Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wot's The Point?

Hi friends - you know last time I wrote a FB, I said I wouldn't go on as much and make things as brief as possible? Well, it hasn't happened . . . SORRY!

I recently found myself becoming a bit depressed about something photographic, and not being sure what it was and then putting brain to visual memory over the Summer, I came  to a conclusion.
It isn't pleasant reading for those of you who, like myself, tries to hold your head above the relentlessness of the digital tide. Yes I know I am involved in the digital tide simply by the nature of blogging, but short of running a full-blown Victorian cast-iron press and publishing a monthly Gentleman's Periodical [actually, that's a great idea] the quickest and easiest way I can get the things in my head out to the world at large is by using something useful like Blogger . . . digitalism isn't all bad.
My worries however are being cemented by something which ultimately will affect the way we see art, the permanence of image and the sheer physical beauty of the print, and it isn't pleasant at all, because almost overnight (well, OK then . . . over a couple of years) people like us, my friends of glass and silver, have been rendered virtually meaningless.
This is a big statement and I don't feel comfortable saying it, but I sort of reckon it is the truth.
If you are of a nervous disposition I would hide behind the settee now, because it is a biggie.
The Photograph is dead. Long Live The Photograph!
The death of our beloved friend has gone entirely unnoticed, however it has happened.
What? you are no doubt asking yourself. He's finally gone and done it. Nee-naw, nee-naw, nee-naw, get the straight jacket, get the tazer, and bring that paperwork.
But it is true.
It is so endemic, so spread in such a scatter-gun way, that even the concerned tinkerer with his DSLR and the weekend warrior with his strived-for compact are gone, swept away as meaningless and outdated. The DSLR is as stoneage a modern artefact to the act of image making as a folding 6x9 Voigtlander from the 1930's. All visual creation has been rendered virtually meaningless.
Don't believe me? Just use your eyes.
Go to any City Centre of a weekend (or any day of the week for that matter) and you'll see the digital usurper. You've probably got one beside you now. You might even be caressing it. Possibly you're not even speaking to your wife (what the hell are you thinking about?) because you're staring at it now. Your gadget has crept into your life and everything is different.
Good, you know where I am going, because I have managed to instill a bit of guilt about the fact that you spend way too much time on the thing.
My wife and I were recently luncheoning at The Central Bar in St Andrews (you do get a lovely pint there) and an American couple came in. Now obviously travelling from the States to the UK isn't cheap. Holidaying in Britain isn't by any stretch of the imagination cheap, so you would think they would want to make the most of it. But no. He checked some images on his DSLR, they placed their order with the bar-girl and then they both proceeded to spend pretty much the rest of their time staring at their phones and checking things out. Even when the meal was served they still continued in this rudeness . . and it is rudeness, and blind pig-ignorance.
(Sorry for ranting, but you know, my parents raised me in the manner that 'manners maketh the man' and I have to agree with them. What is so important about your little digital life that you can't put it aside for a while and concentrate on the one thing that is important in life - living!)
The food in the Central is excellent by the way, and you know what? they stabbed and shovelled and I don't even think they tasted a morsel of it - their minds were elsewhere.
This sort of abberent, downright rude behaviour has (based on my observations) been going on for at least 7-odd years (since the release of the first iPhone) but it is the relevance to now that makes it interesting - you see it (and I am not just pigeonholing iPhones here, it is every smartphone, tablet, whatever) isn't just an all-in-one comms device/entertainment centre and digital totem, it is a highly portable film maker and above all else a camera, and not a bad one in digital terms. But you'll know that already of course. It has become a metaphorical comfy pair of shoes that you wear everywhere. It is become as ingrained in society as breathing . . infact, it has  probably become more important than anything.
