William Henry Fox Talbot was one of the pioneers of photography, capturing the first images to light sensitive paper, as a way of recording what he was unable to draw or otherwise record. This image — his Oriel Window — is the oldest surviving artifact of the negative to positive film process, dating back to 1835.
Revisiting this post:
To Print or Not to Print?:
An anonymous commenter on an earlier post remarked that he never prints his digital images, preferring instead to use the Web as the exclusive destination for his work. He wondered how many others do the same. I wonder, too.
Personally, I consider a print the final destination for a good image. It’s the only form that presents a long-lasting and accurate representation of the photographer’s intentions. But how many peoples’ vacation photos, for instance, still end up as prints? The rapid and pervasive acceptance of camera phones, online sharing, and “publishing” to a CD or DVD has undoubtedly increased the percentage of digital images that are never printed.
I don’t know hard statistics of the number of digital photos that ultimately meet paper versus those that never incarnate to the physical world. But I do recall reading an extensive paper prepared by Kodak several years ago that highlighted the lack of basic, accessible snapshot printing facilities for digital photographers. The premise of the paper was that lack of simple printing services for digital photographs (akin to what people used to pick up at the drugstore) represented a significant barrier to broader consumer acceptance of digital cameras.
This addresses some of the points I was poking at earlier: amateur photographers want the same thing as professionals — the physical encapsulation of memory, of the visual history of some event — but for different reasons and with differing expectations.
Consider the photographs here, part of the collective memory of the United States. A friend of mine works on these as a historian, documenting the history and writing up the descriptive prose that people refer to about a given structure or place. These photographs are not snapshots, not digital, not even color. The methods are defined as a documentary process, in large format (4×5 or larger) monochrome. For the Park Service they are the equivalent of the pictures taken by Joe and Betty Tourist as they drive through Yosemite: the technique and quality involved in each is no more and no less than what each expects or requires.
As for Joe and Betty’s pictures, they may never be printed: they may be edited in the camera, then transferred to the home computer, emailed around to friends and family, then preserved for trips down digital memory lane. In this case, I would say the “final destination” of an image, to use the phrase cited above, is the eye. Isn’t the express purpose of taking a picture of some place to share it, to say, “hey, look at this?”
It’s easier to do that now than it’s ever been. That’s not a bad thing, just different.
On the other end of the spectrum, those bulky black and white negatives will be scanned, cataloged, and archived for future generations to use. Perhaps they are no more likely to be printed than vacation snapshots. But the detail they contain — 4000 lines per inch worth — is unattainable any other way.
So to return to my earlier point. Photography is not going away or becoming less important, though photographers may feel that way. There will always be room for craftsmen to capture the reflections of light from an object and fix them to paper or a screen. Where photographers have made a clear case for their value — weddings, architectural shots, documentary work — there will be opportunity. Film may be of lesser value to many, though for some purposes it is unsurpassed. Where people used to be frustrated by the physical limitations of film — running out of it, the attendant expense, storing the prints and negatives — digital does away with a lot of that. For many, it’s worth the tradeoff, since the difference in quality is not noticeable.