“These new ways might be found by men who could abandon their allegiance to traditional pictorial standards—or by the artistically ignorant, who had no old allegiances to break. There have been many of the latter sort. Since its earliest days, photography has been practiced by thousands who shared no common tradition or training, who were disciplined and united by no academy or guild, who considered their medium variously as a science, an art, a trade, or an entertainment, and who were often unaware of each other's work…Some of these pictures were the product of knowledge and skill and sensibility and invention; many were the product of accident, improvisation, misunderstanding, and empirical experiment. But whether produced by art or by luck, each picture was part of a massive assault on our traditional habits of seeing.” -John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, 1966.
John Szarkowksi passed away in 2007 at the age of 81. From 1962 until 1991, he was the Director of Photography at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Photographer’s Eye was originally written for an exhibition at MOMA in 1964 and published in book form in 1966. Reading it, one can’t help but acknowledge the glaring similarities in the ‘digital versus film’ conversation when compared to the the early days of photography when it was lambasted by that generation's painters.
“In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had 'created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? … There is no pause, why should there be?'”
‘Film is a more authentic process,’ they say, ‘it’s more deliberate. It takes more forethought and technique. With digital, anyone can be a photographer.’
The critics are right…from their own perspective. Painters initially accused photography of ruining a visual art medium, when it fact, all it really did was expand the gamut of ‘visual art’ far beyond what had previously been imagined. Were there issues in its infant stages? Absolutely. But any awkward kid or teenager eventually has the capacity to grow into a unique and compelling adult – and their awkwardness can contribute to the conversation in new and exciting ways.
Photographers shot "…objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes… without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic?" Painting was difficult, expensive, and precious, and it recorded what was known to be important. Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous”
Film photography is difficult. It’s expensive. It’s precious – and not just in the really cute way. Digital photography is easy. It’s (sort of cheap), and it’s definitely ubiquitous. It’s also not going anywhere. And the things you hate (if there are things you hate) are only going to become more numerous.
It can be daunting. And scary. You may not be as good with digital as you were with film. There are some truly great photographers whose work is honestly not as good since moving to digital. Working in a darkroom – though fundamentally similar – is not Photoshop. Each has its own quirks and skillsets. There will always be a place for film in fine art and hobbyists. There will also be the occasional photographer - like Norman Jean Roy - that is able to shoot film for larger jobs. However, that is no longer the industry standard, and it will only get further away. This is also not to say it is not important to understand the history of the camera all they way back to the camera obscura. Context and history will only make someone a better photographer in the same way that many great photographers are pupils of the Dutch master painters.
In a previous article with Joey Lawrence, we talked about how the digital medium has brought more ‘crap’ to sift through because it has simply allowed far more people to 'take a crack at it.’ But at the higher end, it has elevated the expectations, quality of work and sheer technical ability in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago.
Photography, and more specifically digital photography, is a medium that is still relatively new – as are the things that have been learned from it. Artists have been painting horses for at least thousands of years. It wasn’t until 1878 that – because of photography – we found out that for certain that a horse ran with four feet extended and off the ground. They had been painted differently all this time. And so, photography, although a troublesome and somewhat annoying child, eventually paid back to the medium that (sort of) birthed it.
“The influence of photography on modern painters (and on modern writers) has been great and inestimable. It is, strangely, easier to forget that photography has also influenced photographers. Not only great pictures by great photographers, but photography—the great undifferentiated, homogeneous whole of it—has been teacher, library, and laboratory for those who have consciously used the camera as artists.”
Photography has the ability to complement painting if the painter chooses to embrace the idea. “The trained artist could draw a head or a hand from a dozen perspectives. The photographer discovered that the gestures of a hand were infinitely various, and that the wall of a building in the sun was never twice the same.”
The same can be said for digital photography compared with film. Using techniques that have been developed in the last couple decades, one can apply much of that thought to film to get the best of both worlds. I love shooting with film, but I also will take along my digital camera when I do. Do I need it? No. Does it allow me to create better film images? Unquestionably - but only because it is my decision is converge the two.
This does, of course, completely depend on the type of photographer you are. Do you like a raw, untouched image? By all means, enjoy the hell out of your film camera. Do you like certain elements of polish that digital gives you, but you love the chemical process of film? Swing both ways. You never know what can happen.
“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear and consecutive but centrifugal. Photography, and our understanding of it, has spread from a center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like an organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”
Do what you want. It is your art, after all. Me? I’ll grow with it.
Add The Photographer’s Eye to your library at Amazon.com
Images by John Szarkowski. Cover image of John Szarkowski by Lee Friedlander