Friday, August 17, 2012

A Tyranny of Ones

The modern world, far from singularly benefiting from the advances in technology seems to find itself trying to figure out the state which it inhabits.  From my earliest days in school, in the 1950s, I can remember being told that not only would advances in technology and knowledge benefit mankind, but they would do so on a scale which previously had been unknown since people first began huddling together by fires, thousands of years ago.  In fact, when you think of the jump from no fire to fire,  you would have to go pretty far to find something quite as change rendering in the last few hundred years.  Most of the things which we take for granted, and reflect the ‘modern’ world we know are barely considered by the majority of us.  We just imagine that they have always existed.  Yet between electrification and the expansion of water & sewer lines, I can’t imagine a world any darker than what existed prior.  Our modern world is in many ways devoid of , above, the smells of what went before.  Open sewers,  carriages drawn in the main by horses and oxen, must have produced a stench that the early days of even Park Avenue would have found to be unrecognizable.  When you think about it, the vision which humanity brought to the problems of the day was a thing of beauty.  What must a young aspiring engineer have thought, that his life’s work would be the movement of sewage from one part of a city to a lesser inhabited section, and eventually that it be ‘treated’ so as to become almost unrecognizable.  To me, that is the kind of advanced thinking which was the true sign of genius.  Building a system (system meaning it covered thousands of blocks, all interlaced, rather than just a stretch of perhaps chic dwellings whose owners could afford it) was just the kind of thing which would have unleashed further innovation. 

The space programs of the 50s and 60s carried with them dozens of innovative break throughs which brought both product and form to us, things which before that were only pipe-dreams.  The arrival of the transistor enabling miniaturization on a scale previously unknown, launched the digital age we live in today. Hundreds, then thousands, and eventually millions of switches whose glory was found in their ability to say  Yes/No,  On/Off,  One/Zero.  What does any of this have to do with my own chosen field  - photography – in the period of time I have practiced it?  Well, I started taking photographs for real about 50 years ago.  I was on the Olympus High School year book staff, and in an effort to advance my C.V., at the urging of my mother, a Journalism major from Stanford (‘38) I’d applied in order to seem perhaps more than I was.  Not only  an engaged student (advanced Math and Chemistry) but someone who was a nearly “compleat student,” in the words of Issak Walton.  Yet that first day in the “Titan” darkroom – a wet lab about 8x8’ on the second floor of the school, under the tutelage of our very corpulent but dedicated math teacher (the “advisor” for the photo program), I had that singular moment when I saw my first photograph appear.  It must have been a picture of something as mundane as the French Club, two rows of earnest looking students, the back row of which was standing on a stair so as to be visible over the heads of the front row. Shot with either a 4x5 or 6x6 camera, the shot was ingloriously lit (one bounced  potato-masher strobe) but so full of detail that you could see the lint on dresses and shirts.  Yet it wasn’t so much the picture itself, as it was the alchemicaic wonder which was unleashed in that red-tinted room when the sheet of photo paper, after a few seconds exposure under the enlarger, was slid into the tray of developer.   Very slowly an image started to appear out of nothing.  The shiny white of the paper was replaced by a hundred shades of gray (yes, twice as many as Fifty) as that paper became a photographic print.  In my very informal poll of a few dozens of photographers over the age of 40, all of whom started their photographic lives in a similar way, each of them has spoken with an almost breathless wonder of the that moment when they first saw a photographic image develop in a tray.  Later, there would be the smells of dektol, stop bath, and fixer, each with its pungent  and unforgettable personality, and stains on fingers when both gloves and tongs were traded for the more tactile approach of grabbing the print in your fingers,  blowing on it, rubbing it like aladdin’s lamp, in order to bring out some small extra bit of contrast or density.  It was extremely hands-on, and very personal.  You touched your print from the moment it started to exist, and carried it through the process till it sat dry, and perhaps curling, on your kitchen table.   Nikki Kahn,  a very talented  photographer with the Washington Post, who was kind enough to give me a late night ride back from the outlands of Andrews Air Force Base, following a Presidential trip, spoke almost glowingly on our short ride of her memories of those first prints.  How it was magic, indeed, to see an image come out of the nothingness of white paper.  And more importantly, how sad it is in the modern world where virtually no photographers under the age of 25 have even been in a darkroom.  The whole of their photo-lives has existed in the world of digital – the last 12 years or so, and they have seen it marked by the existence of screens on the back of cameras, tiny monitors whose job it is to show the artist/image maker just what they created seconds before.  The first time we saw an image appear on the back of a camera it was, well, kind of exciting.  But can that, or the disgorging of a print on a large format Epson printer slowly, mechanically, methodically  -- can it compare to the sorcerer like vision of a Kodabromide paper reacting to Dektol in the developing tray?  One is interesting, yes. But the other is transformative.  An almost complete rendering of one of THE cardinal rules of the first 160 years of photography.  Big is small, bright is dark, less is more, thin is heavy.   The understanding of the photographic negative, where greater density of the film inhibits the passage of light while thinner, less intense blockages permit more light to pass through, have become in many ways a holistic concept of how to view life, to view the world itself.   The “negative” becomes a rather useful metaphor to see how events in the world transpire, as much as it is for understanding how projected images treat light. 

