Dobermans for speed and style, or Chihuahuas for kitsch. You spend hours training your puppy, coaxing and finessing and manipulating him, teaching him his name and “sit” and “shak e” and “don’t sniff butts,” until you achieve a finished product you can be proud to walk down the street.
Now, imagine an emerging yet inevitable trend toward purchasing well-heeled, housebroken dogs, or better yet, dogs that don’t poo or shed at all and even walk themselves. No messy training, no guesswork, just a perfectly functional dog for immediate use. Of course, it takes all the fun out of bumbling puppyhood, but it’s worth the satisfaction of knowing your dog has turned out just like you wanted.
Beginning this semester, SAIC’s photography department is officially implementing its prototype introductory class as an intro to digital photography. While students will still receive instruction in traditional camera use—shutter speeds, lenses, f-stops, etc.—they will now scan their negatives into a computer, rather than “seeing a black and white image appear ‘magically’ in a tray of toxic chemistry,” as department chair Barbara DeGenevieve describes it.
This change is a result of the department’s need to keep current with rapid advances in technology. “I hate to say it, but wet photography will soon become obsolete,” says DeGenevieve. “Photographic materials, particularly black and white, are being phased out, and estimates are that within the next five to seven years, black and white papers and films will no longer be made.”
The benefits of digital photography for beginning students are manifold. They can now bypass the time-consuming, stinky-chemical darkroom aspect and instead concentrate on learning about composition, contrast, and exposure. “It’s actually easier to consistently make good prints with digital output than it is with either black and white or color darkroom printing,” explains DeGenevieve. “There is infinitely more control with a computer … This is a conceptually oriented, trans-disciplinary school and its students live in a digital, high-tech world. Nostalgia for a past in which the chemistry of photography was a health risk seems a bit regressive.”
However, this nostalgia has many adherents. There are those who feel the process as well as the end result of wet photography cannot be replaced by computers. Dan Carp, former chief executive of the Eastman Kodak Company, told the BBC in 2002, “Unlike some innovations, such as the CD replacing the LP, digital does not jump over the benefits of film far enough to create the kind of transformation that CDs did to records.” (Kodak ceased production of 35mm cameras in 2004.)
Purists argue that digitally altered photos are gimmicky, “unreal,” that what takes hours to achieve in a lab is necessarily of higher value than what a seventh grader could whip out in Photoshop in 30 minutes. As one member put it on the Analog Photography Users Group (apug.org ), “Even if I thought digital made a better picture, I wouldn’t switch. There’s no skill or satisfaction in getting a computer to do everything for you.”
Even the venerable National Geographic, which has long been a holy grail for young photographers, admits in its online FAQ that “nearly all” of its photographers still use 35mm transparency film. “Digital allows you to forget—or never learn—the fundamental techniques of photography,” writes National Geographic photojournalist Farah Nosh. “Don’t let that happen.”
In any case, SAIC will continue to offer black and white classes for students interested in darkroom work. “What really makes this such a good school is our ability to make great work out of whatever tools we use,” says DeGenevieve. “The print is nothing without the idea. If you have an uninteresting idea … it doesn’t matter if it’s printed in a darkroom or on the best photographic paper … it’s still a boring image.
“The class is about … outputting ideas. Sometimes the image will need to be on paper to be hung on the wall, but other times the concept might be better articulated if the image is taken from a cell phone, or it’s projected, or it remains on the computer, or it’s on a CD that you distribute to people for a more intimate experience. There are so many more options that are now possible along with the traditional, beautifully printed black and white or color image.”