Film’s image fades, eclipsed by digital

January 26 2004

Financial Times

Kodak has signalled the beginning of the end for 35mm photography as a product for the mass market. Amy Yee asks what will be left for the alchemy of the dark room

Even after the electricity came back on after last summer’s power cuts, some parts of New York remained dark. The Daily News, a local newspaper with more than 30 photographers, never bothered to switch on the power to its darkrooms because they were so seldom used. The digital age means lights out for many darkrooms and marks the dusk of an era.

For the snapshooting consumer, the transition may seem like another gadget upgrade. But for photojournalists and art photographers, digital technology signals a sea change. Demand for digital cameras is growing rapidly and manufacturers are shrinking their analogue camera businesses. Kodak, which launched cameras in 1888, this month marked the end of an era when it said it would stop selling 35mm reloadable cameras in the US and western Europe by the end of this year. Other camera companies are expected to follow.

Unlike casual snapshots for the family photo album, great photography is often defined by subtle nuances of composition, tone and texture created by the traditional process. Digital camera users marvel at the ease of capturing and printing images but does this same ease lessen the skill involved in creating a great photograph? Can any number of pixels match the magic of silver halide?

While some wax nostalgic about pungent chemicals and line-drying wet prints, most professional photographers embrace digital. Willis Hartshorn, director of the International Centre of Photography in Manhattan, says that digital technology is “just another tool in the tool box”. Since its invention in 1839, photography has always been a changing art form, with its evolution from daguerreotype to silver halide and from black-and- white to colour. Photographers are accustomed to change. “Ultimately, photography is not about technology,” says Mr Hartshorn. “It’s about pictures. Technology doesn’t make it any easier or harder to have good vision,” he adds. “The kind of things a serious photographer is trying to accomplish [go] beyond technical issues. It’s about vision.”

Today many newspapers and magazines require their photographers to shoot digitally because of the significant time and cost savings. Virtually all the images from the war in Iraq were taken with digital cameras and transmitted by photographers toting laptops with satellite modems. Daily News photographers roaming New York do not need to return to the office; they simply stop in at a coffee shop and send their images via wi-fi connections.

Photographers say that the mechanics of most good-quality 35mm digital cameras are on a par with those of analogue versions. They can change lenses and control depth of field, focus and shutter speeds just as with traditional models. Professional grade cameras, which typically cost more than $1,000, can have image resolution of up to 11 megapixels (dots of colour), compared with four megapixels of the average digital point-and-shoot camera. Picture quality continues to improve rapidly and photographers agree that it is only a matter of time before digital cameras are able to mimic analogue quality exactly.

There are, however, a few instances where digital cameras cannot quite match analogue performance. Mr Hartshorn says he has not yet found a digital camera that can take moonlight photographs without a flash. David Jacobs, a freelance photographer and printer for Annie Leibovitz, the portrait photographer, says that some digital cameras have difficulty capturing light and shadow the way analogue cameras can. Some images can be problematic, such as bright sun against a blue sky, which can produce a digital “fringing” effect that unnaturally outlines the sun.

There are occasions when a photographer will choose film to achieve a particular effect, an ineffable quality that Marie-Helene Carleton, a freelance photographer, describes as a “certain roundness in tone”. Richard Benson, dean of Yale Art School and an ardent advocate of digital, admits that digital “doesn’t have the continuous, seamless description of silver”.

Print quality can also pose problems, especially for larger images that tend to get distorted. But, for the most part, photographers are excited about the potential of digital. Photographers save hours that would have been spent labouring in the darkroom.

And there are things that digital equipment can do better. Mr Jacobs says scanners can give greater editing control than is available in the darkroom. Many photographers who do not shoot with digital still use scanners and computers to scan negatives and edit images to create innovative art. For instance, Andreas Gursky, the German photographer, is known for creating striking, digitally enhanced and printed composite images. Through digital techniques, images of a hotel in Shanghai or a grocery store in Cologne become endless landscapes conveying the eerie coldness of consumer culture.

The market for film may be shrinking but it will not die for a while yet, if ever. Annie Leibovitz shoots only with film, although she uses a combination of traditional and digital technology to print and edit. Steve McCurry, the National Geographic photographer, still shoots mostly in film.

The use of traditional film will not be confined to established photographers. Future generations will still be taught the fundamentals of photography through film because it provides the building-block principles of the art form. Introductory classes at the International Centre of Photography require students to learn analogue black-and-white photography alongside digital, as well as Adobe Photo- shop, the ubiquitous photo-editing software. And while the Yale Art School has been replacing darkrooms with computers, Mr Benson admits “you can understand the medium only through silver”.

Photographers seemed to be more concerned about what would happen to archives than they are about the extinction of film. Digital displays allow photographers instantly to see captured images and delete those they do not want. With negatives and contact sheets, all images are retained. One that seems insignificant or flawed when taken may turn out to be special, even priceless, later.

Photographers cite an almost mythical example of the importance of archiving: photographers using digital cameras deleted an image of former US president Bill Clinton greeting yet another faceless crowd in 1996. Dirck Halstead, a Time magazine photographer, was still shooting film. After searching through thousands of pictures in Time’s archives, he recovered the indelible image of Mr Clinton hugging a beaming Monica Lewinsky.

Even with all the advantages of digital technology, some newspapers will continue to process film on site. Chris Maynard, a photographer at The New York Times, notes that many images taken on September 11 2001 were not taken by professional photographers (many were at an annual photojournalism conference in France). In the frantic hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Times was feverishly processing rolls of film that people brought to them off the streets. “As long as people are still shooting film,” said Mr Maynard, “they’ll continue to print it.”


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