The End of the Age of Photography (Pt. II)

The Digi and The End of the World as We Have Known and Loved it.

These Digis are very attractive little buggers. The cameras have made “photography” as ubiquitous as mosquitoes, they are everywhere. It’s hard to believe they are part of the collapse of our civilization. I was just riding the PATH from Jersey City into Manhattan and the fellow next to me was fiddling with his toy, reading something and then moving things around with the tip of his finger. Across the way another rider was playing with her toy, while three benign women sat next to him staring into space, glancing at him now and then, and wondering what they were missing. Next to me another young moron was rocking back and forth to audio coming into his brain via his plugged up ear hole and his iPod. What is it about these people that makes you want to assault them? Why can’t they just sit on the train and look around like everyone else? Why are they not more cases of people, like me, ripping these things from their users and stomping them to death? Or are there?

I was returning from Jersey City because Chuck Kelton, my printer, as in archival silver gelatin prints, floating in Dektol and fixed in Hypo, has moved his lab to New Jersey, from Union Square, in Manhattan. These prints (real prints you can touch) have made me prosper. Everyone wants them. Most museums (that’s where they preserve items for the future) own them or want to own them. I have a farm in the Hudson Valley and another one in the Rio Grande Valley and a fishing camp in Maine. All because people want real prints, my prints, that properly processed and washed and cared for can last for centuries. Simultaneously there is a stampede by individuals to own digital cameras, and digital cameras spell the end of silver prints, of any prints, of photo albums, and as I have come to realize, of our civilization.

“You push the button, We’ll do the rest.” That was George Eastman’s slogan for the camera that anyone could own, and everyone did. “The rest” meant they would develop the film and return it with prints . Which you could put into albums. Those prints survive to this day. My father’s prints survive. My father Ernst Fredrick Lyon was born in 1907 in the Saar Territory of Germany, prior to World War One. By the time he was seventeen, he did what many middle class German’s did, he made photographs. And he had made or he himself made prints (there was an Agfa sign hanging from a store, beneath his house, and when I visited in the 1990’s the camera store was still there. Its not there anymore). His albums were seven by nine inches, with heavy paper imitation leather covers, bound with a tasseled string. The small prints, some as small as three inches by one and a half, were affixed to the page by photo corners. The corners changed in the various albums he made and some of them were quite ingenious. As if some other artisan had made the corners by hand. Though the paper pages have become brittle, I can still look through these albums, and most of the pictures look pretty much like they did when he put them inside eighty five years ago. I am his son. I am touching, and holding and looking at, and smelling something my father made with his eyes and hand, when he was younger than I and all my four children are today. He was then a young man I never knew, but I can see what he saw, and can own and can touch what he made.

When I reached New Mexico, in 1970, with Stephanie Chrisman, who would become my first wife, I was given a Polaroid Swinger from some students at the UNM who said I should give it to the Chicano kids I was then filming. I liked it so much I kept it for myself. And with that camera I made my first album which I still have. Unchanged in forty years since it was put together, on its pages are Polaroid Swinger prints, original abstract drawings done in pastel by Stephanie, and writing, by myself. It includes the first pictures ever made of our first child, and second child. Among the very few tangible things to survive from this relationship is the album. The marriage ended in divorce. The first baby born is now thirty eight years old and has two children or her own. The world we lived in back then, is no more. Everything about it is now different accept for the album. It is exactly the same. Neither an artifact, nor a “picture”, nor a relic, it is an actual piece of reality of that world, that love, those people, that family as it was in 1970, and it will be that way forever. The only preservation involved was keeping it in a desk drawer, with the pages closed. It does not require any form of technology to view. It exists. That is true of all photographic prints. They are real things. All you need do is keep them in a box, and they will no doubt out live you, and probably your grandchildren.

It was my first visit to see my second grandchild that made me strap a Cannon 11 on my hip. The documentarian in me demanded that I make a record of this crying, squirming, loose shitting, sucking, little thing, that would one day, hopefully in my life time, turn into, a man. The first thing I like about the digi cameras is that at any restful moment, you can go through these miniatures, and erase them. They are gone. You can do this over and over so that you have a tighter and tighter edit of what ever you have done.

