The world I was born into was analogue. That meant film: in my case, mostly Kodak Tri-X, or Ilford FP4. Tri-X for when you wanted to “push” the film speed, where the light was low, or where you wanted a contrasty, journalistic effect or – I shall come back to this in a moment – to go for something even more granular, pencil-like, ‘artistic.’ Ilford for when you wanted something subtler, more fine-grained, and richer.
Analogue generally meant black and white, at least for those of us who wanted to develop our own film and print our own photographs. Hardly anyone worked at home in colour. Black-and-white meant having a darkroom, or in my case, a bedroom taped over with black velvet and blinds. It meant chemicals and water, bathing trays and tongs, your fingers physically touching and rubbing the paper or burning and dodging with a home made tool.
When my eldest daughter was born, I went to the hospital with my Nikon FM and exposed a spool of film, one frame after another, right through labour and the very moment that Kathy slipped out on the end of her knotted and veined and muscular lifeline. I went home afterwards and developed the film, and printed the instant of birth – my child, a living creature, her feet towards the lens, face blurred and yelling in the distance, the umbilical cord trailing into the corner of the image – and rushed back to show her mother. Later, I took a photograph of Kathy lying wrapped in a towel, her face inclined slightly towards the camera. I knew what effect I wanted – I loaded the Nikon with Tri-X, pushed the film speed, put the film into a fast developer – and emerged with a high key, grainy, sketch-like image of my daughter and firstborn, an image whose memory enchants, delights, and fills me with tenderness still.
Having Kathy, of course, meant giving up the darkroom and turning it back into the bedroom it had always been. The photographs that followed, over the years of her childhood and the childhood of Jonathan and Eve, were almost all in colour, 6 x 4 or 5 x 7, processed in a lab, stuck into one of those photographic binders or albums, or left to yellow slowly in their envelopes. Photography still interested me, but I was busy. I kept the enlarger lens, but got rid of the enlarger and the developing trays. I took ‘happy snaps,’ family snaps, travel snaps, and made the occasional foray, usually unsuccessful, into image making that aspired to be but seldom was more creative. Or, if not creative, at least technically more proficient. And I continued to look, with admiration and envy, and something akin to love, at the deep, sensual, forbidden blacks and subtle tonal gradations of the silver gelatine prints made by the masters.
And yet, much as I love analogue, digital has liberated me. While I might miss, in some abstract sense, the physical, tactile, almost magical experience of analogue photography – from the moment of snapping the image through to the final print – it’s simply not practical or realistic any longer to dedicate all that time and all that physical space and all the infrastructure – tanks, trays, bottles of chemicals, running water – to making images. Digital means I can process and print both black-and-white and colour, at home on my computer, while the latest cameras and sensors can handle a much wider dynamic range and far more challenging lighting conditions than the old analogue equipment ever could.
Of course working within the constraints of analogue was part of the creative challenge, and I am glad to see that – like vinyl – it is enjoying something of a resurgence. But there is so much more you can do today with modern equipment, and so much more you can do – without the hassle and unpredictability of chemicals and a darkroom – in Lightroom and Photoshop, that I can’t say I have any unfulfilled longing to go back to the old days.
I do find though that the modern tools and equipment bring with them a different kind of challenge: the risk that tools and technique trump vision and imagination. You see it, again and again, in the over-sharpened images and garish colours that flood social media – the pumped-up world of selfies and self promotion, the temptation to glamourise rather than observe, the obsession with a glossy and soulless technical ‘perfection,’ leading to a visual and aesthetic wasteland.
Finally, printing an image, which not many of us do any more, remains for me an important form of expression. Paper – the size, weight, luminosity, surface texture and tonal qualities of it – bears powerfully on the image and expresses it differently. I print in colour, but I still love black and white photography, and enjoy making black and white images and prints, on a dedicated Epson photo printer, mostly in larger sizes – A3, 11 x 14, or even 13 x 19 on occasion. I find the Hahnemuhle Silk Baryta captures a good deal of the tonal depth and nuance you would expect from the old processes and seems to work especially well for me, though I use other papers also.
Here, to round off this digression, are two images from my recent field trip to the Marievale Bird Sanctuary: a yellow-billed duck, and a Hottentot teal. The duck is just a portrait, though nicely lit, but I do rather like the almost painterly qualities of the teal image.
See? You can do it in digital.
Nikon D500 and 200-500mm lens. Processed in Lightroom and in ColorEfex 4.