Wednesday, October 12, 2005

You Can't Get There from Here


It seems that on the Internet, everyone has an opinion -- and a web site or a blog to let everyone know what that opinion is. (I know what you're thinking, who am I to talk.) Well, that's not necessarily a bad thing. That's what's so great about the 'Net. You can find information and opinions about anything. And photography is no exception.

A case in point is an essay by Utah photographer Bruce Wilson. The piece, written in 2002, is entitled The Modern Camera, And the Dilution of Effort: An Essay on the Loss of Craft in Photography. Basically, the premise of the piece is that modern technology (digital, autofocus, automated cameras) makes photography too easy and photographers just shoot film, rather than take the time to make photographs.

Wilson opens his piece with William Henry Jackson, the great 19th Century photographer of the West, and how he would spend time (sometimes hours) just to make a single exposure. Working even without the (then) modern convenience of roll film, Jackson managed to turn out some spectacular images using the rapidly-becoming obsolete wet plate collodion process.

The point of the piece, if I am reading Wilson correctly, is that photographers today -- with all their modern conveniences and automation -- are good at churning out snapshots, but not so good at making photographs. He makes his point by noting that Jackson turned out works of art at a slow pace, unlike today's digital photographers.

Jackson worked primarily with a 20x24 inch wet-plate camera. He used the collodion process to make negatives, and then made albumen prints from them. The collodion process was by no means rapid...

Needless to say, Jackson didn't fritter away any shots. The effort involved in making just one negative was too great to waste on scenes he didn't think had a chance of being very good. He could not afford to just walk up to a lake or canyon rim and set up the camera where he stood. He needed to study the area, spend days there if needed to find the camera locations that gave both the big picture of the area, and some feeling of how vast, how wonderful, and how unusual the West was.


While I agree with Wilson's general premise -- that photographers today rely too much on automation and take photographs, they do not make photographs, let alone art -- I think his reasoning is faulty. By using the above Jackson analogy, he is saying that Jackson was an artist that produced amazing photographs by using primitive equipment (even by the standards of his day) and taking his time. The inference being that if photographers today would only take their time and not rely on automation, they would produce better photographs.

This is true -- to a point. What Wilson fails to realize is that it is not the equipment that makes the photograph, it's the photographer. Jackson made great photographs because he was an artist and had talent. His equipment was a means to an end. He took his time making a photograph mainly because he had to. The process and equipment he used required slow, methodical work. His photographs weren't amazing because he worked slowly. They were amazing because he knew his craft, he had talent and he knew how to use his equipment.

What if Jackson gave in to what was modern technology of his day (cellulose nitrate roll film was invented in 1881)? What would we think of him today if he went back with his new Brownie camera, dashed from viewpoint to viewpoint snapping off as many shots as he could, not hardly pausing to even look at where he's pointing the camera? Yet too many modern photographers do just that. They go back to the very places Jackson made famous and produce photographs that can't even compare to his. Using a car they see in a half day more places than Jackson saw in a week on horseback, and they are snapping pictures the whole way.


I think Jackson would produce great photographs no matter what equipment he was using. And many modern photographers can't produce photographs as great as Jackson's because they don't have his talent, not because they are using different equipment.

The problem with the digital revolution is not that it takes advantage of modern technology. The problem is that it makes everyone think they are photographers. It makes it too easy and takes all the thinking out of it. It's like the original Kodak advertisement "You push the button, we do the rest." Digital cameras do all the work so the photographer doesn't even have to think.

Wilson is right, however, when he says that photographers should slow down, take their time and study the scene before tripping the shutter. Do this and you'd be amazed how much better your photographs will become, no matter what equipment you are using.

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