06 April 2008


I went long on this because I really got stuck. Not because I couldn't come up with a response--no, quite the opposite. I got stuck because I had too many responses crowding the door to my brain, each trying to get through first and be picked up and held. As a result, this might end up being one of those "all over the damn place" posts.

My problem remains that two of the three men dearest to me in the world are professional photographers--my father, a fine art photographer after twenty-five years in the judicial branch, and my dearest friend and mentor, a photojournalist and filmmaker. One thing this means is that what gets saved from our house fire is not photographs but a metal case containing binders crammed with negative sleeves. That's just the way it is. The cats have legs, they can get out on their own.

Another thing it means is that often, the memories I have of people and events are dictated from a different perspective. We don't pose for photographs in my family. We go about our daily business, assured in the knowledge that we will one day find it magically recreated in the tiny squares of a contact sheet and wonder aloud why we didn't see the long snout of the 75mm lens crawling up into our faces at the time.

A third thing it means is that watching TV is a bitch. My dad will see things going on in the corner of the frame that those of us without secret x-ray vision would never notice. Robin has been known to yell "Focus!" at a perfectly normal screen, or criticize its headroom. Good God, man, it's baseball. Let the rest of us watch the World Series in peace, will ya? Not even CSI is safe. The other night, as Catherine Willows was documenting a crime scene, my dad winced as the flash went off three times in rapid succession: "That's the trouble with digital. People take three shots when all they need is one." Um, yeah dad, but this is about documenting evidence, not making things look pretty. It's not like it's going anywhere. The victim isn't going to get up any time soon and blow the composition.

I can't even call them digital cameras without getting yelled at. My dad refers to them--not arbitrarily--as computers with lenses. He's right, of course. That's really what they are. A digital image is not a photograph, since etymologically speaking a photograph is a picture made with light. There's no light involved in creating a digital image, just pixels. Nevertheless, this frequently causes another chorus of, "Yeah, whatever dad."

And don't even get him started on film vs. digital. He's got several dozen valid points, among them clarity, depth, control of your input (ever seen a digital camera with a "manual" shutter setting?) But sometimes digital is just so damned convenient. You can go to Africa and not have to check $2000 worth of overage in luggage. You can carry 14 gigs of memory a lot more easily than 60 rolls of film. (I know this. I've packed 60 rolls of film. They end up everywhere. In his shoes. In the first aid kit. Shirt pockets. Tucked between his shaving kit and his toothbrush. In his underwear, though not usually while he's wearing it.) But on the other hand, so many people go digital because they think you don't have to think. You just shoot. Manipulate later. It's art, some of it, but is it photography? How do you explain depth of field to someone who's never had to calculate it because the computer does it for them? How do you explain the tension of waiting for a shot, your fingers itching for the shutter but your brain overriding them because your eye knows the moment is not yet come? The magic of standing in a darkened closet, waiting for the image to swim up through the bath in pieces toward you?


Mary Beth said...

My dad's the same way with the TV - I don't watch Law & Order with him because he gets so mad at the lawyers doing things that aren't actually allowed in court. I agree that there are pros and cons to film vs. digital - to me the pros on the digital side far outway the cons. The space issue and the cost - how much does it cost to download your pictures? However, I am someone who takes pictures to capture memories, not as an art, so I am coming at it from a completely different perspective.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! I'm one of those who finds digital cameras a boon. I'm no artist so the photos I take are to capture memories. So it's great that I can see immediately if I've taken a duff shot, and I can rectify it right there. I love not having to wait to see my photos - I've had a few disappointments where entire rolls of film have come out blank. There's nothing more disheartening, believe me!

But I do appreciate all the little nuances, the incredible knowledge and calculations that go into traditional photography. I might not be an artist but I sure can admire someone who is.

Tumblewords: said...

Really enjoyed your post! I love my digital camera and yes I take more photos than necessary! But I always forgot to develop film and have several cans that might or might not have been used. Argggh. Nobody watches TV with me!! Grin. Great post!

Granny Smith said...

I was a pretty good photographer with my old camera, but my digital has me purring. Mine can be set on manual if I want, and I can fuss over all the f numbers and time settings, but mostly I don't have to. And what about that 10X digital telephoto? Without carrying a huge lens around with me?

I was really amused by your description of your Dad's behavior. Yep! Let the cats save themselves from the fire!

Deirdre said...

I live with a photographer who's making the transition from film to digital. He refuses to photoshop anything (says that's not photography, hmmph) and uses a spot meter and old, solid skills for every shot. So far it's quite endearing....