Nancy Brokaw is an independent critic and writer living in Philadelphia. She is currently a senior lecturer at the University of the Arts, where she teaches Critical Issues in Contemporary Photography, and is a senior contributing editor of The Photo Review.The following dialogue was originally posted on her blog Image World and is posted with her kind permission. If you don’t yet know Image World, give it a visit.
Nancy Brokaw: I always ask photographers of a certain age about the switch from analog to digital. You started with analog—although you were never working straight—and have made the switch, quite elegantly, to digital. How do you experience that now? Given my interest in the march of modernity, I’m particularly curious to understand what’s lost—the price that all this technology exacts.
Frank Rodick: Digital allows for a measure of flexibility and precision that was impossible with analog. Burning and dodging in the darkroom, for example, was a crude affair compared to what you can do with Photoshop.
Of course, the traditional darkroom was more hands-on—literally. But darkroom work still involved plenty of mediating elements, factors that existed between what my hands did and the printed image. It’s just that these mediating elements were based mainly on chemistry rather than digital code. For example, anyone who’s worked in the darkroom with stuff like iron toner knows how seemingly capricious a compound like that can be, how it interacts with things like water quality, for example, and what that can mean for the resultant print.
But, to your question, what have we lost?
Speed and tempo are big issues. The darkroom forced you to move slower, to consider the images for longer. With digital, you’re tempted to bounce back and forth, make rapid changes, and you’re not forced to live with particular images for a longer period of time. You don’t have to be as patient and there’s a lot to be gained with patience, a lot you can discover.
And there is an issue with digital’s power—all that nuance and flexibility and choice. But more choice isn’t always good. The darkroom imposed limitations that made you hone in on what you were looking for, instead of futzing about looking for something perfect or better. I’ve seen students get overwhelmed and lose their way with all the choices digital gives them. It’s one of the reasons that, for example, I’ll usually make a set of choices beforehand about, say, the colour palette I’ll be using. And then try to use those hues to the max. I’m not religious about it—I’ll deviate from the original plan when I think it’s called for—but it helps me keep focused on moving towards what’s most important. I think most working artists know that limitations—self-imposed or not—can really work to your ultimate advantage.
Then there’s luck. Traditional photography was full of luck and that could be beautiful. It’s not only that luck can give you beautiful things, but also that it can bring you something that really connects to a part of you that didn’t even know was there. And then you can build on that. Our conscious minds can be, well, so unimaginative. In digital work you can become painfully deliberate. “That doesn’t look quite right; I’ll change it.” But maybe that funky weird way it looked in the first place was better—and maybe you would have realized that if you’d been forced to live with it a little longer.
And on maybe a more pedestrian note, I personally found it very exciting to work in the dark. It gave the whole enterprise a kind of mystical, adventurous feel. It didn’t hurt to have Philip Glass playing in the background either.
I do think that there are ways of re-integrating these elements back into digital photography, so it’s not like they’re necessarily lost irrevocably. But I have to be a lot more conscious of process, a lot more deliberate about that to make it happen.
Brokaw: Let me put my cards on the table. I think a lot about what I call the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon. If we’re to believe the Home section of the New York Times, every other Brooklyn household has a chicken coop out back. A restaurant just opened here in Philadelphia, in one of our hipster precincts, where diners have a full view of the butcher who preps their meat. My neighbors—professional women all—have a sewing circle, and me? I want to learn how to make cheese. That’s by the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon—all those homemade gherkins! And I’m oddly touched by this phenomenon, oddly because it’s very clearly a choice reserved for very privileged people. Still, it moves me because it seems like a pale attempt to reclaim something that we think we’ve lost, but may never have had. It suggests an alienation, but not from our labor. From our very lives.
And I can’t help but see this sense of alienation as the by-product of the hyper-connected, virtual world that pulls us into its vortex and, in turn, all that pickle-making as a yearning for the tactile. In the photography world, this response manifests in the revival of once-revolutionary techniques (daguerreotypes, tintypes, etc.)—that now look pre-modern. I do fret about what it means that we’re all tethered to these devices that stand between us and experience.
Rodick: What you’re saying makes sense. And like I said, analog photography is more hands-on, so it fits into what you’re saying. You’re literally handling your materials more, smelling them even, than when you’re working digitally.
But on the other hand I’m starting to see how my own experience might contrast with yours. Because when I work digitally I do feel that I’m still working with things that have physicality—as though I’m “painting with pixels,” although painting might not be a very good term. Moving pixels around anyway, changing their properties. I know that’s not the same stuff as oils or acrylics and that Continue Reading…