Then you can show them to your subjects, or friends, or whomever is sitting next to you, and you do this immediately. You can email them to your friends, family and clients. And then what? I suppose you can make shitty prints, either by yourself or at Walgreens, and hand them around, wondering if they will fade or last. Hopefully they will all fade very quickly. I have heard that Ilford makes a good paper with which I might approximate an album print, but after a year of trying I have not yet been able to figure out how to download the correct driver for my printer. And of course you can archive it on your hard drive. Make sure you do that, so they last at least two years. Then your hard drive will crash, as they apparently are supposed to do. But you will have back up, which will crash, and you will have progeny , your children or your sister’s children and their children – (trust me on this one, if they don’t care about your pictures, no body will), who will devote themselves to preserving all the forms of technology present and future, so that they can see your pictures. For example they might create a room devoted to electronic gizmos, with every generation of “stuff”, which they will call “The I-Museum” the sole purpose of which will be to look at your pictures. Your progeny will get together and after a B-BQ of organic veggies raised on the Moon, they will whip out a disk called DAD, and there you have it. I already have created a room like this! It is called the I-Attic. In it I have every Apple computer I’ve ever owned because each contains the appropriate years of my letters, writings, business deals, and, alas, pictures. This room of stuff has replaced what used to fit in a small file cabinet. Paper files, with, paper letters inside!

It is the acceptance of, and our insistence on this instant expendable experience that is the core of the rot that is bringing down the civilization we used to call home. This insatiable desire to own, and show off on the subway, to upgrade, and upgrade and upgrade, until you don’t have enough money left to buy a beach towel without going into debt, has reduced people to slaves of consumption. It is no difference, (accept its worse), than the consumerism of the 1950’s that destroyed the culture, and ethics and morals of the people of this country as they wallowed in segregation and created the Vietnam War. There is a reason that no one in the photographs of the civil rights movement, and hundreds or thousands, perhaps millions of people participated in that and the anti war movement, are wearing I-Pods or were using Smart phones. They didn’t need to spend a lot of money for a gizmo that would announce to the world that they were smart. They were smart!

So that is it. That digi thing you are holding is radioactive. Better watch out it doesn’t burn you and your house down. And be careful about the little children playing with it too. It might make them morph into something you don’t feel comfortable around. No amount of tattoos will turn them back into human beings. They will have to have feelings for that, and so will you.

Danny

 

The End of the Age of Photography (Pt. III)

Comments
24 Responses to “The End of the Age of Photography (Pt. II)”
  1. Gage's father says:

    I just finished reading the end of your rant to my family and my wife said “there is a good reason they didn’t have iPods, because they weren’t invented yet.” My son then said, “that he (meaning you) typed this on a computer.” You should probably have written this as a letter to the editor of some photography magazines, stuck it in an envelope, licked the adhesive, gotten a stamp, licked it and stuck it to the letter. Then you should have climbed into your buggy and had your horse pull you to the post office.

    While I mostly agree with your critique, my 13 year old and I find your delivery to be inconsistent with the message!

  2. Susana Raab says:

    Danny, I loved this entry and have added you to my reader. I also love the photographic object, the one you can touch and isn’t backlit . . . and you have convinced me to go more analog in my writings and communications as well. Something about it remaining both tangible and immutable and the only operating system it involves are the ones that come standard on the human body in the form of a few senses: touch, sight, perhaps smell if it’s super musty -accessible long after we’ve quit farming the moon and moved on to Jupiter. Thank you for couching the tragedy in humor as well. Much appreciated!
    Susana

  3. Exactly. Thanks for sharing your POV. I just bought a Zeiss Ikon 35mm range finder to use on personal work when I travel light and fast. It’s great to think, ponder and give consideration to the moment. The glory of total manual. Nothing beeps, nothing tells you no and inhibits your intentions. Zen and the art of archery.

    Best Regards,
    James

  4. Amazing post. I wholeheartedly agree and am a silver printer through and through.

  5. KJ says:

    “People make way too much out of the digital versus film. The challenges in photography—focus, crop, shutter, aperture, and of course the biggest ones of all, the ones that really matter: what you actually point the camera at, and with what intelligence you use it… are all still there, completely unchanged. So quite whether that camera records the information with a piece of celluloid or a piece of silicon is of little significance. Get over it. I doubt anyone can go to the MoMA exhibition and tell me 100 percent correctly which images are digital and which are film.”

    -Paul Graham

    What’s the point of setting one format against the other, if one’s intention is to seriously engage with the world, that intention will be manifested in the work, no matter the format. Further, not everyone who choses to shoot digital is an indiscriminate shutterbug. Look, do the millions of digital images spread across Flickr and similar sites really effect what you do, Danny? If anything, as you elude to in your rant, it’s presenting you with a better deal- your silver prints have become even more desirable.

    You say you sent your daughter abroad with her Nikon Reflex, and, reporting back, she remarked that among her companions she was the only one there with a “real” camera. Question: what if around the necks of those other kids were carried Nikon D-90’s and Canon 5D’s? Those aren’t real cameras, Danny? Do you really, really want to make that argument? Really? Digital technology is not without its shortcomings, but this combative posture doesn’t serve much of a purpose. In fact, it makes the ones striking this posture only seem churlish.

