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Monthly Archives: March 2017

As a photographer for nearly 40 years, now approaching 60, I began making photographs in the “dark ages” of photography—when the act of making a photograph required a darkroom.  A photograph was made on film, exposing a negative, which was a physical object, used to make a print, also a physical object.  The creation of a print required time and materials.  The making of a good print also required experience and skill.  Once a photograph was created, it persisted for a long time—I have, hanging in my home, at least a dozen photographs that are close to or more than 100 years old.

Objects 1

Atget, Friedlander (press photo), and the ass

There were some major disadvantages to the making of photographs the old way.  The process was time consuming, the materials were relatively expensive, and most photographic prints tended to be small.   My recollection is that a roll of black and white film in the early 1980s cost about $1, (about 3 cents per 35 mm negative) a package of 25 sheets of paper cost about $12—this is after the Hunt Brothers attempt to corner the market on silver—so not terribly expensive by my standards today, but sufficiently expensive to limit my ability to make lots of pictures, especially when I was young and poor.

Objects 2

Double Evans (LOC), loon, and pine cone

Even more limiting was the way the photographs looked—a black and white silver print looked a certain way, and it was relatively difficult to change the appearance of the photograph in any significant way.  Most photographers embraced the idea of a “straight print”, meaning that an image would be created by the optics of a lens, recorded on film, and converted to a print though a second lens, but with no attempt to change the content or the look of the image.  A “good photographer” was one who understood the materials he was working with, and managed to create beautiful objects.

Objects 3

Clockwise from top, Friedlander (press photo), Loman Brothers, anonymous, and Evans (LOC)

Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I witnessed the beginning of digital photography, during the space program in the 1960s.  TV had been around for a few decades before I was born (it was invent in 1929), but the resolution was pretty bad.  Only during the space program did NASA begin to create higher resolution sensors in order to create still images that could be sent in a digital stream back to earth.

Now, almost all photographs are digital.  There is no film, no negative.  Memory chips have become incredibly cheap.  When I first began making digital photographs in 2001, memory chips cost about $1 per megabyte, so a 3 megabyte picture created by my first digital camera cost $3 of storage to hold it, roughly 100x more expensive than a film negative in the 1980s.  But the chips could be downloaded and cleared, so used over and over again, and storing images as Jpegs allowed more images to be stored on a chip.  During my first few years of working with a digital camera, my shooting was limited by both the small size of the chips and the high cost of the rechargeable batteries—at first I could shoot maybe 50 pictures a day.  I eventually discovered that I could buy disposable batteries for about $10, and chips started getting cheaper, so I soon found I could shoot more pictures—I remember going to the Grand Canyon for the first time in May 2002, and shooting a few hundred pictures in one day (just checked my Lightroom database—I could do about 300 pictures per day then).  Now I buy 16 GB chips for $6 each, each one holds about 2000 Jpeg images   When I went to China in 2011, I shot about 6,000 pictures on a seven day trip.  I don’t even clear the chips anymore.  Chips are cheaper, per image, than negative sleeves.  And, yes, that was a test of your age—at one time negatives were stored in plastic or glassine sleeves, which you hand wrote the “metadata” on—the date and place the pictures were made.  They cost about a penny per negative.  At current chip prices, an image costs about three tenths of a cent to store on a memory chip.  300 for a buck.  Not bad.

Back in the dark ages, all photographs were made with cameras.  Now, the majority of digital images are made with cell phones.  People used to pull out their wallets to show pictures of their kids.  Now they pull out their cell phones and show pictures of their cats.  It used to take days or weeks to get film back from the drugstore—now people text or tweet an image to the world in seconds.

Object 5

Neil and Buzz, a week before the moon, July 1969

I remember watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon in 1969 on a black and white television at a neighbor’s house—an event that had been anticipated for a decade—probably the most expensive piece of television broadcasting ever made.  It was news, but only because somebody finally did something that required heroic amounts of money, brains, and luck, something we weren’t sure that humanity was capable of.  I remember the first news event I learned from the internet—the death of Princess Di—my wife was puttering on the net and saw the news come up only minutes after the event.  And then there was the live video feed from the wing of Sully’s plane in the Hudson…  Some untrained non-journalist with a $100 cell phone broadcasting news to the world.

My 20 year old son has convinced me to make an Instagram account.  I don’t really know what to do with it.  My one instinct is to use it to post pictures instantly—to see something, to make a picture, and to post it within seconds—isn’t that what the instant thing means?  I’ve done that a couple times, but somehow it seems a bit unsettling—to commit an image that quickly to the world. Maybe I could have done better.  Maybe I look like a fool.

On the other hand, in following several younger photographers, it is apparent that many people, or at least some of the ones I follow, don’t do posts that way—they shoot images with a “real camera” (a digital camera, not a cell phone), then load them to their Instagram account days or weeks or months later.  A lot of the photographs are manipulated in some way—one photographer always reduces the color saturation, another does major shifts to the hue of the color, and makes composite images.  A lot of the photos look like model shoots.  My son goes out and poses for pictures that appear on Instagram.  I only follow a handful of people, about the same number follow me.  I don’t “like” that many pictures, and my audience apparently doesn’t “like” my pictures that much either.

Object 4

Anonymous Itinerant Photographer

OK, so maybe it’s time to discuss my Luddite tendencies.  Over the past year or so, I tried hitting the “send to iPhone” button on my Sony Camera, but even though my Bluetooth connection was established between the two devices, the camera just got stuck, the picture never got transferred.  After several attempts over several months, I eventually discovered that I needed to download “the app” from Sony onto my phone.  To download “the app”, I had to use the iPhone App store.  My “Apple ID” didn’t work.  I reset my password, tried to download the app.  My phone went into the Apple version of the Windows “blue screen of death” mode.  I had to go to my computer, google the magic reset combo for the phone (I kept trying to do a reset with a paperclip—discovered the absence of a reset hole).  I just tried it again—after a 30 minute struggle, I managed to get my phone to talk to my camera—and transferred one picture.  Not sure I could do it again.  Not sure I want to do it again.

What I have been doing with my Instagram account is occasionally making an IPhone picture of a print I’ve made—kind of like the long way around to get to an instant digital picture that will immediately vanish into the infinity of all the other digital images out there on the internet—but somehow it helps me knowing that somewhere in the process, the image exists on paper.  It is, or at least it was, a real photograph.  It is an object. Like the photos on my wall.  Maybe that image will still exist in a hundred years.  Or maybe not.

OK, to join the endless self-promotion—which my son tells me is the point of all this–I Instagram at dennis_witmer_photo

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