Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Film: Premature Obituary

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Some thoughts from different photographers of different ages, different tastes and abilities, and different backgrounds. Yet all share a passion for photography and for making pictures...

"I really respect all the physical processes that are involved [with film]. With digital, there are so many variables.....I like knowing what a film is going to do and just doing it." [Photography student in his 20's.]

"Photographers gravitate to digital as they get older because they're lazy. They think, 'Oh, I don't want to stand up all day in the darkroom. My feet hurt.'" [A longtime commercial photographer and teacher.]

"Film dead? I hope not. I've got a hundred people signed up tomorrow for my seminar I don't think they're here to hear an obituary." [A nationally renowned landscape photographer.]

"The fewer people making [conventional photographic] prints, the scarcer they will become. And when they become scarce, they become art!" [A prominent university photography curator and author.]

It is hard these days not to run up against somber obituaries for conventional film-based photography, so sweeping has the "digital revolution" been perceived to be. The confident prediction of the inevitability of digital's dominance in the marketplace and ultimate abolition of film seem a foregone conclusion to some.

And yet, based on my own feelings and on recent conversations with a number of colleagues including those above, I question these perceptions and disagree with the conclusions. While I concede (happily, believe it or not) that digital is a marvelous boon to many shooters, it is by no means the replacement for film. In far too many instances film remains the better choice in terms of picture quality, archivability, retrievability and, yes, even ease of use.

Moreover, digital photography is fast becoming an example of the law of unintended consequences, with many photographers – photojournalists especially – becoming even more marginalized in a tightening, bloodless, media market that worships conglomeration and dubious speed almost as much as it worships the bottom line.

Not only that, it is my firm belief that digital photography has made it even more acceptable for a whole new generation of amateurs to make some absolutely god-awful images in the name of instant gratification and/or overmanipulation.

But first, some realistic concessions:

There's no way I'd advise a young photographer today to stick only to silver-based (analog) film photography, especially if he or she has any hope of making it as a commercial or editorial shooter. Though I strongly believe a grounding in such craft is essential (the bellyaching of computer geeks to the contrary notwithstanding), it is no longer necessary for a fledgling photographer to memorize the Zone System or know how to load a Hasselblad film magazine.

In fact, I would tell those who hope to pursue fine art photography exclusively – even 8x10-inch view camera black and white landscape photography – that they are cheating themselves if they do not at least venture into digital while also studying the ancient art of silver. After all, anything that broadens one's vision is beneficial. And goodness knows digital does offer a whole new way to see.

To the critics who warn that it is only a matter of time before it becomes unprofitable for manufacturers to continue making film, I have to say that this is not so much an argument as it is a truism. After all, who in his or her right mind would keep on making film if they had to do so at a loss? But this also is a little like saying we all will be dead when the Sun cools down.

Frankly, and I think the folks at Fuji, though perhaps not Kodak, will bear me out, the death of the film market seems a hell of a long way off, and even if that market does tighten considerably, as I think it must, a well run outfit (like Fuji), rather than a poorly-run one (like Kodak) should be able to position, consolidate and diversify itself sufficiently to continue making film at a respectable return while pursuing its other, more profitable ventures.

[Let me throw something else into the mix here, from the admittedly prejudiced perspective of someone in the first wave of the huge Post World War 2 Baby Boom generation that still has problems programming VCRs and whose members actually like to thumb through books and albums of photographs that have not had to be painstakingly printed out one at a time on home computers. I am the first to concede that the younger end of the populace spends more money and drives the market on many things – but not everything. I merely point out that any manufacturer or technology that ignores this huge, often well-heeled, cohort of people in their 50s and older does so at its peril.]

And of course, the wonders of new film-quality computer chips notwithstanding, no one – no one – has come up with a way to guarantee that images stored on state-of-the-art digital media today will be retrievable in 20 years unless they have been repeatedly and expensively transferred to the Next New Thing in storage technology over and over again during that period.

In fact, when you get right down to it, digital may be to film photography what the ballpoint was to the fountain pen: a nice new wrinkle that serves a convenient purpose in many, though by no means all, cases, but which never can replace the real thing.

But enough of this technical moaning. Let's talk sociology and the marketplace:

– In what seems innocent enough, major newspapers now have begun outfitting some of their foreign correspondents with small digital cameras so that they can transmit images along with their stories from far-away places with strange-sounding names.