Imagine holding the whole world in your palm. Quite incredible really. But it is all transitory, rather like this Blog. We are at the behest of satellites and servers; of big corporations and prying eyes. We are living our lives based on sequences of 1's and 0's. I say 'we' but only with regard to the fact that I am using Blogger to communicate with you - I don't have a smartphone. I own a £5 Alcatel mobile for emergencies and that is it. It is used for vocal communication and Orange Wednesdays, nothing else.
So where is this rant getting me?
Well, if like me, you are a concerned photographer, you notice cameras! You do don't you?
I can spot a Leica a mile off (and why are they always carried by young Japanese women??) - anyway, I've spotted 3 of those in the last five years. I have seen about 4 standard film SLR's in the last four years. I saw an Olympus Trip in Jedburgh a couple of years back and apart from my cameras, that's about it. Come to think of it, when was the last time you saw someone with a camera? Seriously. A real film camera. Thought so. They're as rare as rocking horse droppings.
I have seen a semi-large-ish number of preposterously big DLSRs - cameras that are as discreet as a bull in your bathroom, and I've seen a tiny number of digi-compacts, mostly used by people over 70. So, given that the visual image is more prevalent today than it has ever been, what is going on?
Well the answer's obvious really.  
Everyone uses a phone to take their snaps. In the words of the most highly annoying advertising device ever invented . . Simples!
The compact camera, the cash-cow of the camera manufacturers who forced us all into this digital hell is as dead and as anachronistic as a quill and ink. That's quite a statement but it is true.
If I were Nikon or Canon I would be deadly worried, because I can see no cameras (apart from yer mucho-expensive, 'professional' ones) being left in a few years. Corporations - you drove us here. You lost the keys to your vehicle and some young whipper-snapper has picked them up and driven off with it! Never in the history of technology has such an own-goal been kicked. Seriously.
And what happens to snaps and photographs now?
Well, rather than being physical prints, lovingly sorted and passed around as objects which become imbued with the patina of time and the oil of fingerprints from long-dead relations, they're quick digital fixes, glanced at, laughed at, maybe revisited a couple of times and ultimately discarded to while away the rest of their lives on a server somewhere, occasionally being rifled by an unknown intruder.
When Facebook or Twitter or Flickr or whoever/whatever start charging for their services and storage, what will happen then? People won't pay. So A MASSIVE CHUNK of human experience (that would at one time have been captured for semi-posterity on bits of sensitized paper) will be deleted from those servers like so many 1's and 0's.
Memories lost. Laughter, tears, truth, hope, strangeness, normality . . all gone like these words too. Consigned to vanishment in the ether like they never were.
And all you people who are looking smugly at the screen thinking 'Aha, Sheephouse, you're wrong . . I'm all backed up on 5 hard-drives' . . don't rest on it. You're digital so you are ultimately vulnerable. Software changes, new standardification of images (are there really going to be JPG's or RAW files in 100 years time?), HDD brown-outs, even EMP's [you never know] . . . 
We'll be back to how it was before the 1850's. What did they look like? How did they dress? What was the life of the normal man like?
And the print? Snaps? There'll be these little seams of people like me (and maybe you) who have made an effort to keep the physical aspect of image making alive - that might be a point of reference.
But will they last Sheephouse?, I hear you cry.
Well let's put it this way - I have many photographs in my house, some approaching 120 to 130-odd years old . . They aren't archivally stored. There's no Bank of Sheephouse holding them in vaults or white-gloved curators whispering in their presence, but they're fine . .
They're not just mine, but from Aunts and relations and even a collection of Victorian Stereoscopic photographs which are a treat, and though languishing in shoe boxes or bags, they'll still be there, until someone at some point in the future decides that they can't deal with so much stuff anymore and ditches them, though maybe keeping one or two as keepsakes. And maybe those keepsakes will go on and someone, somewhere down the line will say. 'Gosh. So that's what he looked like?'
You see - that is the beauty of a physical photograph.