I was rather slow to fully adopt the ‘digital’ model in my photographic work.  From about 1998 onwards, it was clear that to a large segment of those working in journalism, the speed of digital turn around was the single most important factor in trying to deliver a product to market.  The Associated Press has for decades adopted the motto “a deadline every minute..” referring to the fact that around the world, amidst the thousands of newspapers who relied on their production, there would always be a paper on final deadline, be it Columbo, Cali or Khartoum.  And whatever could be done to shorten the time between a photographer witnessing an event, and the delivery of that picture to a client, should be done.  There was a desire to try and cut that time from what was once days and weeks (before telegraphy) to mere seconds.  Speed  of delivery was the single biggest factor in determining whether or not  a newspaper or wire service shooter had done a good job.   For someone like me, who shot for weekly magazines, it was a different story.  I could still use the traditional film I knew well, have the luxury of those few days to use a pro lab to bring those images to market.  Yet, more and more, the creeping  of deadlines was to alter even the magazine model greatly. Even weekly or monthly magazines felt some vague need to be “online” and show their works on the internet, and once that happened, even people like myself were obliged to consider getting pictures to market much, much quicker. 

On breaking stories, the paper & wire guys would have their laptops set up to be able to just pop in a memory card, immediately load the images into PhotoMechanic or another of the very efficient editing and “ingesting” programs, do a quick choose, and equally quick “treatment” in Photoshop (managing color balance, contrast, sizing, and of course captions) and send the picture on some available wifi network or a small cell-network enabler.  The latest incarnation of this chasing of the second hand was to be seen at the London Olympic games.  Teams of editors, often as numerous as the photogs they were working with, would man large screens on the receiving end of a feed.  The sending end – the photographers, would be set up to be able to send virtually every picture they made to the editor, sometimes in the same building, but often across town at the Press Center.  The speed of networks is such that large scale files can be sent quickly.  I first saw this in the winter of 2010, when I was in Boston to help judge the Boston Press Photographers association annual contest.  One of the members of the local group, a Reuters photographer, was moonlighting as a Winter Olympics editor.  His laptop would receive a flow of images from Vancouver, as they were shot, and he would be the one who would decide what would actually go out on the network.  It was an amazing example of how the speeding up of networks has created our own domestic version of outsourcing.  An editor no longer be located right were the pictures are being taken, in order to get the job done. 

But if you are someone like myself, who shoots RAW format (wherein all the information the camera sees is stored in the file) instead of JPEG (a much smaller, more nimble file which is created by the brain of the camera FROM the RAW file, then stored on the memory card) the speed of turn around isn’t quite as deliriously snappy.  The files are four to five times bigger, and require a lot more computing power to deal with.  You can do all kinds of more subtle altering of the files in RAW, and it remains the format of choice for ultimately coming up with the highest quality image.  So in the real world, there are essentially two tiers of digital photographer.  The ones for whom Speed is king, and the others who give up Speed, for more Quality.  Which isn’t to say the JPEG images are garbage. I have seen 40x60” prints from a JPEG file which look fabulous.  But in the end, there is that dividing line.  There are surely times when I wish I had been able to speed up the turn around on some of my digital files. And I know any number of wire shooters who freely admit that in a perfect world, they would prefer to shoot RAW and have the additional control and  utility of those files.  For the wire and paper photographers, all of whom are constantly trying to eek out just one more picture before the plane takes off or the bus departs, their world is governed by that speed of turnaround. Yet, because of that necessity, when the end of the day comes, they are essentially done.  Their pictures have been catalogued, named, captioned, put into folders (or at least the Selects have been), and they can freely drop their gear in their hotel room and head to the bar for a beer.  Richly deserved, and, more importantly, enabling them to talk to the folks who know what tomorrow is about – staff people,  writers, and other photogs.  They are already, essentially trying to figure out what is next for them. 

