12/20/2015

FROM SILVER TO SILICON

My personal journey through (parts of) the History of Photography.

My personal (photographic) life is covering less than a quarter of the timespan of photography. Nevertheless I witnessed and took part in the most important transformations in it‘s history. This is a short and very personal journey through my photographic life...

A long and winding road...

   When in 1984 I did my MFA in Photography at the “Graphische“ in Vienna (which was founded in 1888, therefore being one of the oldest schools for photography worldwide) photography was in a climax. The technical development had reached a level which couldn‘t be exceled. At least we thought so - not realizing that the Eastman Company, better know as Kodak, was already working on a 1-megapixel-CCD-sensor for digital cameras, an item which would at the end completely change our (photographic) life. And will bring down the Eastman Company because they themselves didn‘t fully believe in digital photography.

   At the beginning of the 1980s the curriculum of photo colleges still contained things like retouching negatives. We made portraits with the 4x5 inch view camera, using big  tungsten light lamps for lightning. Being a student was also an financial matter. Films and paper was expensive, you always thought twice before making a print. Film speed was more or less limited to 27 DIN/400 ASA (anybody still knows ASA and DIN?). Everything above this was called push developing - and not very much appreciated by our teachers. We where mixing our own chemistry and spent whole days in the darkroom (which was especially nice in winter, when you didn‘t see any daylight during darkroom days). 


Bretagne. Early Morning. 
   
   We had our photographic “heroes“, Ansel Adams for those in landscape photography, Avedon for fashion, Mappelthorp and Herb Ritts where at the beginning of their careers,  Oliviero Toscani started his. controversial and much discussed advertising campaign for Benetton. Although photography was not seen by many people as “art“ (there was only one photo gallery in Vienna at this time) many of us where thinking about photography as art. And it was the high time of photojournalism too. After all pictures changed the public opinion on the Vietnam war (which let to the „embedded“ journalists in the Iraq war of 1991). There where magazines like Life and National Geography, like GEO and Stern each of us wanted to work for. Being invited to become a member of MAGNUM was the Holy Grail...

From my "Avalon" Portfolio

   At the beginning of my „career“ as an artist I did a lot of landscape photography which was quite a back braking undertaking. When I working on my „Avalon“ portfolio I was carrying about 25 kg of equipment for three weeks through the Highlands of Scotland. One needed at least a medium format camera (I for sure couldn‘t afford a 8x10 inch view camera at this time), a heavy tripod, a box full of filters (all shades of yellow to dark red, as Ansel Adams was teaching us). After that you spent hours, days, weeks in the darkroom, breathing in the healthy fumes, fighting with gradation, dotting and burning. And yes, I enjoyed this time. Very much so.

Just the basics. Add filters, heavy tripod, light meter...

   Then some curious thing called „digital photography“ emerged. I was trying to ignore it, avoid it. But at some moment one of my clients wanted to have the pictures not only as slides or prints but also as digital files. I survived thanks to scanning the negatives and saving them on a Photo CD. But when they needed the pictures from a conference in Vienna within two hours after the event took place at their headquarter in Brussels, well, that was the point in time when I had to do the step into the world of digital photography.

Lanzarote. A "hyprid" so to say. Negative scanned, printed on inkjet printer...

If you buy a piano you own a piano. If you by a camera you are photographer... 
Was it worth? Well, it is photography too. I am not missing this endless hours in the darkroom. With digital photography you have at the end much more possibilities (or, at least, can achieve the results much easier and faster). Yes, it was worth it. Even if it is nowadays much more complicated to be recognised as a „real“ photographer. 

Picts, or it doesn‘t happen
Digital photography has „democratized“ photography (and more or less destroyed the professional photographers business). Everybody (who owns a cellphone) is making pictures today. Every day in 2014 an average of 1.8 billion photos were uploaded to the internet, a total of 657 billions. Every two minutes humans take more photos than ever existed in the total 150 years ago (and that are only this which are uploaded, pictures which a on some SD-cards or other hard disc are not included). 

The only problem I can see with this flood of pictures: The important ones, the really good ones, these which matter, are not so easy to find. And a lot of pictures are lost because its so easy to delete them. In the times before digital photography no (serious) photographer ever destroyed his negatives or slides. Nowadays you just push the right button to get rid of them if you think the are not worth keeping. In this connection I very much like the story of Dirk Halstead who did a photo which became a cover of Time magazine and won him many awards (not because of the quality but because of the uniqueness): During Bill Clinton‘s 1996 presidential campaign, Halstead was at an fundraiser event a few days before the election, shooting photos right up until the end. Several months after the fundraiser, the news broke that Clinton had had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Searching his archive he came up with this particular photo which ended on the Time cover. He was shooting with a 35mm film SLR. His colleagues where shooting on digital - and deleted near identical images from their memory cards right after the event. 



My advice (maybe a little bit „old-school“): Never delete a picture. You never know if you might not need it some times in the future...

For me it was a long journey from the beginning of my photographic life until now. A journey which I enjoyed more often than not. A journey which is for sure not over yet...

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