibrance. The look that is now the de facto standard for excellence. Try getting a film photograph into a contemporary photography competition that does not have a specific category for film – I’ll warrant that your chances will be very slim, and it won’t be anything to do with the quality of the composition. It will just be the look of film, grainy and no way as sharp. A look that screams imperfection to the pixel peeper.
But mostly it’s the realization that’s grown on me over the couple of years that I’ve taken up photographing film again that the best way to present a photograph captured on film is using a technique that shares the chemistry. Creating a photographic print is taking a photograph in reverse. The camera becomes the source of the image, the photographic paper the recipient. And the image is grown and shaped with much the same reagents as are used to develop the original film. There’s an appealing symmetry to this. But it’s more than that. Because both the capture of the image and the creation of the print are analog methods, the process works to analog rules. No little packets of digital information, sampled and algorithmically transformed, are involved here. All depends on the reactivity of silver compounds to incident light, be it on film or photo paper.
What do I mean by best in real terms, though. After all, it’s perfectly possible to print a beautiful looking black and white digital image and those from dedicated black and white printers look especially great. Most people are not going to notice a difference. Nonetheless, I will maintain that there is a quality of seamlessness, comprised of barely discernable yet seemingly infinitely variable shades of gray in a print made from an enlarger and photographic paper. An extremely subtle difference, to be sure, and I’m not convinced it’s enough for me to argue that going the photoactive print method is the only way to go for black and white (color is a different matter altogether, and one I’m not experienced enough to comment on). But it’s good enough to convince me to keep going with wet print making, especially as I now have quite a collection of black and white film negatives built up over the past couple of years. Even if it’s difficult to argue the superiority of film to wet print over digital to digital print, it’s easier to argue that a wet print of a negative produces a better result than a scan of a negative printed digitally. Using an enlarger moderates a film’s grain and really does take full advantage of the full grayscale range contained within a developed film’s emulsion. A scanned negative loses that advantage and if anything accentuates grain and flaws within an image. The flaws can be corrected in Photoshop, the grain is pretty much what you get. Noise reduction algorithms, designed to combat digital noise, really can’t cope with grain.
That said, there are advantages to scanning a negative. An over or underexposed negative is difficult to reproduce well with an enlarger. A scanner in conjunction with good imaging software can pull out more from the image more easily. A scanned image is easy to clean up too, scratches, dust, salt spots – all can be healed out with Photoshop. To fix an enlarged print literally involves painting over the flaws with spotting pens or brushes. That actually is rather fun – it moves your print closer to the world of painting. But each wet print has to be fixed individually – a cleaned up scan will produce clean digital prints forever.
Not that one is likely to make prints forever. At least I’m not. The nice thing about making an enlargement is that, even with your own best efforts to keep everything consistent, there are going to be differences, slight ones to be sure, between each resulting print. Far more so than found in a batch of digital prints. It gives each print a stamp of individuality and makes each more deserving of the common habit of photographic artists to number and limit the print run of their work to generate some sort of exclusivity.
But perhaps the single most important consequence of taking up chemical print making again is simply the fact that I make the print. The vast – and I mean vast – majority of my digital photographs remain confined to the computer and the flat screen; simply being able to see it so easily there somehow works against any desire to get the image onto something solid. It’s true that all my film negatives are scanned and stored in precisely the same way and can be exhibited as such, but the artifactual quality of a film negative leads, in my mind at least, to considering its expression to be most truly represented by another artifact, namely the paper print.
Eventually I will have a box full of prints from my favorite negatives. I’ll warrant that these will have at least as much chance of surviving for posterity as my stored digital images, and I would claim that they actually have a much better chance. Because they will be real solid objects anyone can look at without any need for interpretation via machinery and software and thus wear their value directly. In an age of seemingly infinite reproducibility and swamped daily with millions of new photographs, this quality is likely to stand tall.