Why Digital Photography Matters

This year (2008) marks the year that I have decided to seriously rekindle my lost love affair with photography. When I first applied to design school and I had to declare a major, my pen wavered between checking the graphic design box and the photography box. In the end I chose graphic design, and that was probably a wise choice as my natural talent still probably lies there. But, even after high school I never really left the darkroom. My Beseler 23C enlarger made appearances in various apartment bathrooms throughout the late 80s and early 90s as I continued to produce mediocre black & white photographs. When I eventually moved to Thailand in 1996 I sold most of my stuff—including the darkroom—and I never developed another print again. I still shot a lot of film with my trusty Pentax ME Super while living in Thailand, but the corner Photomat was as close as I got to any hands-on work.

Fast forward to the year 2000 and the arrival of my first digital camera, a Nikon 4500. While the camera itself did nothing to improve my natural ability to take a decent photograph, it did allow me to take a lot of them. The cost of film no longer mattered. Mixing chemicals no longer mattered. And this allowed me to take huge quantities of photographs, and in that sense it did improve my ability in one important way: I no longer waited for the perfect shot, I just shot.

At the same time some of my old-school artist friends were still dismissing digital photography as a lower art form. It lacked the “hands-on” of real photography: the smell of chemicals, the labored processes, the selection of papers, the dirtying of the hands. I found this rather ironic as I’m sure that’s exactly what the old-timey painters were telling the old-timey photographers back at the turn of the century: that this soulless new art form with its gadgets and chemicals called “photography” will never achieve the museum-quality status of the works of the great painters and sculptors.

As with anything new, digital photography is maligned for the same reason that its older sibling “regular” photography was back in the day. This general distrust of “digital” art is odd to me for several reasons. First, old school black and white photography (which gets the most “artistic” respect) is a process in which silver halide crystals are exposed to light and are then rendered black or white via chemical processing. As these crystals are grouped together they create tonality depending on their proximity to one or another. So really, light affects the crystals and turns them on or off. Black or white. 1 or 2. It’s a binary process. Black and white photography is a digital art form by definition.

Second, when you shoot film, the film itself is designed to react a certain way depending on manufacturer and style (think Tri-X or Kodak Porta) these films have a “look”. From there the processing of the film is typically done by a lab and that process adds to the total number of hands touching the “art”. Next, paper manufacturers design their paper to have specific looks, feels, and textures—you see where this is going. Conversely, when I shoot a photograph in RAW format and bring it into my software application, in this case Adobe Lightroom, I am editing the raw data the camera captured and I have full control over every pixel in the frame—not the camera, the lab, or the film company. The chain of command is reduced to me and the software with no outside forces filtering my work. So really, my “artistic” control is enhanced with digital photography—both by my ability to shoot a higher volume of photographs and my ability to edit each pixel directly. Now, it’s important to mention that no amount of equipment or software is going to make anyone a good photographer, but that’s true of any discipline. If you can’t paint, the best sable brush will do nothing for you. But the converse is also true: one’s medium doesn’t determine the level of artistic authenticity in one’s work, that can only be determined by the execution and vision of one’s endeavor.

But yeah, now that I have the right equipment, I want to spend the next year really focusing on technique—I want to elevate the craft of making photos—both behind the lens and behind the Macintosh. I’ve never called myself a photographer, but I hope by the end of the year I will feel comfortable doing just that. And I really want to start learning more from some of the modern masters. My latest favorite is Jill Greenberg. Her attitude about photography is right on to me, and this quote from a recent video interview says it all:

I don’t really romanticize straight photography. I think it’s nice to just get in there..If you want to change the picture, change the picture. It doesn’t need to be evidence of some actual event that happened.

I remember when I first started printing my own photographs in high school. I would always make sure to allow the edges of the negative to peek through on the final print as proof that I didn’t enlarge the shot in the darkroom. As if by succumbing to the whims of the camera manufacturer’s frame ratio I was being truer to the art form. That kind of thinking seems so silly to me now.

More photos at LookatLao Photography. There’s always new snapshots over on Flickr as well.