Before I get too many people adding prejudiced comments about the pros and cons of digital imaging verses film, I want to emphasize that I am not putting digital down. Nor am I trying to make a point for film. I am a digital photographer as well as a film photographer. This is not a pro or con discussion about film vs. digital.
Rather, I am asking if there is a difference between the kinds of images that used to be taken with film in comparison to what we are seeing with digital from a spiritual point of view. I am not alone in asking the question.
In looking at the offerings of new technology photography, I am finding very few images that have a specific quality that dominates the works of the great film photographers of film technology. Most of what I see today seems sterile, vapid and trite, by comparison. There seems to be something significant that is missing.
Somehow there is a difference that many of my contemporaries as well as myself feel is missing from the current process. I want to find out what that something is.
When we look at the works of great photographers such as Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, Ansel Adams, Atget or any of hundreds of photographers who have given us amazing images produced with film, there seems to be a magical or mystical presence that is missing from most of what I would call rather trite and unimaginative images being produced by digital means today.
When a photographer really connects with his subject, there is a transformation beyond the obvious, beyond the likeness of the subject. There is a sense of something else, which is somehow conveyed in a surprising or magical manner. A metamorphosis takes place that we as a viewer can see, feel and understand because the subject has been transformed into something bigger and more profound. The subject becomes a metaphor or symbol for deeper consideration. For me this is a necessary step in the creation or capture of a powerful image. It is photography at its finest. There is much more to the image than appearance. A deeper message is formed. Communication and learning takes place. We become bigger and smarter because the image speaks to us in a deeply articulate way.
Yet, I find this quality scarce in the digital images that I have seen of late.
Is this because there is an - difference between the two technologies, which allows the magic to be captured more easily with one medium over the other? Here again, I am not discussing the differences in technique as much as I am in the ability of the photographer to capture the essence of the subject through either process.
Surely, digital allows a more economical workflow in terms of time and effort. But is there a difference in how a moment is captured. Does film allow the capture to be more transcendent? Is there a higher possible spiritual attainment with a film camera than with a digital camera? Does one technology provide a better capability to transport us to a higher level of understanding beyond the mere representation of a subject?
Personally, I believe that there is a major difference and worth an investigation. For many photographers, film seems more genuine as a medium because to them, it has the ability in the right hands to capture something we could refer to as soul. To me, soul is an essential part of a higher form of image making. It makes the difference between a simple rendition of a subject and one that rises beyond the subject. To capture soul means capturing something deeper and much more meaningful.
It may be possible that with digital, we have not yet made the leap to a spiritual connection with our subjects. If so, could it be because we are still in the early phases of digital imaging and that "thing" will become more evident to us as we become better digital photographers? Is the task of digital imaging too easy or possibly too difficult or distracting that we fail to connect with the subject? Do we pay more attention to the camera and the technology of digital rather than the subject itself? Is it possible that we are better able to become “one” with our subjects with a less complicated medium such as film?
I believe that it is a combination of these and perhaps other circumstances that results in a failure to touch the soul of the subject. And I should say here that film alone does not produce the magic. But, there may be a valid reason that the magic is more prevalent with film.
Personally I think that it is a matter of connecting with your subject in a meditative manner. Awareness and anticipation as well as having genuine concern for the subject matter allows for a better opportunity of becoming one with your subject. I believe that this can happen with either media. It just seems to be less prevalent and more difficult to achieve with digital.
I sense a difference.
© John Neel
Is any of this important to you? If not, why not?
How do we get soul into an image? This will be a topic for another post.