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Is the Digital Image as Special as the Film Image?

Is the Digital Image as Special as the Film Image?

In Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he argues that the reproduction of an art object diminishes its "aura," or unique position in time and space. What this means is that if you make something with your hands, you only have a singular of that thing, so that makes it something special. It is "one of a kind."

Daguerreotypes were invented at about the same time as photography. Daguerreotypes are like photos in that they used a special type of process to create an image of the world. Where daguerreotypes and photographs differ is that photographs are created from a negative, and from this negative, you can create multiple "positive" image copies. Daguerreotypes are a positive process, so you only get one positive image, and so, each one is unique.

In the age of analog film photography, it could be argued that the original "negative" had an aura and that any prints made traded aura for accessibility (or perhaps for reproducibility). By this extension, I would argue that no digital image is really an original — no digital image has an aura. It is very easy to copy and paste many copies of a file and to share these across multiple screens.

What is still unique, at least more so, is the printed image. Surprisingly so, in fact, as fewer prints are made than digital images created. It would therefore stand to reason that in the digital age of photography, an image only really has an aura if a limited run of images is created — either as personal mementos or as is the case in limited edition art prints. Although there may still be multiples, each image still holds more gravitas than the digital.

I recently got into film photography, and I really jumped into the deep end with a large format camera. The thing is a monster. It is big, clunky, and unwieldy — and I absolutely love it. I can slow down and take my time. I literally only get two images from a single film holder. The resolution and detail are incomparable to anything digital.

But is the inherently improved image quality what makes them special or the fact that I only have a single negative (and although I could make lots of copies, it is cost-prohibitive to do so)? Of course, I do silly digital things like get them scanned, so where is the aura then? In the negative?

I am getting carried away with rhetorical questions.

I am not sure, really.

But I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Ali Choudhry's picture

Ali Choudhry is a photographer in Australia. His photographic practice aims to explore the relationship with the self, between the other, and the world. Through use of minimalist compositions and selective use of color and form he aims to invoke what he calls the "breath". He is currently working towards a BA (Honours) in Photography.

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I would argue that the medium the image is created with is wildly less relevant to how special a given photo is than the subject matter of said image.

of course its not..

Only if it's printed with quality inks on quality paper.

I'd say the process is important and also large film has a better look than smaller digital, so it is special. If eventually smaller digital can replicate the look of larger film then it would just be a question of the process. This is a subject of opinion.

Depends on what the subject of the image is.

Well some folk believe that the the old steam engine railway is a purer form of travel too.

Or electric cars from the 1800s. There's been a huge resurgence of in interest in that old method of travel!

Most Archaea just kind of float around. If we're going to get traditional, why not go back to that?!

For me personally, the tactile quality of film and all the processes that come with it mean that, yes, I do feel film is more special than digital photography.

I'd agree, and add that this is closest to the spirit of the question posed here, which isn't one of quality and especially not one of utility. If you get all the way back to Benjamin's point, it isn't even a question of aesthetics.

It just has to do with the ideas of reproducibility and aura (however murky that actually is). Whether or not Benjamin was right, there is a sense in which negative film has a relationship to time and place--light interacting chemically with film in a way that uniquely inscribes something that can't be reproduced. I think from this perspective it's worth emphasizing, too, that the process of chemicals and light interacting on the surface of the film is a direct link to that moment in time and space, one we can understand physically, whereas the necessary abstraction into digits and re-presentation of those digits as an image is always going to have this sort of gap between the light striking the sensor and making that (temporary, necessarily reproducible) "impression" and the machine that gathers, processes, and presents that to us an something we recognize.

Having said all that, I pretty much love anything with a shutter, film or digital, and envy Ali's new large-format fun.

Absolutely correct! My original intent was to be agnostic of the image quality and image content (although, there will be an obviously difference in the former between digital and film); but rather to focus on the uniqueness of film (or as Benjamin calls it, "aura").

But it's interesting that you mentioned the mediation of film and digital, where the former is a physical and chemical process and the latter a physical and then digital process. I'm actually working on another article which questions the reality of the digital image. Would be great to hear your insights on that once it's published.

I shot for years with film, and I have now shot for years with digital.

To me, my digital images are collectively more "special" to me than my film images, all else being equal.

Why? Because digital images show my subjects better than my film images do - the way my digital files are rendered and detailed more closely match the real life scenes than my film images do.

Also, I am able to do far more with my digital images from a creative standpoint, because manipulating and editing digital images is far more practical for me than manipulating film images is. I know that very extensive editing CAN be done with film images, but doing so requires far more time, materials, and facilities, which makes it impractical for me to do.

I really don't like my film images very much at all. I have a collection of my favorite photos, and not one of them is a film image.

If I had to go back to shooting film, I think I would just stop doing photography, because film does not give me the results I want in 95% of the situations that I shoot.

Woodcuts by Albrecht Durer, lithographs by Escher, screen prints by Warhol, etc, weren't "one of a kind," and not too many people say they suffer from a diminished aura. Prices may be impacted due to the number of prints made, but that's a different issue. But if you're still worried about your digital files' aura, maybe an NFT will help you out.

I mean, with the woodcut example the aura is in the cutting and less so the print you'd create from the cutting. And even if you make two cuttings as exactly the same as you can, even they'll be different (and unique) due to human error.
But I'm digressing. I was lucky enough to catch an Escher exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria a couple of years back and even the prints from his lithographs have human artifacts in them (so things like places where things don't line up EXACTLY or little bits here or there where he's not quite inked the litho perfectly). So in that way, even the prints would have an aura to them.
It's interesting you bring up NFT's though. I don't know too much about that but it seems more an arbitrary assignment of "aura" more than anything else. But a good philosophical question to ponder, none the less!

Maybe we could call it a "meta aura."


Is anything truly one of a kind, when you break it down to atoms it's all the same matter.

I'm perfectly happy with my digital photos having a diminished "aura" because I don't believe in pseudoscience to begin with, and I think it's laughable to perceive value in an aura being attached to an object or a photograph. As it stands, it's existence is only a paranormal theory.

In fairness to Benjamin, he wasn't claiming to be a scientist; his aura proposition was more a provocation--one that's clearly still fairly effective (but you do join a distinguished list of people who have found the concept laughable). I agree with you (and the slightly more nihilistic C Fisher, above); no question of authenticity in this sense is resolvable, and some are just exercises in silliness. It absolutely isn't science.

In this case, I think asking the question can be interesting, however, especially within a group so deeply familiar with two distinct modes of creative expression with the same name. It's a way of coming at that distinction from a fresh angle, finding a new way to ask what we value about the one or the other. And this comment thread is pretty interesting as a result.

I mean, Benjamin is one of the prominent philosophers of our time. His theories have influenced the likes of Susan Sontag.
My point is, Einstein came up with his space/time theories more than a decade prior and that was a pretty big deal. I can assure you Benjamin knew about space/time.