WHAT IS PHOTOGRAPHY?
David Senoff tries to answer the unanswerable question, what is photography?
By: David S. Senoff
As conceived, this article was to be yet another article/opinion/click-bait piece that seeks to answer the seemingly unanswerable question: “Film v. Digital?”
Once I started writing, however, I realized the “film v. digital debate” is a false flag. Just as the following questions are also false flags: “Raw v. JPEG”; “Street v. Landscape v. Portraiture v. Fine Art Photography”; “Pictorialism v. Documentary”; “DSLR v. Mirrorless”; “Capturing v. Making Photographs”; and “Post Processing: Ai Editing V. Human Editing v. No Editing.”
So, what do I mean by this? First, let’s make sure we start from the same understanding of what I mean by “false flag.”
The False Flag
“False Flag” “originated in the 16th century as a purely figurative expression to mean ‘a deliberate misrepresentation of someone’s affiliation or motives.’” Whether used in the 16th Century or the 21st, a “false flag” is the idea that an act is committed by one person who pins blame for that act on someone else, in order to create a conflict between the second person and a third person without the bad actor being blamed for it. Chaos ensues, which, in a perfect execution of a false flag operation, inures to the benefit of the first person.
Think of a pirate ship flying the flag of the England (not a “jolly roger”) attacking and plundering a Spanish Galleon, not only to steal the cargo from Spain, but also to cast blame on England for the crime. For those of you James Bond aficionados, think of SPECTRE committing acts of terrorism during the cold war while making the United States think the acts were perpetrated by the Soviets (and vice versa). All the while, Blofeld profits and progresses towards his ultimate goal of “world domination.”
While the questions I posit about photography are not as violent or devious as piracy on the high-seas or as those of Blofeld in his quest for billions of dollars and world domination, we as photographers and consumers of photographic equipment, film, gadgets, computers, scanners, printers, and digital storage devices are no less agents on “Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” than was 007.
At this point, I know you are all wondering: “what is this guy talking about?” That is totally understandable.
This is not the first time I’ve been accused of being full of “sh*te,” but please bear with me and allow me to explain. My realization occurred after bidding on and winning an auction for an old (1944) volume of the American Annual of Photography on eBay, while taking a break from feverishly acquiring Nikon gear from any and all sources.
Some of you will recall the article I authored about my life with “GAS”: Gear Acquisition Syndrome, which appeared on the brilliant photography website, emulsive.org. In that article, I confessed my long battle with GAS and how GAS enabled me to become a “camera collector” and Nikon Fanboy, among other things.
In that article I also confessed that I never owned a truly professional or “prosumer” DSLR or mirrorless camera kit. Part of that was due to the fact that I learned to shoot on film, worked in consumer and commercial photo labs, and also shot weddings on film all through university and law school. After I passed the bar, I put my Nikon down, but never replaced it with a digital camera, other than the camera that was built into my cellphone du jour.
Fast forward 28 years and … (you can read that article to see what happened to me). Suffice to say, I now shoot anywhere from 2-15 rolls of 35mm or 120 (medium format) rolls per month and either have them commercially processed and scanned and then “tinker” with them in Lightroom before (yes) printing them on an inkjet printer on Ilford paper.
Yes, I am what most people would consider a film snob. No, I do not believe shooting on film “slows you down” and is some kind of Zen experience compared to digital photography. I am certain digital photographers experience the same or similar Zen-like feelings about their photography and enter some mental “flow” state (like being in the zone) as do film photographers.
But if I’m using any of my “antique” Nikons with motor drives like my F2, F3, F4, or F6, I am just as guilty of “gripping and ripping” as any photographer with whatever digital camera made by Nikon, Sony, Fuji, or Canon has to offer. (Granted those cameras rip-off far more shots that I can, but not because I’m being more mindful about my shots, just because those cameras are capable of that and mine are not, and mine will run out of film and require me to re-load them).
I just personally like the results you get from film better than digital. Film (to me) reproduces color truer to my memory of a scene than digital. (That does not mean that film is truer to life, just truer to the way I remember it). Digital (again to me) is too sharp, to angular and not soft enough. Highlights and shadows are reproduced differently on film compared with digital. But that is a function of the mechanism and process each format uses to capture and reproduce light. Back in the “Day” (whenever THAT was), I shot a lot of Kodachrome: ISO 25, 64, and 200. I printed it by hand, one print at a time in my home darkroom on Ilford’s Cibachrome paper and chemical process. Like the song says, Kodachrome did give you “those nice bright colors,” “the greens of summer,” and it did “make you think all the world’s a sunny day,” but those colors weren’t necessarily true to life, they were just detailed and vivid.