Some poor slob like me, unable to do the quick turnaround of my large-scale files while on the press bus to hockey, or a taxi to gymnastics, is in another boat altogether. And I do mean canoe, and I don’t mean paddle.  In London (or on the road with the President) I would finish shooting an evening event at some unseemly hour,  and make my way back to the hotel via, usually, the press shuttle bus.  That alone was about ¾ hour ride, and in a perfect world, where I wasn’t carrying 40 pounds of gear, I’d be able to use that time to my own profit.  But things don’t always bend your way. I would get to the hotel often at midnight or 1 in the morning, skip that right turn into the bar, and head straight to my room.  There I would assemble the memory cards in a small stack. It often came to 40, or sometimes even 60 gigabytes of data.  I would set up the “caption” field in Photo Mechanic with all the information I could remember from that day (Men’s Decathalon, Women’s Syncho Swimming, etc etc), create a folder and file names  which would later be searchable on a purely time basis  (BUR_YYMMDD_LondonOlympics_Day2_1723.CR2) and start flogging the images off the memory cards and onto a purchased-just-for-the-occasion  Hard drive.  It would take sometimes ten or fifteen minutes for a single card, and I often had six, 8, even ten cards to do.  It seemed I never got to bed before 3 a.m., only to have to rise again the next morning at 7 or 8 and head out to do it all over again.  Each morning I would awaken with the feeling I had somehow been cheated out of a proper restful night.  Tyranny? It surely felt like it. No doubt there were better 'work flows' I could adopt, but it all seemed aimed at making me sleep deprived when I needed rest most.   There just didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day that I could manage so that the work load of both shooting and file management was done with confidence  and competence.  In addition,  I was exhibiting signs of retrograde camera envy.  Besides the digital cameras at hand, I wanted to shoot with my 1940s Speed Graphic, a beautiful old beast of a press camera, with a 1943 aerial recon camera lens on it.  I have shot with this camera for a decade, and find that when I look into its amazing viewfinder, I see things I just miss with my digi cams.  The old lens, long and fast, sees the world in a very different way than the Canons, and in many ways IS a perfect foil for the smaller more agile counterparts.  First, it uses Film.  There is no practical affordable digital back for a 4x5” camera at least not yet, and frankly I kind of hope no one develops one anytime soon.  There is, in the use of film, film holders, and a semi ancient camera, something very satisfying, very “I have to get this in ONE shot,” something very, shall we say, Romantic.

It’s as if I have joined the colleagues of my chosen field from prior generations, the ones who didn’t have much of  a choice.  For them there was no 5 frames-per-second, instant-return mirror, auto focusing & auto advance & auto metering. There was just a big-ass box of camera, one that required looking onto a ground glass to focus, a shutter which needed cocking by hand, a requiste series of events which had to happen in a very specific order, or the picture just couldn’t be taken.  And yet when something good happened with that camera, it was really, really good.  Was there some way to imitate that look?  In some ways there were elements of ‘the big camera look” which might be copied to a digi cam, but for the most part, there was something in the hideously slow way of shooting which led you to a different outcome.  That said, the percentage success rate was miniscule.  If, in my 300+ frames of black-and-white film I find twenty images I really like, that will be an overwhelming success.  The film is currently at the lab in New York, where, on a good day, one of the lab techs might inspect a single sheet of film in the ruby red atmosphere of a dimmed darkroom light, and see another form of that alchemy we so loved in the youth of our photographic apprenticeship.  He might just see something which represents a moment seen weeks ago on TV, whether it be a young spritely gymnast, a take-no-prisoners handball player, or a trained horse whose idea of a good time is to walk with great precision and elegance in dressage. 

For me perhaps the strongest feeling of kinship which took place at the Olympics surrounded the way in which my camera was welcomed by so many photographers.  People I didn’t know would see me carrying this kludgy beast, in addition to far too many cameras & lenses, and wish me (or the camera itself) good luck. There was always a faint glimmer in their smiles, as if seeing the old film camera in the middle of all the digital gear was like running into a long lost great-uncle, one who you’d lost track of, who you thought might have died barely noticed a decade ago.  Some part of your family which for all those reasons we know so well, just didn’t stay connected, and who you assumed had lived his life, and passed on.  Yes, there was a kind of affirmation, that even though we have entered this world of a digital presence (and not just photography but in every other aspect of our lives) that there still remained some role, some kind of leavening effect, something that couldn’t be ascribed to merely Zeroes and Ones on a piece of silicon, which would give us satisfaction and pleasure by its mere existence.    At least a dozen people asked me if it were still possible to get film “in that size,” and though each week it becomes more difficult, I think there are enough die-hards – particularly in Eastern Europe, that for some years to come we ‘ll be able to find black and white film in several styles and speeds.  Color?  Who knows, as that market slowly whittles away. But B/W is the founding force of photography, its singular beauty and strength  carrying a visual message which is hard to equal.  And while I often succumb, like so many in our trade to the ease, and speed, and yes, quality, of digital photography,  I’d like to think that there is a place which my Speed Graphic will have for years to come, unfettered by the Tyranny of the Ones and Zeroes.  It has become a part of my life, my family, my being.  The metallic rap it makes when you ram a film holder into the back is one I never tire of.  The finger-snapping sound the shutter makes (different sounds at different speeds ) is more satisfying than a Beethoven concerto.  The simple and innovative beauty of its construction, a prized example of industrial engineering in the mid twentieth century makes me wonder if the hand of man can truly be equaled by machines.  And of course the most intimidating question of all: am I up to the task of taking it places, showing it things in a way that is good enough to let it shine.  Everytime I open it up, put a lens on, and attach to my tripod, I wonder if I am up to the job.  But seldom in life are the tools which fight tyranny so easily mastered, and when I’m done shooting, and slowly re-bed it in my old worn but perfectly fitting backpack, I know I have done some small work in keeping alive the creative hands of the past.   We’re just sayin’… David


