My good friend Megan and I were recently discussing our mutual love of photography when we realized that we’d both bought our first digital cameras last summer. We also realized that since acquiring this exciting new toy, we’d both photographed at least a few personally significant events, and both have subsequently done absolutely nothing with the photos (though I have taken the monumental step of actually downloading at least some of them to my computer). So, there they sit, languishing unseen and unappreciated, promised to others who patiently wait and wait. Meanwhile, it’s as though we’re caught in a sort of digital paralysis. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of being just old enough not to really be a part of the tech-savvy generation; or if it’s a simple question of time, interest or motivation; or if we’re just experiencing a sort of digital burnout, craving, instead, a more humanistic and humanizing experience.
Perhaps the answer lies at some intersection of these, perhaps it varies by context; I suspect the human element, and thereby a sense, or suggestion, of authenticity plays a strong part. Sure, I can use a digital camera with decent fluency, but I was trained on film, and like driving automatic after learning standard, or listening to the crisp, cold clarity of a CD after learning to appreciate the warmth of the skips and crackles of an LP, it’s tough to switch to a form of media that is at a loss because it’s essentially perfected (for a timeless discourse on art, soul and perfection, check Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto“). Technicalities aside, though, I think there’ s a magic film offers that digital just doesn’t, not least of all with the inherent warmth and softness of grains that pixels are necessarily devoid of, or the anticipation of getting a processed roll back from the lab and the thrill of flipping – actually, physically, with photo stock in hand – through the results. Perhaps most powerfully, though, the thought process and the approach to the two different media have proven starkly different for me. Film is limiting in quantity, so it forces one to focus, to think about creating the desired shot, anticipating the moment and making critical, split-second judgments about framing, lighting, shutter speed and aperture. It’s intense, exciting and deliberate, and though the hoped-for results don’t always turn out, every shot is an opportunity to learn and improve. While digital certainly offers a number of advantages, it seems so inherently disposable that we just shoot, shoot, shoot, arbitrarily, and then end up with a glut of photos that are rarely seen or revisited after the initial thrill; they are somehow absent of the joy those imperfect but real paper shots bring.
Any thoughts on this from your own experience? Have we sacrificed quantity to quality in the frenetic nature of all things instant? Or, has the entire social and personal purpose of the photograph shifted?