That’s a little about me, but why should you care about what I have to say on this or any other point? I am no expert. I am not a professional photographer in the sense that I earn a living from my photography or through teaching photography. Nor was I trained as a photographer in any art school.
I’m just a person who grew-up as a photographer in the film era. In fact, most of my “true” photography experience took place solely in the film era. But unlike younger artists and photographers who grew up solely in the digital era and are just now “re-discovering” or more aptly “discovering” film photography, I have a foot in both worlds. Yes, that makes me a “film geezer” (in the Queen’s English sense of that word). But being an oldish (white) guy, doesn’t mean you need to care about what I have to say, in fact, it likely means the opposite.
In truth there is no reason for you to care about what I have to say on this topic, other than to think about what I have to say, add it to your own personal knowledge base, and armed with some additional information, form your own opinions, make your own decisions about your own gear, medium, and format choices. It is my hope that I can at least influence your opinions so that you can make educated decisions about how to spend your limited resources. In other words, learn from my mistakes!
With thanks and attribution to photographers Jay Maisel and Dan Milnor, it is worth noting what the thing is. Jay Maisel’s seminal work titled “It’s Not About the F-Stop,” should tell you all you need to know about what the “thing is.” But if you need a more specific definition, Jay provides it in the introduction to his book. But Maisel himself attributes the following quote to a friend of his: “Photography is not about photography, its about everything else.” He then goes on to say that in the book, he tries to talk about “everything else.”
Maisel also famously said: “Always carry a camera, it’s tough to shoot a picture without one.” And of course, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”
More recently and perhaps more colloquially, existentially, and succinctly photographer Dan Milnor said: “The camera is not the thing. The camera is the thing that gets you to the thing.”
The thing, of course, is the final product the photograph you made, whether first in your mind’s eye and then you went out and executed it or whether you were out with your camera and you caught that “decisive moment” on film or otherwise, the photograph is the “thing” the camera was the tool you used to make it. (Again, with credit to Milnor).
So, if the camera is a tool to make a photograph and the best camera is the one you have with you, because without one its “tough to shoot a picture,” what’s all the fuss about?
To use an overused and over simplified explanation, upon which most people can agree, film is not better than digital or vice-versa, it is “just different.” So please indulge me for the rest of this article and let us all accept the premise that one is not better than the other, they are just different.
Ok, so does that end all of the debates, of course not. By the way, as a “solely” analog photographer, I have only a passing understanding of all of the debates I identified earlier in this piece. And by the way again, very few “solely” analog photographers are truly “solely” analog photographers. As I said above, I have my film processed and scanned, and then tinker with it Lightroom (which is good, but by no means a darkroom), that means that I like thousands of others out there, make my photos on film through an analog process, but then have the negatives digitized, making those of us who do so some kind of “hybrid” Frankenstein-like cross between analog and digital photographers.
The bottom line is this, all of the debates: “film v. digital”; “Raw v. JPEG”; “Street v. Landscape v. Portraiture v. Fine Art Photography”; “Pictorialism v. Documentary”; “DSLR v. Mirrorless”; “Capturing v. Making Photographs”; and “Post Processing: Ai Editing v. Human Editing v. No Editing,” fall into two categories that can generally be identified as “your style” and “your tools.”
And these two categories have existed since the birth of photography.
The Debates Are False Flags
Bloggers, You-Tubers, Instagram Influencers, indeed the entirety of the internet social-media sphere, including those who are “On Line” and those of us who merely surf the web, claim they are tired of the “analog v. digital”; “RAW v. jpeg”; and “AI Editing” debates, yet they all indulge in those debates because we all love to read them, sifting through them for any new insight which will end the debate once and for all. Sadly, however, regardless of the conclusion of the authors, the debates will rage because the answers, like art itself, are purely subjective and incapable of an objectivity (like 4 is the sum of 2+2).
How do I know the debates are false flags? Because they have been raging, in one form or another, since virtually the dawn of photography in 1827.For a brief period of time during my struggle with GAS, I became enamored with purchasing old copies of the “American Annual of Photography.” I purchased copies of Volumes 56 (1942), 58 (1944), and 62 (1948). The American Annual dates itself to around 1886 when it was known as the American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac. I stumbled upon these 3 volumes quite accidentaly and purchased them primarily because Volume 58 had a ten page article written by Ansel Adams entitled “A Personal Credo, 1943.” Written at a time when World War II, was all but over, Adams laments the difficulty of evaluating the status of “contemporary photography apart from the fields of war activity.”