    I’m with you on the whole incessant compulsion to upgrade and the hardware foolishness that ensues. It’s fiendish by design. But, for good or ill, here we are. Here in America, aside from making money, spending money, talking about money and worshipping money, we don’t take many things seriously. Everything else is ephemeral, disposable. One does what one can.

  6. stadaanzee says:

    I fully agree with your article. But the digital age has also its advantages. So did i get a linhof view camera with 3 lenses from a friend for free. In fact, he wanted to throw this camera a way as garbage. And it makes the most beautiful pictures i have ever seen! It is just the way how you look at images.

  7. I too love thick prints. But I’m delighted not to have to spend so much time in a darkroom anymore. I love the digital process and the prints are terrific. It’s all progress. And digital is a little kinder to the environment. Less wasteful of precious water.
    Paul Treacy

    • Peter Helenius says:

      One has to consider the water used to make the computers, along with the acids and other chemicals used. Plus old computers are toxic. what about the tiny particles of ink floating out of your printer??

      Seems to me that a good camera can work for decades before it ends up in a landfill. A good enlarger can last a lifetime. How much plastic waste is created just from ink cartridges alone?

      Digital means more waste.

  8. RawheaD says:

    Wise men mourned the dumbing down of humanity when writing was first invented; no longer would students of knowledge devote time memorizing words of wisdom––they would all be written down for them!!

    And since then, wise men have constantly, and consistently lamented the degeneration of the new generation, and predicted the imminent downfall of civilization.

    Funny thing is, it hasn’t happened yet :-P

  9. Lovely post, Danny. I’m looking forward to getting back to the city in September. Shot HP5 all summer with my Mamiya 7 in Burma and China. Howard

  10. grahamsw says:

    There are preservation issues – we can read Galileo’s notes from the 16th century, but not Minsky’s from 1960. Scientific American said that in a hundred years when your great grandchildren open the time capsule, they’ll be able to read the handwritten note you stuck to the CDROM of all your photographs and writings, but not the CDROM.

    So yes, I know archivist whose job it is to worry about these things. But there is little new here. My paperbacks from 1970 are disintigrating, I have software I wrote for computers that no longer exist stored on media that can’t be read. But that’s fine by me. As Orson Welles so eloquently said in “F for Fake”: “Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

  11. pete says:

    Hi Danny;

    I enjoyed your piece. I take photos for a living. They are digital.. because, that’s what my clients want. I take pictures for myself. They are on film, shot on my old Nikons, that’s what I want.

    Long ago, people who didn’t pay attention to what they were doing were eaten by wild animals, fell into deep holes and walked off the ends of cliffs. They were gone. Today, we take care of these people.. so they can TEXT.. and walk into parked cars, stand in door ways (with a line of people behind them) and play music so loud, they suffer from poor hearing for the remainder of their lives. If the source of fresh batteries, or the ability to recharge them ends, even for a week.. they won’t be taking pictures, talking on the phone – or texting, and their iPods will be silent. It will be the end of the world, as they know it. Batteries are the key. When the Kinder-Digi realize this, we may see houses of worship devoted to “batteries”. We are doomed. I miss Agfa Paper..

    p.

  12. Lionel Cherruault says:

    I take and make and sell pictures to families that will outlive them of them and their families, I have spent the last hour working out why a print that has been spit from my Epson is flat and dead, a problem I could correct in the old days with a different grade paper a little longer exposure a bit of burning here and a little dodging there, as I watched the image appear in the dev bath I could judge the time it should remain before slapping the print into the fix, I could even gently rub an area of the print to create friction heat to burn in an area that needed a little more… Some of you out there will understand what I talk of, some of you will remember the smells, the fix the wash the drying machines a hot print as it appeared from one of those big hot drums. All in the past, I must upgrade to be bigger and better, thank you Danny your piece, means so much, but I am afraid you must be careful not to become a Dinosaur as, we are all so close to becoming if we do not keep upgrading upgrading upgrading…..

  13. Rob Walls says:

    A good perspective grahamsw…all discussions about preservation are based on the rather arrogant premise that what we produce SHOULD/MUST be preserved, as though we are able to determine what future generations will value.

    I think Danny is demonstrating the natural tendency of the old to predict the end of civilisation. And this is not the arrogance of youth in pointing this out. I’m 68 next week and begane my photo career nearly fifty years ago.

    I already see a deterioration in some of my negatives from more than 40 years ago and I was always careful in my processing technique. I now delight in digital photography and have pictures as digital files (from print) in the collection of the Australian National Library. Their curators are confident that they can preserve am archival path of preservation. But the fact is that future generations are the ones who will decide what they want to keep and will work out the way it will be preserved.