Owen Luck said...

Yup, that first print emerging in the developer is remembered as first love, and the desire to make more.And I too revolt against the "Tyranny of Ones"in all its inevitability.

Susan Seubert said...

Inspiring, as usual. Thank you for this thoughtful, insightful post. I can't wait to see what you did with that 4x5 at this year's Olympics.

Sarah said...

This is a lovely articulation of the intuitive and the mysterious that allows us to see and more importantly, to absorb what we see. The magic precedes the darkroom, I think. There is something about the rhythm of shooting film that is so different (and preferable imho) from shooting digital. It is sensual, there's that "aha" moment when you feel in your fingertips that you've gotten it, that you've worked the intangible relationship aspect of approaching your subject, and you've arrived. Thanks David!

Smogranch said...

I ruined both my first roll of film and my first print but it didn't matter. I rolled the film on top of itself so when I pulled the film off the reel the pink and gooey emulsion came off on my hands. But, I found this oddly amusing and knew I was hooked. Great post DB.

john fowler said...

Thank you Mr. Burnett. Thank you.

James Porto said...

Thank you for perfectly articulating how many of us who came of age using analog photographic processes feel about their demise. It took a long time for me to detach from all those rituals and tasks for which there was a real love for. Digital capture freed up all the time that those tasks took, but something was lost. The organic beauty and tactile connection to the final image has been supplanted by a cold, objective rendering transmitted by a machine. I still have my darkroom, but it's hard to find the time to get in there; when I do, I remember why I can't give it up. Thanks David, for your insights and all your wonderful work over the years.

David Hutson said...

Great column with much insight. Did you hand carry those 4x5s through X-Ray or FedEx 'em?

Brady Sparks said...

Beautifully written, a rendering itself. This needs to be published, maybe in NatGeo, along with 20 B/W examples that capture that something, that essence, that your words do.

Alfonso Cevola said...

you rock, David - come to Texas and lets go shoot those old time BBQ places that are rapidly disappearing

Brian L. Schiele said...

My photographic experience began much like yours Dave, in a darkroom just across the valley from yours, some years after yours did though. And while I am not a professional photographer, I will remain loyal to film as part of my photographic experience. Ling live silver halide crystals!

Becky B said...

Thank you

Rupert Grey said...

Rupert Grey said

A wonderfully evocative piece David. I recall shooting with in the slums of Dhaka, I with my nikon film cameras and you with the Monarch of Image-makers. It was you of course that drew the crowds. I just took the snap-shots of you and weaving the magic. I still haven't had a moment to print what i took of that day

And the darkroom, of course, another realm of magic

Paul Atkins said...

Your words warm my soul David.
FIlm is still a choice, thankfully.

Unknown said...


Thanks for articulating what drew us to photography in the 50's & 60's. My first view of that magic print in the Dektol happened on a sleepover at a friends. We were both 13, he and his dad had built darkroom in the basement. Under safelight conditions he put a negative in his Federal (remember those) enlarger. I stood mesmerized as that blank sheet of paper transformed into a photographic image. To this day I can still visualize that compelling moment.

Like yourself I got some early training and experience shooting for my school publications. Equipment ranged from 4x5, 2 1/4 and 35mm. Each required it's own discipline in shooting and developing. In those early days I was told to study the prints of Ansel Adams (large format) and W. Eugene Smith for 35mm. Smith's technique freed me from the tongs to as your said a hands on approach. Potassium Ferricyanide became a well used tool.

While digital manipulation allows you many of the same techniques-if you love the darkroom-there is something so special in bringing out the detail in a print by rubbing or breathing on it as your hand are covered in Dektol.

Thank you David for keeping film alive in journalism and photography in general. You have goaded me into bringing my film cameras out of the closet.

Eric Rose said...

Bravo! Encore encore!

Bruce Robert Wahl said...

Thanks David, every time I feel like it's all getting to me I take a look at your stuff and I get back up and with renewd enthusiasim dive back
into the world of 1's 0's and 2 1/4