IT’S BEEN SAID that when a new technology replaces another technology, the replaced technology must become art or it will quickly disappear. Take, for example, moveable type. When it was run off the road by digital typesetting, it migrated to a small but fervent community of artisans who produce high-end hand-made wedding announcements, broadsides, posters, poetry books, and other objects d’art. That is, if the term “hand made” isn't a bit disingenuous for something created with molten lead and a huge cast-iron mechanical device. Never mind that digital type is often poorly set, prone to typos, and sloppy...it’s progress.
The same migration has been happening to photography for some time. Digital rules the roost in film. Stills, journalism, portraits, even motion pictures (just give the last one another week or so to brush aside sprocket hole junkies once and for all). Most people visiting a movie house these days can’t tell the difference between the video-projected commercial at the beginning and the film itself. Film photography is lining up to take its place in museums and expensive hand-made prints, just like typography, lithography, and fine bookmaking were forced to do. I wonder what print newspapers will become?
PROS ABOUT DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY: no more chemicals, or smelly dark rooms, unless you want it that way. No more silver needed to create photos. CONS: Hey, are there any “cons” to digital? Digital cameras are clean, efficient, and you don’t have to go to the PhotoShack to see what you actually shot? But then, there’s the problem. No one sees any disadvantage to digital, and you get called a Luddite if you do.
Some strange things happen once a technology passes its prime. Vinyl records used to be the norm, and now they’re collectables and limited-edition pressings. Mixologists (DJ’s, not bartenders) add samples of the hissing and popping of vinyl surface noise to their otherwise pristine digital recordings to “dirty it up” and simulate “authenticity.” Photoshop experts “grunge up” their images with ragged edges, rough paper backgrounds and digital versions of—movable type. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez added “missing reel” marker frames, sloppy end-of-reel cuts, and film scratches to their B-movie pastiche Grindhouse to help viewers (and probably Q & R themselves) re-live the experience. Guy Maddin’s quirky Brain Upon The Brain! resembles a twisted silent movie in all its hand-cranked glory. And how many times have you seen the same cheesy video signal break-up in countless scary movies and music videos?
There are still rebel outposts of resistance to digital photography, however. Light-leaking cameras like the Russian Holga and the LOMO LC-A Compact Automat are monuments to cheap-camera unpredictability and murky plastic lenses. But why trade the convenience and clarity of a digital image for a toy camera? You're way ahead of me.
It’s all about the mystery.
Light leaks in film are unexpected, and thus, have the curious aura of life about them. They color the image in ways that can't be precisely controlled or predicted. End-of film-reel accidents chop the images in interesting visual chunks that few people would come up with on their own. I have a collection of routine images, wedding photos, birthdays, nature, etc., that take on a mystical edge when light leaks in, usually at the end of the reel where the film turns orange and bisects the picture in magical ways. When I bought my first digital camera, it dawned on me that light leaks, old film that turns odd colors, end-of-reel mistakes, and even the suspense of not knowing what the image is until it comes back from developing, were about to become a thing of the past. We love to systematize. And each time we do, a little sliver of the mystery gets chipped away.
Ever wonder why, with all the technology, some people still wait until the actually delivery to find out what the gender of their newborn is? Something similar is at work. This isn't our new President’s fault, or even something to cry over. It’s progress. I expect that in time, digital technology will discovers mysteries of its own.
As Leonard Cohen wrote in the song “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in...