“Look, I Did It All Inside the Camera!”
I used to be confused about this, but I’ve made my mind up on this one. As a relative newcomer to photography, I’m confused by how it’s regarded by various groups of professionals and amateurs alike. My ignorance to the field often makes me hesitant to express my developing opinions. I’m specifically befuddled by the idea of unaltered ‘Straight Out of the Box’ digital photography (which I shall henceforth acronym as SOB) as the ultimate state of photographic expression as opposed to some re-tooling with various photo-editing programs.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen photographers brag about how they took their picture “without any digital editing at all”, or ridicule the idea that someone would dare use RAW and/or Photoshop to develop and post-process their image. These individuals take such fierce pride in what they openly declare as the purest state of photography that it stuns me into silence every time I hear it. What – you did it all in the camera? Should I give you a cookie? Maybe a “U Done Good” badge of photographic excellence? Hang my head with contrite shame because Adobe programs litter my desktop taskbar?
When witnessing the perpetual debate that surrounds SOB photos, I’m often reminded of how often in human history we’ve battled over the estimated future impact of technological advances. For example, consider recording devices in our education system. Did you know that when certain educators started implementing the idea of using lead pencils and parchment as opposed to chalk and board, this stirred great controversy? When students began to replace their pencils with ink pens, purists cried that it would bring doom to our schools and universities. With a little bit of research, anyone can find heated debates when other technological advances such as the calculator and computer entered the equation. Now a decade into the 21st century, laptop computers dominate the educational landscape without any question to how they’ve become integrated.
So let’s return to photography and how technological advances apply to its application. There will always be immediate uproar over new technology, how it’s implemented, and its validity. Yet what makes SOB photography particularly peculiar is that this concept never existed until the advent of the digital camera. As someone still forming personal ideas and directions about my photography, I’m dumbstruck as to how anyone can reasonably present this as an old-school idea practiced by ‘true photographers’.
I took my first and only photography class fifteen year ago. Photoshop 4.0 was on the verge of being released and my university just spent an unholy $10,000 to purchase a digital scanner that had the unique ability to scan 35mm slides at a decent resolution. The college course was B&W; photography and we gained experience shooting a 35mm camera, as well as darkroom development and processing techniques. To this day I still think I’m trying to wash out chemical stains from my hands. Nothing about that was out of the box. There were all sorts of decisions to make before the film was loaded into the camera to after we removed it from the canister, and boy did I suck at it. I can’t tell you how many rolls of film I ruined or my frustration with keeping dust off my final prints. Take into account various film manufacturers, film types, chemical processing choices, exposure techniques, and the tricks-of-the-trade, the combination of what a person can do in developing a photograph before and after the shot is taken is incredible. If these possibilities did not exist, then photography could never be considered its own creative art form. They’d all look exactly the same. Entire books have been published regarding what Ansel Adams did after the film was OUT of the camera, can you imagine how the SOBs would berate this guy if his photography work on the internet he was a new name today?
Therefore, if the idea of Straight Out of the Box photography didn’t exist before the digital camera, how can any person call this an ‘old-school’ method and immediately discredit any other possibility? I think the real crux of the issue isn’t to necessarily dismiss other means of photographic expression and reproduction, but rather to debate what is considered to be ‘valid’ photography versus photomanipulation, or share concern of an over-reliance of Photoshop to save poorly captured shots. I believe it’s essential that photographers understand the capabilities of their cameras and maximize the potential of their equipment while shooting, but it does not eliminate the validity of digital processing or its possibilities. Film and digital technology both have their pros and cons, completely dependent on the medium itself. Heck, the choices we make utilizing programs such as Photoshop are similar to, and often duplicates, those made in a traditional darkroom. Our decisions are further guided according to how we’re using the photography – as journalism, marketing, artistic expression, or simply preserving a memory. What remains critical is the creative decision process rather than the tools we choose to employ.
So please SOBs, stop complaining about the destruction of photography, because there’s nothing pure about your ideas either. The same thing was said at the advent of color film. Photography isn’t going anywhere and is arguably more prevalent than ever. The environment just reinforces the challenge for photographers to find their own distinct viewpoint to pursue and share. Everyone’s got a particular opinion, so get back to doing whatever it is you do best! With every technological advance comes new interpretations of old mediums. As the debate regarding the validity of digital photography and processing rapidly dissipates, we’ll see wider acceptance that we are dealing with an entirely different medium of reproduction and treat it as such. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, better or worse, it just IS. It’ll be interesting to witness the continued and yet unseen evolution of technology and photography, as photographic artists continue to increase their boundaries and maximize the digital medium.
Just like they did with film.