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The digital revolution of the past decade (or two) has had profound effects on photography in general, and my photographs in particular.  Wikipedia defines photography as “the art, science, and practice of creating durable images by recording light”–

Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

For photographers of my vintage—I began making photographs fairly seriously in 1977—the preferred route to “durable images” was through the use of black and white materials—the color papers and films of the time used dyes of dubious durability—but (at least some) black and white images had persisted for more than a century (and many became more interesting with age), so that was the medium of choice.   A finished print was a silver print, usually small.   Once started, I persisted in making black and white images, until the advent of digital printing, which I began to experiment with in about 1998.

Early digital printing (anything pre 2001) was an ephemeral experience—prints could color shift and fade in hours if left in sunlight—but digital technology solved one of the major problems with traditional chemical methods—photographs and texts could be printed on the same sheet of paper.   It became possible (for the first time) to make simple books—something I had been struggling to do for decades.  So I began scanning negatives with gusto, even though the quality of the products were often less than satisfactory.

Fairbanks, January 18, 2012

In about 2001, third party ink sets became available that claimed to use pigments (metal oxides used in paints) rather than dyes, which I began to use (at least in part because ink cartridges were exorbitantly expensive in the quantities I was using them to print books—I was spending about $500 per month just on ink).  Eventually, the ink jet manufacturers developed pigment based ink sets that offered much better stability.

I bought my first digital camera in June of 2001, a 3 mega-pixel Nikon Cool-pix 995, with an articulated body so that I could use it at waist level—and I began to shoot with gusto—and print in color, for the first time in my life—wallowing in color.  In the time since, I’ve had about a dozen digital cameras, mostly the “pro-sumer”  level—relatively compact with fixed lenses, cheaper than the SLR models—pocket cameras that I could keep in a coat pocket or a computer bag, almost always having the camera in reach—at home with my family, when traveling, or just out and about town.   I’ve taken something like 100,000 pictures in that time (so many, it’s hard to count).

Walmart, Fairbanks, November, 2011

Why so many pictures?  Part of the answer is that digital has made it so cheap and easy to make a picture—a single chip costing a few dollars can hold thousands of images—you never have to change film in the camera.

(One wonders what photographers of the past might have done with this tool:   Gary Winogrand noted that “all the good stuff happens when you’re changing film”—and left a freezer full of undeveloped film when he died.  With digital, there is simply no reason to stop shooting.   But John Szarkowski noted, in reference to Winogrand’s frozen legacy that “to expose film is not quite to photograph”  (in Winogrand—Figments from the real world, pg 36)—a reference to Winogrand’s deteriorating technique during his last few years—including his apparent inability to even hold the camera steady in bright light—“It is as if the making of an exposure had become merely a gesture of acknowledgement that what lay before the camera might make a photograph, if one had the desire and energy to focus one’s attention.”  )

Hong Kong, August, 2005

The question becomes, though, is what to do with all the pictures.  Most photographs made now are never committed to paper—no prints are ever made—people view the pictures on their cell phones, or (if they are ambitious) on a computer screen.    I began by making ink jet prints of images I was interested in—I have more boxes full of them than I care to admit.  But prints in boxes are not very satisfying—they are never shown to an audience—even I don’t look at them very often.

In late 2005, I discovered a solution—on demand printing of books—and took to the medium with a vengeance.  Once a pile of digital photographs are selected, it takes only a few hours to arrange them into a book format, write a short description for the body of work (usually the writing is the most time consuming task), then upload it to a distant web site.  In a few days, a complete book arrives in the mail, and the work is at least somewhat finished.  It’s more like a bound stack of prints than a real book, but it is a physical object that will survive a hard drive crash.

But I’ve done several groups of photographs that are much bigger than reasonable for even these little book projects, and so I’ve been thinking about other ways to display them.  New digital TVs often have a USB port that can do slideshows from memory cards, but smaller digital picture frames are also available.  I’ve had a couple of digital frames for the last year and a half (I bought the first one for my 82 year old mother—but it’s too complicated for her), and enjoy watching pictures come and go, something new every time I walk past.

I have a show in a local gallery, and in in addition to the 4 large canvas landscapes made from scans of large format negatives, I  plan on hanging about a dozen digital frames, with a total of 23,000 pictures loaded in them, changing every 5 seconds.  Next to each will be a  single framed print—the 20th century meets the 21st.   One of the points being, of course, there are just too many pictures to look at.  And it isn’t just me—every photographer I know has some version of the same problem.


Trash, Tanana River, April 29, 2012

So maybe this is the dead end that Winogrand hit—when everything looks like it might make a photograph—and there is no reason not to trip the shutter.  Or maybe it’s the beginning of some new kind of photograph—less considered, more fluid, something that’s lasts barely longer than the flash of a lightening bug.


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