Teaching Photography: Digital And Traditional Sunday March 9, 2008

There’s a romantic nostalgia to black and white photographs I quite like. I understand why people prefer it and why film practitioners in particular pursue it. For example there’s a craft dimension to developing film and working in a darkroom, a blend of physical technique and careful observational skills. Like many photographers, I remember the first moment when I saw a print emerging in the red light gloom and what fun it was. I think there’s sometimes a father-son aspect to photography, which was true in my case. My Dad gave me my first camera advice to choose a 35mm model for my birthday, which to me seemed the only option: it was pretty much what Amateur Photographer magazine dealt with every week. My Dad however remembered the early days of 35mm and how new and liberating it was, when previous cameras were big and heavy. It must have been a great time if you had a Leica or Contax and went into the street, discovering a new kind of photography. My Dad bought this book, called My Way With The Miniature (Focal Press 1947) by someone called Lancelot Vining:

The photography is not especially accomplished but it’s a quaint and entertaining volume showing how people worked with the new medium, the camera Vining called the ‘miniature’, with a sense of exploration:

In some ways, the invention of 35mm was a lower octave of the more recent digital revolution: in both cases, new technology facilitates a form of photography with a new kind of power. Cartier-Bresson and a few others led the way with 35mm, using the new tool very effectively and helping to define the photographic aesthetic. In the early days of photography the first practitioners copied the style of painting, and I suspect if one studied this historically and aesthetically the introduction of 35mm was notable for giving photography a clearer identity of its own.

For some photographers then, black and white film practice is ‘real’ photography both technically and aesthetically. When I recently re-introduced myself to the darkroom, I wondered how I would feel about it. Romance, magic, and fun, or a bit tedious? For me it’s a bit of both. It is undeniably fun to retreat to a darkroom for a few hours and play with silver halides. But, it seems like a backward step in terms of the photographic power you have with digital methods. I borrowed a colleague’s medium format negatives, and ran off a few prints. I was a little disappointed and remembered yes, that’s what printing is like: it’s quite difficult to get a technically perfect print when you are using an enlarger and chemicals, even with medium format resolution. There were slight chemical marks on the paper, the contrast was disappointing compared to the jewel-like negatives, and there were areas I wanted to dodge and burn I could achieve skilfully and quickly in Photoshop, but this was different. I didn’t feel inspired by the challenge of doing that with deft use of a piece of card, I felt bored with such a cumbersome technique.

I enjoy introducing people to the darkroom, and it’s arguably a very good way of starting to understand photography. Certainly, it still has a place in educational courses if only for giving students the opportunity to see if they like it. But I feel no great attachment to it myself, either for its craft-like attributes or indeed the results: digital workflow does get slightly different results, but I don’t think they are necessarily inferior. And I suspect the romance factor to using a darkroom is a substantial part of why, for example, a student (not one of mine) recently said to me “film is well better!” for both its workflow and results. Going into a college and working on projects for which you use the darkroom is to engage with a creative, explorative, and fun process. There’s a buzz to doing it, like studying art in a college studio, very different from sitting in front of a VDU and is arguably a valuable or necessary part of photography to excite students and engage them creatively. Film is a two-stage process, encouraging creative nuance compared to inserting a CF card into a USB slot. The outcome of film is a tangible print, and the means to getting it are similarly physical; computers are very often used as a self-contained medium and people don’t bother printing their work. Computers are more conceptual; the film method is more sensual. It’s quite possible to exercise a similar creativity on a computer, but the medium is obviously different and engages people in a different and less layered manner.

My own teaching interests currently lie in this area: replicating what happens in traditional college studios, but using digital technology to do it. The fact that it is digital does not mean you forget the power of Cartier-Bresson, that you ignore the beauty of Ansel Adams and his technical skill, or the wider traditions of photography. All it means is you have a very powerful, different technical medium but where photography per se remains the same. This works if you have some understanding of wider ie. non digital photography; if not it could be a dangerous approach in the sense that it shortcuts the slower more meditative process of film and darkroom, and has traps for the inexperienced. It’s easy for example to forget that photography is essentially about prints; that a JPEG or TIF on a VDU is substantially different. Learning photography is not demarcated so clearly from the hobby pursuit of domestic snapshots if when you come into college you are – again – sitting in front of a computer like you do at home. Access to a darkroom and workspace is not only technically different, it’s surely creatively different as well. People tend to engage with computers in an isolated way, to the detriment of group interaction and the stimulus it provides. But these are not so much inherent to digital photography, as tendencies of computer usage which can be avoided.