– The other day, an e-mail from a colleague noted the existence of a low-ball website offering the services of photographers who would digitally shoot events and weddings, etc., then post images on the website for clients to purchase. The website would handle all the electronic paperwork. The photographer would get 50% of each sale and surrender all rights.

– In Washington, DC, where the number of lawyers is as high as the number of fleas on a filthy dog, large law firms routinely have put together "face books" so that lawyers in branch offices could put faces to names. Now, understandably, those face books exist almost exclusively online. Now, too, many law firms no longer hire professionals to do their headshots; they do them, as they say, "in house" and digitally.

– As of this writing, the good grey New York Times, whose reputation for greatness once also encompassed greatness of spirit, has instituted a ban on paying for freelance shooters' digital transmission costs. The argument, voiced with an unctuousness worthy of Uriah Heep, is that these costs, of course, are part of the photographers' normal cost of doing business and therefore should not be charged to the paper.

What do each of these events and incidents have in common?

They illustrate the way that digital photography has devalued the professional photographer in the marketplace.

Where once a photographer was seen as a vital part of the newsgathering team, now he or she is viewed as a disposable commodity whose replacement can be drawn from a bottomless pool of on-site amateurs and photo-J wannabes. Automated digital point and shoots, needing little more than a modem and a phone line to let a person transmit pictures, have made it easier for anyone, even a reporter, to photograph spot news with acceptable, if not necessarily eloquent, skill.

[I am reminded of an incident in 1968, as I covered my first presidential campaign as a Washington reporter for the New York Daily News, when a photo I had made of then-vice president Hubert Humphrey accompanied my full-page article on his early campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. When the piece ran, Daily News photographers in New York threatened to file a union grievance over a reporter's temerity to take pictures – as well as over management's willingness to run them. But that was then, in the days of strong unions. Remember strong unions?]

The same digital camera that lets news and documentary shooters transmit their work in seconds also has fed an insatiable media appetite for images 'round the clock. That, in turn, has drawn resources away from more serious long-term projects of far more significance than say, all-Monica-all-the-time, or all-OJ-all-the-time.

Still, this trend is not the fault of new technology. Decades ago, long before digital cameras, daily journalism started losing its way, listening to the siren song of bean counters and image-makers who told publishers what they wanted to hear. Ironically, where in television the current trend toward reality programming reflects how cheaply these shows can be made, the equivalent of reality programming in print journalism – covering breaking stories with adequate staff – is too often viewed by consultants as an expensive luxury. Witness the wholesale diminution of foreign news bureaus and the increasing reliance on wire service coverage of important stories, especially from abroad. Even my old paper, the New York Daily News, a tabloid that caters to the strap-hanger tastes of working class New York, once boasted staff correspondents in Paris, Rome, Bonn, Tel Aviv, Saigon – and the United Nations, two blocks from The Daily News Building on 42nd Street.

Today? Fuggeddabahdit.

Granted, if your daily paper happens to be the New York Times or the Washington Post, you may not have noticed this trend – and these papers' online versions, especially Washingtonpost.com, are creating an exciting new daily presence that offers serious coverage combining still photography, video and text. But venture outside the twin media capitals of the East Coast and you will find newspapers barely able to put staff bylines on local city council stories.

The wrongheaded view that less is more in the media – that fewer media outlets are a good thing and lead to a more informed public – has had a profound negative effect on news and documentary photography in this country. The simple fact is that, for freelance photographers, there are fewer and fewer outlets which of necessity means more and more shooters trying to make a living by getting work into those fewer outlets.

Big media may have an insatiable appetite for pictures but with such a large pool of images to choose from it's no wonder that the market favors the media.

There is a part of me that views this new technology as a breakthrough in instant communications – a way to get news across to the most people in the least amount of time. Who in journalism, which after all is the business of disseminating information, can object?

But there's another part of me – the part that has seen the news business at its eloquent best and sensationalist worst – that questions a technology that is based too often on dubious speed and that results too often in unseen human cost.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

The Happy Marriage Of Old and New Technologies

Building Pictures of Buildings

A Magnificent Platinum Obsession

Capturing Motion/Creating Motion

Dancing with Seniors – Shooting Cheek to Cheek

Paranoid, or Just Careful?