Over the last few years I’ve completely crossed over to digital, after working with and exhibiting (both film and digital) photographic work for over a decade. It has been almost two years since I last shot film and I have no intention of doing so in the future. Though, lately, I feel a little misunderstood.
I know I must not be the only one who has made this decision, but it is seldom that I see anything other than analog images in art museums or galleries. If the images are not analog, they are very obviously altered digitally or otherwise collaged, or in black and white to mimic the look of film. A common theme that seems to run through the analog work is a willfully naive approach to the process / fetishization of the medium. Everyone is just “experimenting” as if they could, single handedly and by accident, completely reinvent the entire history of photography. Images without negatives are popular, as is using esoteric old stock consumables or so called “lost” processes that are more akin to printmaking. In big group photography shows, every now and then a video will sneak its way to represent newer technologies. Or sometimes even (gasp) sculptural works.
Part of me gets it. It feels comfortable accepting analog images as art because the analog process itself implies an element of time and artistic work. And the cost threshold / increasing rarity / difficulty involved to procure film are all contributing factors to its exclusivity and dubious purity. But does shooting digital actually require less work or skill? And what is so pure about idealizing any one particular incarnation of a medium that has been constantly changing and evolving since its conception? Especially if one uses it for no other reason than to use it and the images themselves are unremarkable?
Nostalgia and sentimentalism are usually signs that one is headed for a dead end, yet no one seems to be calling out the young photographers shooting film in an era where the majority of images are digital and viewed on screens. In fact, quite the opposite seems to happen. They are exalted for not letting film die, for carrying on a legacy. This legacy, as I see it, is swimming pools full of unnecessary processing chemicals; reams of difficult to recycle plastic coated paper. And while it is true that today’s best digital cameras are unable to deliver the same image quality that large format analog has provided since the days of Ansel Adams, there are few situations where that level of quality is truly necessary or actually adds something to the work.
Of course there will be those who continue to argue that film is special and romantic, but blindly hanging on to it as the standard is purposefully ignoring it’s negative impact on the environment and holding back new ways of image-making and digital images from being considered as art. In the long run, neither of these things are good for anyone. It is like saying that plants belong in the soil and anything else is unnatural, regardless if the other alternatives are more productive or lead to new possibilities. Romanticizing an idea, or loving the idea of something, is not the same as understanding it.
Digital images may be as ubiquitous as the handheld devices they are constantly viewed on, but they also have their own special look that is ripe with possibilities. I try to carefully harness this look when making images of my own: some sort of desolation, crisp focus, even light, etc. If that is not a perfect description of modern malaise, I’m not sure what is. At the end of the day is not the medium or specific camera that makes an image art (or not), but the photographer.