Thoughts from Elizabeth Graves on why new digital imaging technology is often used to imitate the appearance of old, chemical photography.
This may have happened to you: you’re trying to remember the name of an ingredient for an alternative process recipe (“something oxalate?”), and so you search for a phrase like “how to make a cyanotype.” Your results come up, and you discover that some of those results are software tutorials. In fact, they appear to be software tutorials written by people who have never seen a cyanotype in their lives, because their instructions on how to “create a cyanotype” merely mean converting a digital color photo into a hazy blue digital mess.
What gives? Why on earth would someone using a US$3000 software package want a poor digital imitation of a blue photographic print they could have made for a few bucks in real life?
I have a few suggested explanations.
Wet Chemical Photography Shaped our Collective Memory and Our Sense of History
When most of our now-alternative processes were first invented, they were THE technology available for making photographic images. They defined what photography looked like. They had a huge influence on how we saw ourselves and the world, how we documented history, and how we captured collective and personal information to preserve for the future. We have all studied photographs made with wet chemical processes that have influenced our perception of our place in the world. Our history books and family albums are filled with images made with wet chemical technologies: it sometimes feels like those images are fragments of history in their own right. Digital imaging hasn’t yet had a chance to make such a deep, long-term impression on us.
Digital Imaging Is a Young Technology Without Its Own Distinctive Look
Digital imaging rose long after wet chemical photography had established what images SHOULD look like. For casual snapshot shooters, digital didn’t appear to break new ground: it is serving as a substitute for something we already had. It is faster, it is easier, it has amazing potential, and has great utility… But it hasn’t yet defined itself as something that gives us visually different results from the technology it is replacing.
The New Technology Is Being Used Differently
Wet darkroom photographers used to photograph sparingly, because of the expense and effort of making an image. Digital imaging has made photography a happy, near-constant compulsion… which leads to a lack of the self-editing used in older technologies. It’s hard for the new images of our lunches and new shoes to stand up well when compared to the old images of world leaders, documentation of grand monuments, and critical events in the lives of families – births, graduations, weddings, and deaths. We may take “important” photos with the new technologies, but they are only a small fraction of our image-making, which is somehow diluted by daily use.
Digital Technology Is Easy, Accessible, and Common
Digital imaging is so easy that people sometimes discover they accidentally engaged in it while drunk, half asleep, or while fumbling for keys in their briefcase. While the results may be in focus and appropriately lit without any real effort, it’s hard to think of the results as “special” on their own. The underlying technology seems nearly miraculous, but so did the chemical version of the technology. And the sheer quantity of these easily taken images seems to devalue them, like a case of oversupply of a once valuable commodity.
If I told you that more than one million digital images were taken of the ritual associated with the current US President taking office, you wouldn’t be surprised, and you likely wouldn’t care to see them – you’ve already seen many, without even trying! Those images were easily made, available, and too common to seem really special unless we made them ourselves. But if I told you that a daguerrotype was taken of that same event, wouldn’t its rarity inspire your curiosity? (If it does, see Jerry Spagnoli’s Last Great Daguerrian Survey of the Twentieth Century: Inauguration.) A daguerrotype is difficult to create, difficult to arrange for, and very, very rare. All of those factors make a daguerrotype of a historic event seem far more valuable. Which type of image do you think will wind up being considered a treasure worthy of being kept in the national museum?
There is a Nostalgia for Authentic Physical Things
Software has been created not only to imitate now-alternative photographic processes and near-alternative photographic processes (such as conventional black and white, which no manufacturer has yet bothered creating a dedicated digital camera for), but even specific modern film emulsion imitations, instant and integral film imitations, random old print in a box in the attic imitations… Many photographers use software to attempt to achieve the look of something material – “real” – from the past, which, sadly, they often don’t have enough familiarity with to imitate effectively. Scandals break out in journalism over whether such ‘imitation looks’ are intended to deceive or manipulate viewers by invoking the symbols of older, substantive things… Even if they do so as ineffectively as the fuzzy blue image that a software teacher is trying to pass off as a cyanotype.
Someday, digital imaging will grow up and define itself in new and amazing ways. It’s still a young technology, with a lot of growing to do, and so it’s not surprising that it sometimes has an identity crisis. I think that, when it is mature, it will not dress up as other things, but will stand proudly as itself in the distinctive look it will have established, without feeling shabby beside handmade, alternative process prints.