Beyond that lamentation, Adams makes the following statements, that but for the language, are equally applicable today: “We have been slaves to categories, and each has served as a kind of concentration camp for the spirit.”
The categories to which Adams is referring are commercial, pictorial, documentary and “creative.” Clearly, Adams eschewed any attempts at categorization of his photography or anyone else’s by outside forces.
And then he says this, in 1943: “With few exceptions, publications of the photographic world are founded on the desire to stimulate the photographic trade; materials, equipment, gadgets have been in high flood production and sales and the advertising of these countless items have been the backbone of this publishing. The dangerous suggestion that you can hire someone to do the drudgery, plus the encouragement of superficial thought and methods, has robbed photography of much dignity, clarity and effectiveness. … Photographers have been led to make a fetish of equipment, and are falsely encouraged in superficial concepts and methods, resulting in unfortunate misconceptions of the basic potentialities of photography.”
My personal takeaway from these statements are that Adams is not only angered by his belief that the photographic publications of the day served no purpose beyond selling equipment, etc., but also that he is upset by the democratization of photography through myth of the purchase of the “right” equipment and the “false” encouragement given to people by these publications of superficial photographic concepts and methods (think of the rule of thirds).
Adams’ statement above is the 21st Century equivalent of a snobbish film photographer lamenting the “grip and rip” culture of digital photography. Or the snobbish digital photographer lamenting the advancement of cellphone cameras because now “everyone thinks they’re a photographer.” Or finally (and I happen to agree with this one, and credit Milnor with “opening my eyes” to it) that Instagram and the like have ruined photography by changing the way people consume photographs.
For example, in the late 80’s when I worked in film labs or taking wedding pictures, there were really only two ways to consume photographs: on paper (either prints, framed prints hung on walls, albums, etc.) or transparencies (slides) projected on screens or walls.
Since film was finite and printing and processing was not free, the number of photographs shot and printed or projected by one person was by definition fewer than it is today.
Second, once your photographs were processed and printed (or mounted in the case of slides), only you (and perhaps your family) looked at them. On rare occasions, (if you had your own dark room set-up) you enlarged them yourself and got them framed for hanging on your walls, in your home.
Nevertheless, in each of those cases, regardless of the people to whom you ultimately showed your work, none of those people ever “liked,” “hearted,” or “thumbs-upped” your work. And, unless you were a professional photojournalist or photographer working with editors or mentors, no one ever critically reviewed your work and even if they did, they did not post petty comments about it for the entire world to see.
Yes, for good or bad, Instagram and other Social Media platforms have forever changed the way photography is seen and consumed. (Don’t get me started on who owns your work under the Platforms’ terms of service, that’s a story for a much longer article). Today, while more people get to see your work, those same people are now not as impressed by it, having consumed thousands of images per day on a 5, 7, or 12 inch screen.
But the false flag of all of these debates whether in 1944 or the present is that those people who keep the debates alive (whether the photo publications of the 1940s or the blogosphere of the present day) are doing so for other reasons, namely the sale of something. And don’t get me wrong, the sale of good high-quality cameras and lenses, be they film, digital, or cellphone, is a good thing. It is just not the only thing.
And so, the “false flag” of someone who takes to the internet to proclaim that he or she only shoots RAW or only shoots film, for whatever reasons and then proceeds to rail against any other alternatives, is doing so to stir the pot and keep the debates alive to sell more of whatever they are trying to sell.
What is Photography?
To my mind, the photographer who most personifies the “camera as tool” philosophy was Henri Cartier-Bresson. The French photographer and co-founder of Magnum Photos (considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious photographic agency).
In addition to Cartier-Bresson, Magnum boasted Robert Capa, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour as its other three founding members. Over the years, Magnum Photographers have included the likes of Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Gilden. Paul Fusco, Alec Soth, Steve McCurry, and Bruce Davidson.
It was Cartier-Bresson, who said: “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
Cartier-Bresson made many photographs of many “decisive moments” with “only” a Leica M3 and a 50mm Summicron lens. No fancy autowinders, autofocus lenses, or autoexposure sensors. He had no way to know what his photographs looked like until they were processed, so at the time he made them he had no way to check and see if he “got the shot.” And yet, somehow, he did.
Like his photograph of Ghandi days before his assassination followed by his photograph of Indian Prime Minister Nehru announcing Ghandi’s death to the world.
Keeping with Cartier-Bresson’s view of photography and counterpoised against Adams, in 1954, ten years after Adams’ “Personal Credo” was published, another Magnum Photographer, Elliott Erwitt, famously said: “Good photography is not about ‘Zone Printing’ or any other Ansel Adams nonsense. It’s just about seeing. You either see, or you don’t see. The rest is academic. Photography is simply a function of noticing things. Nothing more.”