I have a small envelope of prints right next to me. Old and black and white and 1970's colour and they're beautiful. I also have a bag of old slides - all 1960's & 1970's Kodaks - Kodachrome and Ektachrome and they too are beautiful. And that's the point - they exist
I recently read some American commentator saying that he'd interviewed some girl working in a coffee bar in San Francisco, and when he asked her why she made prints and held a disdain for digital photography, she simply replied "Because digital isn't really there."
This stuck with me, and is probably why I am writing this now.
It's human to want to make things.
I make prints. They live and breath, and sometimes I'll take them out and look at them, and sometimes I'll even look at them with pride and say 'That's a good print.'
But at the end of the day they are things I have made in my own little way.
Same with yer family snap - it was/is memory made real.
Do you remember?
Photography used to be an occasion.

'Wait there son, now smile . . .'

'Dad, DAD!! Can I take it. Pllllleaze DAD, pleeeeeeaze!'.

Then the roll was finished and popped in to the Chemists or carefully sealed in those lovely old yellow pre-paid envelopes, and then the heady wait for them to be processed and returned.
It was exciting.
And even though the end results weren't anything to shout about . . some of them were. And those that were were generally saved and maybe placed in an album with love, and then taken out every now and again to remind anyone that wasn't there just what a good time you'd had.
Same with slide shows.
God they could be dull, but God weren't they great!
The endless hours spent loading a Kodak Carousel only to discover the slides were all the wrong way round. The careful movement of the slide/delivery thingy. The drinks and nibbles and laughs.
Your Dad at the helm like A Mad Captain of Vision!
The dust from your living room filtering across the bars of coloured light from the projector. The smell of a hot projector bulb . . . just wonderful. But not now:
A phone passed around if you're lucky.
Check out my wall!
Check my Flickr!
Check my Instagram!
Yr Invited!
Brief, cold and soulless.
A disinterested world.
Constant visual stimulation; images everywhere; the amusing and profane and profound; commonplace as grains of sand. 
Candyfloss and smiles, gross inhumanity and pain. 
So what. Where do you go when there is nowhere else to go?
Photography, image capture, whatever - it pervades our lives in an endless parade.
Everyone is a photographer these days, but no one is making photographs
Very little is made physical - I would hazard a guess at about 90% of it 'existing' in the digital domain.
Have I made you sad? Have I made you realise how important it is to keep on raging against the dying light? I bloody hope so, because as I re-read this I am realising what we are in danger of losing and it is a tragedy of massive proportions.
Surely a bit OTT Sheephouse? They're only snaps.
Yes, but as documentary evidence of this slowly dying culture they are invaluable.
Anyway, the doctors are coming for my soapbox now, so enuff ze nuff.

Below are two prime examples of a time when snaps were quite the thing. They were both made on Kodachrome and they are both as good as the day they were made - not bad considering the first image was made in 1966 and the second around 1968.
I'm going to shut up now and let the images do the talking.



The first is my mother-in-law as a young woman. It was made by my father-in-law on their family camera - a humble Agfa Silette and Kodachrome. I think it is the sort of image you could have seen in Vogue of the same era - she is beautiful and the image is beautiful too . . well I think so.

The second is a very young Sheephouse visiting Loch Lomond. I distinctly remember this photograph being made. I was happy because I had found some discarded fishing hooks. It was made on the Sheephouse family Instamatic, again on Kodachrome . . hairy cardboard mount and all. 
I find it extraordinary how, in both images, the relatively humble lens of each camera has rendered the scenes so well.

And now some prints from a different time when effort was required to photograph things.
These are stereoscopic photographs, rather like those old ViewMaster machines from the 1960's and 70's. It was a popular pastime at the end of the 19th Century.
There's a nice write-up about stereo cameras and prints here
The first is an example of the genre courtesy of the wonderful Underwood & Underwood circa 1890.

Wonderful don't you think, to have the whole world rendered in 3-dimensions in your drawing room!
And just to further my point about the permanence of physical objects - the following four were made by a 'proper' amateur photographer around the start of the 20th Century. Personally, I think they are superb.

And that folks it what it is all about. 
These were given to me by the poet Raymond Frederick Seaford when I was quite young. I loved them then and I love them now. I suppose in a way I have been appointed an unwitting guardian of the life and memories of someone from Middlesex long dead.
They are stored in an old shoe box and when I feel like some stereoscopy, I will bring them out and look at them with care and wonder. 
Not bad for objects created over 100 years ago.
And that I suppose is the point. If no one makes physical prints and the whole digital world goes belly-up (interesting article here) then what is left of everything? 
Who knows what the world was like, or how people lived . . we return to a world as incomprehensible to us as medieaval times. It's a thought isn't it.
Fascinating stuff Captain, as a certain crew member used to say. 
Anyway, now a word from our sponsors:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


  1. Another great post, Phil. You've got to keep writing this stuff. You've got something worth saying and you say it really well. Don't worry if readers wont take the time to leave a comment. It's a diary of your thoughts and photographs and Omar and I love it! Next time you can't be bothered posting, just think of me and Omar.

