Film-Based Black and White Vs Color Digital Photography

The last ten years in photography have seen a remarkable transformation. In 2000/2001 I was just beginning to be exposed to digital cameras. I had done some experiments around 1998 with a Nikon/Kodak D1 which cost $5,000 and was, if I remember correctly, just a 1 mp camera! Now our $30-40 telephones have cameras with at least a 4 megapixel rating!I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised as I witnessed in the mid 90s how the graphic design world made an even faster transition from traditional (i.e. non-digital) methods to digital in a matter of a couple years for most designers. As a long-time practitioner of film-based photography and having used the early digital cameras and seen that the price/quality relationship was ridiculous I guess I tended to discount the threat that digital might offer-until, not so long ago now when I first heard that digital cameras had outsold film cameras one year. At that point I understood what was happening. I think it was only a couple years later that Nikon and Canon reduced their production of film cameras to just two or three models each after having had at least a dozen not so long before.I’ve actually been a bit surprised that there hasn’t been more of the type of film or digital arguments that one heard about Mac of PC computers in the 90s but I guess the transition was so swift and there were so few people that recognized a glaring difference in quality between film and digital that the debate barely got started and it seemed to be over already. And as the vast majority of people using cameras aren’t professionals and so could live with being limited to smaller prints so long as the use of the camera was cheaper than working with a film camera with its film development and print charges just to see what the images looked like. It was hard to argue with the financial argument that digital was cheaper-at least for taking pictures (not necessarily for printing them).As for the art photography world, the change was equally fast. When I was in graduate school in the early 90s photo students at Tyler School of Art were working almost equally in (traditional) color and black and white though probably more in black and white. But at that point, as I remember it, the galleries and museums showing photography were overwhelmingly still showing almost exclusively black and white imagery and of course very little digital color images yet although some film-based color work.Jump forward to 2012 and it seems that most of the last ten years have been devoid of much new black and white work in galleries. Although not the only reason, this transition undoubtedly owes a lot to the improvement and greater affordability of digital cameras and of digital printers.And while Epson certainly did lead the way in addressing the long-standing problem of color fading in traditional color photography, it seems that in some ways the change was due to a desire of many to see something new and different-be damned any technical obstacles (like color fading)! Of course, it should be mentioned that while digital certainly was an important component in the growth of color photography in art galleries and museums, some of the most successful practitioners were actually still shooting color film-but instead of making traditional prints they were scanning their images and making digital prints.Color photography in the art world is definitely here to stay but having recently exhibited a large collection of black and white and even older techniques in photography and having been able to talk with many visitors to the exhibit, I can see that there is still a real desire to see black and white as well as analog images. As beautiful as prints can now be coming off a high quality printer like an Epson, there does still seem to be a subtle difference between a film based image and a digital one. I don’t say that one is inherently better than the other but I’m wondering if maybe we aren’t tipping back away from the ultra precision imagery that has saturated the art photo world for these past ten years.Ultimately, I think it’s best if we can maintain a wide scope of different approaches to photography. We need all the variety of techniques and looks that we can get to enable as broad a range of photo work as possible. One of my regrets about the growth of digital photography is precisely that so much of it looks the same. This may well be a consequence of more people with less experience in photography who now have easier access to showing their work on websites and convincing curators and such to show their work but it’s still a very regrettable condition for the photo world to fall into.

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