At the end of the day, photography, no matter what type of viewfinder you look through is your attempt to focus the light in front of you so that whatever your lens is trained upon will re-create what you are seeing. But is what you are seeing both through the viewfinder and with your eyes a true version of the scene?
Further, when you go back and look at your images, captures, and photographs (with no editing or post-production), do they look like how your brain remembers the scene, or are they more sterile than your memory? Chances are they are more sterile than memory.
Your brain is a marvelous “super-computer,” but often times when it comes to visualization it remembers things that never were as opposed to as they are. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was fond of paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw when he would say: “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘why not?’”
Your memory of images compared to a photograph taken on any format is exactly that a memory — your vision and memory are clouded by your feelings at the time you looked at the scene (relaxed or stressed-out) and by the passage of time (was that a sunset you remember so vividly over the ocean or a sunrise)?
By comparison, an unedited photograph is unforgiving. Its color temperature is usually colder or warmer than your memory of the scene. Was the sky really that deeply blue or is your monitor not well calibrated. Was there so little detail in the shadows? Did you even notice? Didn’t Kodachrome really make all the world a sunny day? Yes, it did.
Can you say the same for your brain? Of course not.
What is photography? The simple answer can be found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (such as film or an optical sensor).”
But that is a cold definition which defines only the process of taking any snapshot on any camera on any cellphone or otherwise. Photography is at the same time so much more and so much less.
A good photograph not only faithfully reproduces your own memory of the scene, including your feelings at the time, but is simultaneously evocative to the viewer who did not witness the scene with you. That does not mean that the viewer feels the same way you feel when you look at the image, it simply means that they feel something of their own.
So where does this leave us? Well, I think we can safely say that there are no objective answers to the questions like which is better film or digital? We can also say (with some reservation) that gear, film or digital, old or new, does not make YOU a better photographer, but may make better photographs.
For example, I remember owning plastic 110 and 126 format cameras as a kid. The photos I made with those cameras were awful. And no doubt would have been better with a “real camera.” Similarly, I have never captured the beauty and ferocious energy of a lightning strike off shore with a cellphone camera, but I have with a 50 or 60 year old Nikon 35mm SLR and some expired Fujichrome slide film (just last summer as a matter of fact).
So, the gear are tools and you want the best tools you can get within your budget so you make your best photos. You see Cartier-Bresson, Adams, Erwitt, Maisel and Milnor all agree on one concept, after a certain point, its not about the gear, its about you and your vision and your ability to see things and capture them at the “decisive moment.”
At a particular level, the incremental difference in cameras and lens technology, is just that incremental. It is not revolutionary. Whether we are talking about Nikon or Hasselblad film cameras or Cannon or Sony or Fuji digital cameras. Whether we are talking about Nikkors, Zeiss, or summicron lenses.
At that certain point, they are all the same, not better or worse, just different in how they focus and record the light in front of you. Same with film stocks and digital sensors, after a certain point, they are all technologically similar, but render the light differently. The only difference is you.
So, the next time you find yourself aimlessly scrolling through your Instagram/500Px/Flickr feeds throwing out some likes here and there, stop and ask yourself – what is it about those shots you like? The colors, the light, the subject matter, or the fact that the person who posted it identified that the shot was taken with a Hasselblad?
You see, the false flag is the idea that the gear makes YOU take better photographs. It does not. Trust me, having suffered from GAS for this long, I find it hard to believe that myself, but its true. Your camera and lens are like a hammer and a screwdriver. In the right hands, those tools can a build home. In the wrong hands, well, let’s just say someone is liable to get hurt.
The truth is that at the relatively highest levels of any type of gear, film or digital, since there is generally parity amongst all of it, the true differentiator is YOU and what YOU choose to photograph and how and when YOU choose to trip the shutter.
I have a confession to make, the title of this article “What is photography?” is a false flag. The real question is not what is photography, it is “what is a photographer?” Because, as Dan Milnor said, “The camera is not the thing. The camera is the thing that gets you to the thing.”
And only you, as the photographer knows what the thing is when you push the button that releases the shutter or captures the image. The camera only does what it is told, and it is only YOU that can tell it what to do.
The author is presently a “practicing” attorney and frustrated photographer struggling with these and all other sorts of philosophical questions (photographic and otherwise), residing in the USA.
You can reach David on Instagram at @chestnuthillphotog
Thank you to David for sharing this wonderful and thought provoking article with us. Please share your thoughts and comments below.