Shades of Gray

iPhone 3G Photographs — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Around 1966 my friend John Sullivan who was a conscript in the Argentine Army when I was the same in the navy, argued with me saying that the world was not an absolute represented by black and white. He was a year older than I and much more mature. He understood the value of the middle ground and the shades of gray.

I remember him now more than ever in this world that has become so polarized in extremes.

A much less relevant topic for most but important for me is the gulf that exists in photography between the idea of the digital and that of the analog.

I am no longer the idiot purist of my youth who eschewed putting any kind of filters in my Pentacon F or my Asahi Pentax S-3. I was much too ignorant to know that a yellow filter made b+w film, which was sensitive to UV and blue (more so that with us humans), the film more like the rendering of the human eye. My purist idea was simply a black and white that should have been a gray.

John Sullivan was right.

I am old enough to remember seeing kits for making analog computers. Here is a definition by Wikipedia:

An analog computer or analogue computer is a form of computer that uses the continuously changeable aspects of physical phenomena such as electrical, mechanical, or hydraulic quantities to model the problem being solved. In contrast, digital computers represent varying quantities symbolically, as their numerical values change. As an analog computer does not use discrete values, but rather continuous values, processes cannot be reliably repeated with exact equivalence, as they can with Turing machines. Unlike digital signal processing, analog computers do not suffer from the quantization noise, but are limited by analog noise.

Analog computers were widely used in scientific and industrial applications where digital computers of the time lacked sufficient performance. Analog computers can have a very wide range of complexity. Slide rules and nomographs are the simplest, while naval gunfire control computers and large hybrid digital/analog computers were among the most complicated. Systems for process control and protective relays used analog computation to perform control and protective functions.

The advent of digital computing made simple analog computers obsolete as early as the 1950s and 1960s, although analog computers remained in use in some specific applications, like the flight computer in aircraft, and for teaching control systems in universities. More complex applications, such as synthetic aperture radar, remained the domain of analog computing well into the 1980s, since digital computers were insufficient for the task.

I was a whiz with my simple analog computer that was the circular slide rule I learned to use at St. Edward’s High School. I did not know then that it was such a beast, although a simple one.

All the above brings me to the topic of hand, the middle ground between old technology and new technology.

It may have been Aristotle who observed under a tree sunlight filtering through close knit leaves and noticing a fascinating projection of the world beyond the leaves on the ground. It took Leonardo da Vinci to figure it all out and who is credited with making the first camera obscura. So, in English that would translate to dark chamber or dark room. Here we had a dark room without chemicals or enlargers or film. He was ahead of his times. It wasn’t until 1826 when Nicéphore Niépce’s heliographic image View from the Window at Le Gras finally combine da Vinci’s dream with his reality saved for posterity on a sensitized emulsion floating on tar sand.

In photography one (and I) must never forget what came before. The lastest technology of miniature speakers on the side of a home computer cannot match the technology of the past in big studio monitors. But if you have never listened to music with studio monitors then you do have the ability to judge the quality of music emerging from a cell phone with ear buds.

It took my Rosemary about three and half years to convince me that needed to get modern or get fu….(the motto of the Vancouver band, The Modernettes) . And so I purchased a Fuji X-E1and I have been happy since but without completely abandoning film and metal clunker cameras.

I did (for a short while) adopt the wonders of digital technology when I purchased an iPhone 3G. I even managed to get the Georgia Straight to use the photographs I took with it without any comment on their quality of lack of it. But I soon abandoned the 36 as the Fuji X-E1 was the better camera and the excitement that some photograph was excellent even though I had used the 3G wore off. In fact I have not taken one photograph with my Galaxy phone. Perhaps because the Galaxy has a better camera.

Recently I have gone to my iPhone 3G files and noticed some nudes I took as an instructor at the now gone Focal Point. My students mated their digital cameras to a soft-box flash. Not wanting to intrude I would every once in a while pull out the 3G and take some snaps. What you see here at the images that can pass muster with the on-line censors. Notice the neat grain (noise) and off colours. The photographs almost make me want to pull out my 3G from retirement.

Ample proof that the latest is not always the best. The catch is to remember that past.

Originally published at



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