Mon. Aug 21, 2006
Art Requires Sweat Not Electrons
There’s an article at Wired, allegedly about photography, which has Garret “insulted and incensed.” He takes the author, Tony Long, to task, but Garret is such a darn concise guy it left me wanting. The article truly deserves a more verbose vituperation. And I’m here to serve.
First off, the article is headlined “Art Does Not Apologize,” yet the article itself seems to make no real reference to that officious statement. If it wasn’t for the fact I know authors are often completely divorced from the selection of headlines for their articles, I’d wonder if it wasn’t some kind of passive-aggressive projection.
Mr. Long says it in several ways, but here’s the thrust of his argument trashing all things digital:
It’s like “painting” a picture using your computer. It’s kind of fun to do and what you have when you’re done may be superficially terrific, but unless you’ve actually applied brush to canvas you’re no artist. You are merely a technician with a good eye.
As Garret points out, then what would you call Ansel Adams? Was he not the ultimate “technician with a good eye”? Worked pretty well for him, too.
But Mr. Long would likely say Ansel is an exception, because he really seems to get a woody from the process … the analog process:
In many instances, the darkroom was where the real art was made. The negative was your raw material — I worked in formats from 35 mm to 8×10, depending on the subject matter and the equipment at hand — but what you did with it once it was in the enlarger determined whether or not you walked out of there with a “photograph” or merely a “snapshot.” What to crop, what to retain? Burning in here, dodging a bit there. Damn. How did that lint get on the negative? Feeling the stop bath sear your cuticles. Choosing the right paper stock.
In other words, it was hands-on. It required some honest sweat. It required time. When you were finished, and assuming you had done sterling work, you had produced a piece of art.
Oh, my, where to begin? How about with the idea that “what you did with it once it was in the enlarger determined whether or not you walked out of there with a ‘photograph’ or merely a ‘snapshot.’” There’s two ways to respond to that.
One, truly great photographs are most often created the instant the shutter is snapped. Think Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. It’s about capturing the moment, a place and time, not masturbating in the darkroom after the fact.
And two, a really good darkroom technician can take an average snapshot, and turn it into a nice reproduction. But that process does not change the fact the original is a snapshot. Because … class? ... it’s about capturing a moment, not darkroom magic.
Now, no doubt, much valuable artistic interpretation can come “after the snap.” Eugene Smith and Ansel Adams are two shining examples of that, as they both spent as much time on their prints as they did shooting. In fact, Ansel encouraged others to print his negatives, as he considered the negative the “score,” and the print the “performance.” The truly great work features a great score and an inspired performance.
Mr. Long is all about the performance. He’s missing half the fun, and the majority of the potential, for any photo.
Yet he goes on:
Maybe Monet could have painted those water lilies on a Mac. Maybe Ansel Adams could have uploaded a boatload of pictures from his trip to Yosemite, then fiddled around in Photoshop to make ‘em real purty. But it wouldn’t have been the same.
I know two professional photographers and have friends who dabble in photography as a serious hobby. All have a good eye (still the ultimate skill for this particular pursuit); all produce quality. None do their own lab work, however. A few use the computer exclusively while the pros send their work out to professional processing labs. That eliminates 50 percent of the creative process, as far as I’m concerned.
And there’s the reveal. “Back in the day,” he used to use big cameras and burn his fingers with chemicals to “make art,” and now that he’s no longer involved intimately in photography, he looks at those who are, and think they’re cheating. Cutting off half their creativity.
They are actually being efficient business people. No one does their own lab work, and hasn’t for a long time. You let professionals do that, who run well maintained processing equipment, rather than have to worry about keeping a lab and chemicals maintained yourself. If you even bother with film at all any more.
Even so, there are a few … a very few … actual working photographers still left who feel the same way he does. They’ll go digital when you pry their enlarger from their pruned stop bath stained fingers. They are generally guys my age or older who’ve been successful for decades using film, have decades of techniques they know that work for them, and see no reason to change.
In that case, it’s hard to argue with someone sticking with what’s worked for them. But I, and most successful professionals in any industry, believe in learning new things, finding out about new tools, and putting them to work when they seem beneficial. I bet even Mr. Long does that in his career.
From the time I got my first 35mm camera, I used film for about two decades. Same as Mr. Long, I’ve used 35mm, 120mm, 4×5, or 8×10, and I’ve spent many many long hours in the darkroom.
I watched digital come along, first as an extremely expensive option for a very few, to the state we are at today, when the vast majority of working professionals are shooting digital.
And I am, too. I’ve had all the background Mr. Long has, and more. And I see tremendous creative options and control offered by the digital process that was untouchable in an analog world. My captures are better than film. My “enlarger” (a computer with Photoshop) is like something out of some Sci-Fi future compared to the old Beseler 45 “analog” enlarger. My final output is large and archival. And at no point in the process do potentially caustic or poisonous chemicals touch my skin.
The tools I have today are an order of magnitude better than the tools I had a decade or so ago. Safer, too. Long ago, newspaper photographers used what were essentially hand held 4×5 cameras, most commonly, the Speed Graphic. Then along came 35mm film and cameras. Some old pros insisted they wouldn’t use those little toy cameras. But eventually, well, they stopped getting work. The 35mm guys got where they couldn’t, and came back with 5 times the number of photos.
The conversion from analog to digital is even more momentous than that. And only a relative dinosaur out of touch with current reality would make the kind of claims Mr. Long does.
So, how does he finish trashing all things digital? With snark.
So, sure, nice picture, but don’t call it art.
At the bottom of the page, not far below that closing line, it says “Tony Long is copy chief at Wired News.”
Copy chief, eh? Writing about photography as art, as defined by process. OK.
I’m a photographer. So let’s talk about writing.
You know, writing used to require some honest sweat, pounding the keys of a manual Royal typewriter, getting by the red pen of the editor, and in the end, after individual letters cast in metal were arranged on plates, your words were printed in black ink on pages in a nice thick Real World publication.
That was writing.
Today, anybody has access to a computer keyboard much less taxing than the old Royal, “editing” means Ctrl+C and/or Ctrl+V, and anybody can click the “Save/Publish” button, then have their words sent out into the ether as an ordered set of electrons. Big whoop.
Today, there’s even computer generated news.
So, Tony, sure, nice article. But don’t call it writing.