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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

When Technology Weakens Technique

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

An e-mailer from White Hall, Va., raises a good question or two about where photography may be heading.

Like many of us of a certain age – and I suspect he may be a contemporary of mine – reader Ray Wirth has doubts about the worth of cameras that are so automated that they do all of the thinking for you. In addition, he fears for the future of "film-based photography" and suspects a headlong rush to digital may "sacrifice beautiful image quality for point-and-shoot and mouse-click utility."

I share Ray's concerns, but not his fears.

I am reminded of mail-order courses that promise to teach good writing with surprisingly little effort. Or of the poor souls who think that by loading their heads with abstruse words they will appear erudite in smart company.

In writing, in photography – heck, in life – there are no shortcuts. And to me the shortcuts offered by automated cameras and digital photography in general, though at times beneficial, really do nothing to teach what makes a good picture. That hasn't changed, and likely never will change, even if some genius comes up with a way to think images onto a disk. But first, let Ray tell his story:

"I bought my first Leica M2-R (made from a standard M2, with the 'quick load' takeup spool of the then new M4), in 1969. I still have and use it, along with an M4 (simply an M6 without the meter.). Your comments are right on. The lenses are superb -nothing else like them.

"While I agree that a Leica is not the camera for a beginner, I disagree on the reason. It's clearly too costly a camera for someone not committed to serious photography. However, the basic, manual nature of the camera is precisely the reason to hand something similar to a beginner.

"The making of a photograph is an artistic exercise, and technique is important, an integral part, like mixing paints perhaps, or orchestrating a melody. To automate technique lessens the result. "…I do not paint and do not sculpt and do not compose. But I can operate a camera, so this is my way to do art. The manual camera gives [me] the opportunity to make technique choices (not technical choices)." To which I only can say amen.

Because, in truth, technique will always trump technology (the same way good pitching will always beat good hitting.) The greatest photo equipment geek in the world is unlikely also to be the best photographer in world. Why? Because the person who has technique down doesn't need to obsess over equipment. He or she does not require a multithousand-dollar, autofocus, mega-digital Humongoflex to make good pictures. In some cases a simple pinhole camera will do just fine. This is one of the hardest lessons to teach an amateur, especially one of those "if only" photographers. ("If only I had an F5, or an M6, or a G2, or a etc., etc. ... I would take great pictures," they lament, clueless to the notion that great photographs are made in the mind and the eye, not in the hand.)

My friend, Maxwell MacKenzie, is arguably the best architectural photographer in town. His personal work, large panorama views of the Midwest and other parts of the world, are symphonies of perfect composition -reflecting perfect photographic pitch born of years of study and of burning lots and lots of film.

Yet once, as he was preparing a show of images from his gorgeous book "Abandonings," Max relayed how every so often someone will look at one of his huge prints (some as wide as 8 feet) and say, "You must have a really good camera." "Does anyone ever go to a writer like, say, John Updike, and say, 'You must have a really good typewriter?' " My reader's other fear – that film-based, or silver-based, photography may be a dinosaur – is more pressing. "I fear for the future of film-based photography, " Ray wrote. "I shot Kodachrome, to my generation the gold standard. Had a hell of a time getting it processed. Around here, it's hard to find darkroom supplies…"

All of which may be true, but remember: There is a reason silver-based photography has survived in various incarnations for the last century and a half. And that reason is manifold: Its usefulness, ease of use – and longevity – have never been successfully challenged. And nothing I am seeing now, or on the digital horizon, threatens to change that equation, amazing though digital photography may be.

After all, the automobile replaced the horse and buggy because virtually every aspect of it was an improvement over old Dobbin, especially as reliability rose and costs declined. But in electronic vs. film-based photography, digital continues to have serious drawbacks that I'm hard-put to see disappear.

Image quality is not even a factor. Good now, it will shortly be superb and likely will equal (maybe even surpass, in some very specialized cases) that of regular film. Costs, too, will continue to plummet. But how will a medium designed for speed and instant gratification deal with the problem of archivability? Especially when storage and recording media are changing, seemingly every week? Sort of makes you yearn for those lush, unchanging archival Kodachrome slides and immutable Tri-X negatives, doesn't it?

And let's not forget, too, what ex-National Geo shooter Bruce Dale calls the "photographness" of a photograph – that ineffable quality that puts a fine hand-made photographic print on the same emotional level as an original oil or watercolor.

Back in 1992, when I photographed author Stephen King for my book on Down East Maine, we got to talking about the craft of writing, since we each had spent decades in front of a keyboard.

Stephen noted that he does most of his legwork and research himself. "It seems to stick better a lot of times if you do it yourself," he said. "The questions that you ask go to the heart of the matter. That's one thing about writing. It doesn't change from century to century. It's still hand work."

And so, thank God, is photography. Hand and eye work.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

NBCC Photo Show:

Work on an autumn theme by members of the North Bethesda Camera Club is on exhibit through Nov. 10 at Brookside Gardens Visitors Center in Wheaton. The Gardens, part of Wheaton Regional Park worthy of a visit, are located east of the intersection of Randolph Road and Georgia Avenue Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery
Revisiting a Classic: The Legendary Leica M6
Surge Protection-or Practicing Safe Pix
The Plastic Nikon
The Incredible Shrinking Overhead
Simplified Location Portraiture
Simple (but Dramatic) Portraits
Photography's Maine Connection
Hell in a Viewfinder: Kosovo
In Praise of Available Light
Slow Shutter for Better Pix
Mixing Light Sources for Dramatic Shots
Picturing New York One Face at a Time
The Ultimate Point n' Shoot

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