    You're right about digital devices taking over - sometimes I wish I'd never bought an ipad. I can't get anything done. It's like having your favourite magazine in your hand, the content of which changes at least daily. Today's children don't know that they're making up the lost generation. We're all so scared of being labelled paedophiles that we wont turn our cameras in the direction of any kids but our own. Consequently, there's been little documentation of youngsters doing the things they do. Certainly not in the way your mentor Mr McKenzie captured it.

    Enjoyed your 3D pics, too. Am I alone in being able to adjust my eyes so I can see the 3D effect without a viewer? Surely not. The pic of of the three peope and the horse really pops out. Sorry about the long comment - I get carried away sometimes. :)

  2. Cheers Bruce - I had fun doing this one, and I got to stand on my soapbox too!
    Back in the 80's when the first polyphonic synthesizers came along, there used to be this phrase: Option Anxiety.
    it's as true today as it was then - you have so many options on everything electronic that you worry about whether you are getting any work done and whether you are using the correct options to get that work done! Mad isn't it.
    And yeahm it;s amazing that for all the images around us, there's not a whole lot of photography going on.
    3D - that technique you have is really similar to what you had to use on 'Magic Eye' books back in the 1990's.
    Thanks again.

  3. Incidentally, I wrote a post in a similar vein a few months back:

    It's about a picture of my grandfather, writing a letter from the front in WW2. When he passed away, his negatives from the war were passed on to me. 75 years later, I can still make a print from those negs...I always wonder whether any of todays iphone snaps will survive that many years.

    Personally, I think we have the best of both worlds today. For me, film is the preferred medium for work that matters, whereas digital is solely utilitarian, i.e. it serves a specific (albeit monotone) function...e.g.a photo of a road sign, menu, newspaper article and yes, darkroom pics for my blog.

    One thing that bothers me wrt archivability is that prints (or slides and negs for that matter) ultimately DO fade. The 1's and 0's however, IF (and that's a very big if) stored properly, do not fade.

    The "man eater of Calcutta" photo is great. And a good example of how a caption changes the meaning of a photograph...those eyes suddenly take on a rather sinister look.

    Probably ten years ago I went to a huge Lartigue (one of my favourites) exhibiton in the Hayward Gallery in London. There were quite a few fascinating stereo installations...your stereo images here brought back fond memories from that wonderful exhibition.

    So, thanks Phil for this good read. Very enjoyable.

    All the best,

  4. Hi Omar - thank you very much indeed for the comments . . my Turkish isn;'t so good, however I did get the gist and that is a mighty fine photograph of your Grandfather!
    As for photographs fading, well yes, however outside direct light they are remarkably robust if they have been processed well. My maneater photograph was produced circa 1903 by a photographer called James Ricalton . . the British Library actually details the whole sequence here:

    I think I might scan all the stereos I have and get them up here as they are really rather fascinating.

    With regard to digital, yes it is utilitarian, however archival? No. There is a reason why at the end of the Cold War, Russian Forces were still using vacuum tubes for key military hardwear rather than digital circuitry . . EMPs. Whether it be the Sun or a Bomb the whole world could fall apart in a second.
    I also have no trust of digital standards - they can and do change . . that's why the film industry archive digital images using a 3-colour process on black and white film stock! Rather similar to the methods discovered by the wonderful Scots inventor James Clerk Maxwell.
    I wonder if my father-in-law knew that in taking that Kodachrome, he was using a process based upon something discovered by his hero:

    Happy days.
    Thanks again Omar.

  5. Interesting about EMPs, Phil. Would they not only affect digital storage if it had power going through it? I thought stuff that was switched off would be OK in the event if a massive solar flare, for instance. Maybe not. In the event of a nuclear exchange then I suppose the archival qualities of the human race would be more important than old photographs!

  6. Hi Bruce - I have heard differing arguments over the years, and me being me, I'll err on the side of the worst happening.
    Interesting article here:

    At least with a photograph you can sit and look at it and remember what a happy life you had as your last candle gutters out and darkness stalks the world.


    Yet another man-eater caught, this time only three on his/her conscience.

    I can symphatize with the animal, with millions of homo sapiens encroaching on its habitat.

  8. Thanks Omar - yes it is terrible how we can't share a planet with other creatures - there's just too many people and not enough space. I don't really feel the future is particularly rosy for mankind . .I think nature is just going to put some sort of full-stop on us, and it isn't too far away.