The Two Ends, and the Means


Especially those who have practiced photography with film and then later with digital cameras are usually more keenly aware of the inherent duality between them, in the very nature of the practice. It was just so terribly easy to make mistakes with film, moreso in the days when cameras did not have light meters built in them. With newer cameras, one does not have to think about making calculations or guesses. And if there is a doubt, just release the shutter a few more times. The problems are more social in nature, or so it would seem, to the uninitiated. I could swear to the fact that it takes a millennial at least twice as long to make a family group photo with a cellphone than I ever recall doing with film and a mechanical camera. And where one or two frames would suffice, it now takes at least a dozen exposures to get it right, with the most athletic family members running back and forth a dozen times to check the image.

With film, even before the exposure, the treatment of tones was critical to think about, because most film was incapable of managing the tonal range. Within a studio, lighting could be controlled, but outdoors, the question was about how the bright and dark areas of an image would be represented. A lot depended on composition. In the days of black and white, photographers learned to see their frames as such. And when colour was new, isolating colours became the mainstay for some of the most brilliant colour photographers. All of this was done in the mind before the exposure was calculated and the photo captured. Then there were the variables and techniques associated with processing and printing. All of these needed expertise and at every step, it was easy to make mistakes and have things turn out differently from the way it was imagined.

All of this is less about the technology itself and more about discovering one’s own likes and dislikes. For instance, those working with large format will attest to how infinitely more arduous the fraught with peril the process is as compared to 120 or 35mm film, exactly as much as 35mm film photography seems difficult as compared to digital. The fact is that the quest for perfection (or imperfection) remains quite the same regardless of the technology or the times. Despite the obvious ease that digital cameras and editing brings with it, getting perfection can often be complex. Some might even attest that it is easier with large format film. Perfection has always been the holy grail for many. Perfect definition, colour, tone, range… Perfectly replicable. Just as seen by the inner eye.

To me, perfection is different from a 15-stop dynamic range for the most subtle tonality, or 100-million pixel sensors that render details like a razor’s edge. Technology can prove to be a brilliant means to an end, but not the end in itself. Getting perfect renditions is still just as much, as ever before, about knowing when to limit tones and when details need to be soft and edges blurred, and about knowing how to transfer the image from the mind’s eye to a tangible form, on to a print or a monitor. For many of the legendary photographers, this knowledge became their process and then their style of seeing or rendering their world. Think of the framing and layers within the photography of Raghubir Singh or Raghu Rai, or the tones and poetry of W Eugene Smith or Saul Leiter, or the compositions and timing of Atget or Bresson. The fact that they worked with black and white or colour, or with one or the other subjects is very incidental to where they were and their times. They would be great photographers regardless of that, or the medium or technology. For them, photography is equally a quest for expression.

But the message is inherently a part of the medium too. With advances in technology came lower costs, and consequently a more forgiving attitude, and even an appreciation of imperfection. Replicating these errors became important. In some instances, the ease and frequency with which some of the mistakes occurred became forms and styles of their very own. Indeed, with many popular editing apps and software, these mistakes were built in and called filters. There was a point when it became fashionable to make mistakes. Everybody began using these filters. And when it got all too common, they went out of fashion almost just as quickly. Perfection, rarely, if ever, is fashionable. On the other hand, some might even say that it is decidedly old-fashioned.

One of the most visually and intensely dramatic movies I have seen is ‘Requiem for a Dream’, directed by Darren Aronofsky, from the book by Hubert Selby Jr. A quote from an interview with Hurbert Selby Jr stayed with me, particularly because of his struggles with his own poor health and efforts to write, but also because it reflects the state of most artists. “Being an artist doesn’t take much. Just everything you got. Which means of course that as the process is giving you life, it is also bringing you closer to death. But it’s no big deal. They are one and the same, and cannot be avoided or denied. So when I totally embrace this process, this life/death, and abandon myself to it completely, I transcend all this gibberish and hang out with the gods. It seems to me that that is worth the price of admission.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Better Photography.