Monday, September 24, 2012

Film – Stating the Not So Obvious

Pic I Took in 2006 With an Olympus Trip 35

I often state the obvious, but to offer my opinions about film photography, I want to try and go beyond the obvious, into the realm of my own feelings and opinions about it. At this point in time, I'm truly making a go of using film once again, to try again to see if it really captures me as an amateur photographer as it once did. Eight years ago, I had re-discovered photography, and although it was a little Pentax Optio 230 digital camera that got my toes wet, I wasn't long in switching to nothing but film cameras. In 2008, things changed – I bought my first DSLR, and quickly became really hooked. A film die-hard might have said that it was like going on crack cocaine. Now, four years later, I'm giving film another go. But four years later, I'm discovering the world has changed. A lot of photo processing places have disappeared, and others have become a local collection depot only, sending your films to another city, because they can't keep staff on board to run the processing machinery – no longer enough demand for it. To say that since 2008, digital photography has greatly surpassed film photography would be an understatement. If the trend continues, my opinion is that within five years, film photography will have totally become a niche market only.. it's almost there now. That is, unless people begin realizing something, which I'll get to briefly.

Before 2008, the discussion was “film vs. digital” in pretty much the same way as American politics is Democrat vs Republican – people were equally passionate about one or the other as being “the truth”. Now, as I read various Blogs and Discussion Forums, the tome has greatly changed. It is no longer an issue as to which gives better results, because it can no longer be proven or measured either way. The word is now along the lines that one isn't better than the other, but film and digital are merely “different”. I think this shows that we have arrived at the place where quality arguments are no longer valid. Aside from the inherent “look and feel” of film photos, digital cameras have progressed to the point where there is no measurable difference in image quality, compared with film, and almost everybody is saying hooray!

Something that seems to be missing from this discussion, however, is “the value of the final product”. I imagine that somebody somewhere has written about this, but I've not read it, so here is my “original” take on it. (For the record, here's an article that comes close to what I'mthinking.)

It is a matter of value, not of quality, I believe. People who only see film vs digital in terms of resolution, sharpness, color accuracy, etc. are missing the point... a point which can be stated in several different ways. For starters, let's say if you take away the Internet, digital photography dies instantly. No? The Internet is like electricity – it's not going away? How can you know that for certain? Let's look at it another way that might be more probable then. If a genuine, professional artist, who has gone completely digital, just shot some of her best, most important work, transferred her pictures to her computer, erased her card, and then went to bed, only to awaken to discover that her drive has hopelessly crashed, what became of her work? Well, again you could argue that even analogue photographers suffer the risk of technical malfunction – or somebody could break in and steal his film camera. If that's your argument you are still missing the point.

My point is – a photograph isn't “real” until it is something that you can hold in your hand. Obvious, I know, and also, Ken Rockwell has said thistoo. But think about this long and hard. Think about the difference in potential between a roll of undeveloped film and a camera memory card full of digital “pictures”. The roll of film can only become one thing – a collection of absolutely real pictures. A memory card on the other hand can become many different things, but in the vast majority, real pictures are never made from it – but only data files that are shared on-line. Now ask yourself, which is ultimately of greater value?

This is a hard discussion I know, loaded with “what-ifs” and different scenarios. You have to view the finished product of a film photograph as being completely different than a digital photograph, because to truly remain a photo that is processed chemically, and retain it's true character, it can never be digitized or shared over the internet, any more than an oil painting can. Once a film photo is scanned, it is no longer a film photograph, but a digital one, yet the film version still exists. Same as a painting – once it is scanned, it becomes a digital image, yet the real painting still exists, with it's original value intact. Digital scans are made to show others on-line an approximation of what the real thing looks like – otherwise, the real thing has to be viewed in the photographer's home, or perhaps in a museum / gallery.

So am I missing the obvious point of the Digital Print? Well, again, the arguments about digital printing have only been technical, based on pigment vs dye based ink, and which will last longer. But I've never read a comparison about the true value of a digital print vs a film print, so I'll make a good one now. A digital print will most likely have it's “shared” corollary in cyberspace somewhere, and all somebody has to do if they want one of the same is to click “save image as”, and they've got it. If they want to go to the trouble, they can make a quality print of the file themselves. This cannot help but cheapen the value of a digital print. But with a film print, it doesn't matter how many people are saving and printing the on-line corollary, because the genuine film-paper or slide original still exists in the possession of the original artist. The value of the photo, therefore, is never cheapened if it was done originally on film, no matter how many people violate the copyright, the true original remains as safe as an oil painting. Therefore, any gallery or museum will continue placing a much higher value on film photography, and I think the more difficult it gets for film, with manufacturers discontinuing their hardware and base medium, the more valuable a good film photograph will become.

Let us just wait and see what happens in the very near future.

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