    My favourite example of analogue to digital preservation involves the fact that I am quite capable of playing music from almost a century ago on my 78rpm record player. My favourite tune on a 78 is “Lena the Queen of the Uptown Arena” sung by a vocalist with the wonderful name, Ziggy Talent. I have recorded and digitized it and can play it as an MP3 or WAV file. Ziggy probably never gave a second thought to the fact that his love song to a lady wrestler might last into the future. He certainly never imagined it being played on an iPod.

  14. Peter Garner says:

    Danny, you are right, and in fact I’m constantly torn between the convenience of my DSLRs and the clock-stopping sedateness imposed on me by my aged Bronica ETSRi.

    There’s actually nothing like seeing an image on real paper! The price of course prevents me from having all my images printed, so the procedure as to finding the one to print becomes quite protracted. The one thing that makes it all worthwhile of course is peoples’ reaction to a print that they can hold.

  15. freoview says:

    I love photography! I loved it when I shot on film for 48 years or so, and now have been shooting digital for about 8 years and I am still loving it.

    It does not matter to me at all how I capture a photo, because my skills are still required and so is the eye that discovers a great street photo.

    New technology is not the death of photography, but the attitude of some old-fashioned photographers, who refuse to move with the times, might be.

    I have been a professional photographer for 43 years now and I still consider photography my hobby as well. New technology is just a new challenge.

    Roel Loopers

  16. Darek says:

    My Ektachrome slides from the 70s have severely faded. And, residual chemicals are leeching to the surface of my old black and whites… which is to say unless those old prints were archivally processed and stored, you’ll soon be dissapointed in them too.
    Meaning, nothing is really permanent. On this, I always remember the classic words of my friend, photographer Al Weber: “A lot of photographs shouldn’t be permanent.”

  17. Nothing better than a fishing joke. My father just shared this joke with me: How much fishing tackle can a man accumulate before his wife throws him out? I don’t know the answer but I think I’m nearly there.

  18. Tom says:

    I do agree with the general idea although setting silver prints as the benchmark of excellence seems a little self serving simply because that’s someones current desired (or understood, or traditional) method of printing. What would the response be if I was to say…sod those crappy silver prints, they’re cheesy as hell and pretty short lived compared to hand made platinum or palladium prints. For that matter albumen prints. As for those crappy plastic negatives….the world started going to hell in a hand basket once photographers turned their backs on 8×10 glass plate negs! OK I still hate those dumb camera phones, nuff’ said.

  19. Truth is kids today will experience quality prints from digital picutres and have no nostalgia for the kinds of prints we had available as kids. Of course there will always be those who keep film cmaera’s and print alive just like with the LP’s (and we can see the revivial happeing there.)

    There is no getting around progress of the digital camera, especially when it has become so easy, inexpensive and accesible.

    I did enjoyed your article and perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Erynn says:

    so glad I came upon your blog. I’m a young photographer almost finished with school and I came upon some of your prints doing research for a history of photography class at the Ransom center in Austin. your words are just as inspiring as your photographs, thanks so much.

  21. Carlos Rodriguez says:

    Thanks Danny
    I loved your Indian Nations book. I still have 20 cases of Polaroid type 665 waiting for the right project.
    I loved these two pieces, there is so much truth in them.
    Most of the best art Photography still made on film and analog paper.
    People think that anyone can be a great photographer with a cell phone or Digital camera. I know photographers that have invested in so much in Digital equipment and always end up with soulless photographs, overproduced on Photoshop. Photoshop is an addiction, they don’t know when to stop. Yes, sometimes the pictures are spectacular but far away from what they were meant to be and no heart.
    Yes, upgrade, upgrade, 30 megapixels, for 10K. What is Photoshop now CS5, 6? and where do all the digital camera downgrades go?…. to the landfill.

  22. jonjost says:

    A little or a big quibble: the mechanisms, chemicals and knowledge that were necessary to make analog photography, is of the same realm of the knowledge which produced, say, the hydrogen bomb or the vast range of industrialized “civilization” which will – sooner than we like to imagine – delete us and our hubris off the planet. Sadly we can’t be picky-choosy about which technology we like and want, and which not. They are all bound together, the same thing. And they/we will destroy ourselves with it. No one is going to be around in 200 years to appreciate your silver prints – they will be gone along with everything else. The problem is our species, and the insatiable drives which led to the lovely cave drawings which led precisely to where we are now: on the precipice of self-destruction, taking along with us most the species that have inhabited the planet the last several hundred thousand years. Our innocent family fotos are part and parcel of this process. jon jost (www.jonjost.wordpress.com)

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