Digital technologies are taking over in the photography world, but some analog users fear we’ll lose the happy accidents that come with film
Is analog photography a dying art? Film, like vinyl, is now a highly touted remnant of a disappearing era. As digital photography, with its instantaneous feedback and transmitability, supersedes the more arcane processes of the darkroom and lab, the chemical film industry has struggled to adjust. Kodak Canada shut its 100-year-old 18-building facility in 2005, consigning an entire era of film technology to the ash heap of history.
The effect is being felt across North America. Markets for film stock and cameras are dwindling, sparking panic among devotees.
Photography historian and curator Stephen Bulger of the Stephen Bulger Gallery, whose show The Death Of Photography (about, among other things, the closure of the Kodak plant) ran through February 2, ima-gines most film stocks being exhausted in about 15 years.
“That’s just a guess based on when Spielberg and Hollywood cross over from shooting film to shooting digital,” he says. “Once the demand from the film industry drops off, I think it will be more difficult to make film just for photographers.”
Cheryl Sourkes, whose show at Peak Gallery through May 24 consists of images captured without a camera, agrees.
“By the time the next decade is over, traditional photography will be considered a vintage process,” she says. Sourkes opts to reproduce webcam images from the Internet. “I love the quality of what you call old-fashioned photography, but new technology seems to possess an irresistible allure.”
Toni Hafkenscheid, who shot the works on display at Birch Libralato with analog toy cameras, gives analog about a decade. “I have no doubt that most film will be gone in 10 years. The whole photographic process is moving from a very tactile experience to looking at the computer screen.”
Some people believe that the shift from analog to digital represents a battle for photography’s soul. There’s something in the new medium of instantaneous electronic image-making that robs photography of its hands-on authenticity, they say. Some even argue that digital images, so easily airbrushed and modified, are less real and immediate than film.
“I don’t think digital looks very authentic,” says Bulger. “I’m more fascinated with the way light is transferred to film. Digital to me is a mathematical formulation of that, and in that way it’s one step removed from photography. With film, there is still the possibility of accidents… of something spontaneous happening. I generally think it’s a more beautiful medium all around.”
Unpredictability is one of the joys of film.
“Using my toy cameras makes it exciting,” says Hafkenscheid. “When I look at the contact sheet a week after the shoot, it’s like Christmas. Everything is a surprise, whether good or bad.”
He doesn’t believe, however, that digital greatly affects the authenticity of the photographic image. “Photographers make all kinds of decisions before pushing the button. Most photographers just want to get a great image, and will do anything to get it [cropping, angle of view, light, etc]. Enhancing, altering things in Photoshop is just an extra step in creating that great image,” Hafkenscheid argues.
For Sourkes, however, distancing herself from her subjects via digital technology is what drives her work. “It’s a second order type of thing.” She explains, “I document what webcam owners consider worthy of attention, and I do it from a distance. It’s like combing an archive as it’s coming into formation, an Alice In Wonderland kind of archive.”
The Last Photograph, a new show by Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó at Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, features the analog prints of 43 South American photographers placed next to the cameras that shot them. She sees the paradigm shift from analog to digital in a more theoretical light.
“Our faith in the photograph used to be rooted in the almost magical, secretive and slow way the image was chemically produced. Today, this faith is supported by the speed, ease and availability of images. Because of this, we make many more images than we necessarily need or are ready to absorb.”
Rennó envisions an artisanal photography movement similar to other movements that retained old technologies.
“We’ll still have film for a long time, like we still have pendulum clocks, LP record players and people doing goatskin leather bookbinding, making blown glass and Super 8 films.
In the meantime, the explosion of digital image-making technology has widened the democratization of the photographic process.
“Digital technology is the great equalizer,” says Armando Lulu, a local photographer who also runs his own graphic design studio, M 2020.
“I don’t think I’d be a professional photographer now if it weren’t for digital. I remember when photographers were this intimidating elite group of technicians fiddling with all their high-tech gear. Digital cameras changed all that. Four years ago, I didn’t even know what an F-stop was. Now I’ve opened up a commercial photography wing to my design business and do shoots professionally.”
It’s not only the ease of digital’s instant point-and-shoot feedback that helped Lulu along, but also the burgeoning online forums and DIY philosophy that supports them.
“The Flickr community helped me tremendously, and I learned everything I know about jerry-rigged professional studio lighting – including how to get professional lighting effects using lamps and a bungee cord – from Strobist.com.”