Future of Photography Q&A No.11 – Jeff Curto

Oomska’s ‘Future of Photography’ Series continues…

We presented our interviewees with a set list of questions, and left the matter of in what format and at what length they should answer entirely up to them. Here are Jeff Curto’s responses.

1. How and when did you first become interested in photography? What was the trigger which led you to take a serious interest? How different would that trigger be now, with all the changes – technological and otherwise – in photography during the intervening years?

When I was 8 years old, I caught my first real fish. Rather than the little stream trout I was used to catching and tossing back, this was an 8-pound Northern Pike, a hideously ugly thing that was, to my young eyes, the most magnificent creature I’d ever seen. To mark the occasion, my father wanted to take a picture of me with my fish. He told me to hold it way out in front of me so it would, as he put it, “look like a monster in the picture; wait till you see it!” Sure enough, when the snapshots came back from the camera shop, the combination of my dad’s camera technique and my pose had made that 14-inch Northern look just about as big as I did.

It was with that picture that I began to realize that a photograph (and the way it was made) could be a lot more complex than I had ever suspected before. When I started making my own photographs a short while later, my life changed in the same way that falling in love with any one or any thing can change a person.

Because the “trigger” for my interest in photography was something that is what I would call “universally photographic”, it’s unlikely that the changes in photography over the last several decades would change anything about the way my trigger works. I’m still fascinated by the way photography sees the world and how that way is different from the way our eyes see it.

2. Photography is often described as a mixture of art and science. It’s also a medium. How has digital technology altered the way these elements combine to produce what we think of as ‘photography’? Has technology altered that balance?

I don’t think that the current technologies of digital image making alter any part of the equation of art/science/medium that photography has always been.

I often ask my history of photography students this question: “If photography had been invented by, say, mineworkers instead of artists and scientists, would it have made any difference in the way photography was absorbed into the world’s culture?”

The answer, as we eventually work out in discussion, is… “no; not really” because we discover that the intrinsic properties of photography (Subject, Detail, Frame, Time, Vantage Point – with a nod of thanks to Szarkowski) would all still be there, regardless of “how” photography came into being. So, if for some fantastic reason, photography had been invented as a digital medium in the early 19th century, the balance of how we think about it, what we do with it and how we consider it would be the same.

Photography, regardless of the technology used, is inherently a medium for describing, showing, examining and sharing with others what has been seen by one person. While there are different “look and feel” issues that relate to various methods of technology in photography, a wet-plate image conveys information in a similar way to the way a digital photograph does.

3. Prior to the introduction of digital, how much did the equipment you used change over the years? How has digital changed the way you use equipment? How would today’s technology, if you could have used it earlier, have changed your relationship with photography?

I just noted to a friend the other day that I’m about to have more digital cameras in my camera cabinet than I ever had film cameras. As the tools become better and more diversified (one camera for studio work, another to stick in my pocket when I go out with friends), I find myself acquiring more cameras for more varied sorts of uses.

Many photographers will say that the film camera that they bought 20 years ago still works great and that they can’t say the same for a digital camera that they bought 4 years ago. This may be true, but I will also say that I don’t have or have use for the Kodak Brownie that I started out with, nor for the Yashica Electro 35 rangefinder camera that I bought new when I was 15 years old. As I matured as a photographer, I began to see the tools that I used in a different way. It wasn’t that I needed a “better” camera, it was more that I needed a camera that better suited my needs at the time. I’d be willing to bet that a carpenter might say the same thing; the drill they had as a kid might still work, but it doesn’t mean they use it when they are trying to get a job done as a professional.

Tools are tools; we need to use them to get something done and as we evolve, our choice of tools evolves. Sometimes, it’s the tool evolving to a point where it can now do something we never thought of doing before, or that we wouldn’t have done because the “old way” was more difficult than the result warranted, but… that’s the way the world works. I make more bread now that I have a mixer than I did before I had one… it makes it easier.

All of that said, I think I’d be a different photographer today if I’d have been “weened” on digital tools rather than with analogue tools. My sense of what makes a ‘good print’ or even a ‘good photograph’ was honed by lots and lots of time in the darkroom, making small corrections and thinking through the process of how something looks and why it looks that way. The painstaking approach of the darkroom absolutely influences the easier, more facile way that I work in software now. I don’t know that I’d be as sensitive to image, tone and idea as I am if I hadn’t had a “traditional” background.

4. How would photography’s great pioneers have embraced and utilised today’s technology? Might Ansel Adams be using software to stitch together panoramas of Yosemite? Would Garry Winogrand be using an iPhone? Would Eadweard Muybridge be experimenting with HDR?

Well, when I took an Ansel Adams workshop in 1983, he talked at length about technologies that he had seen (Scitex) and that were likely coming (Photoshop 1.0 would ship in 1990) and how they would change not only the art and science of photography, but also the way he would be able to practice photography. Ansel lamented that he wouldn’t likely be able to actually use these technologies (he was to die about a year later) but if he *could* there were dozens of images he’d like to work on to remove telephone wires and the like.

Given that photography uses tools and that photographers will use the tool they need to do the job they need to do, I would say that the scenarios the question posits (Winogrand and iPhone and Muybridge and HDR) are absolutely true. If you plopped those guys down into 2011, they would use the tools that are here now to do the work they want to do. Muybridge, by using his “sky shade” to tone down skies in his wet-plate collodion images (a process which easily over-exposed blue skies; making them white) was essentially doing the 19th-century equivalent of HDR. He was combining exposures of different length to create the image he wanted to see, overcoming the shortcomings of the process he was using at the time.

5. In some ways, digital seems to have ‘won out’ over film. Digital photography is everywhere, while companies such as Nikon and Fuji are discontinuing some of their films and film cameras. Is this process irreversible? Should we care?

Years ago, as digital was just a tiny speck on the horizon, my students would say “they will pry the film and darkroom out of my cold, dead hands! Nothing will make me give up film!”

I would then ask them… “What if a roll of 35mm Tri-X costs $50? What would you do then?” I would then go on to talk about supply and demand and how Kodak (and other “film-based” companies mainly cared about the bottom line and making a profit and if there was no profit in film, it would cease to exist. After they pondered that, I’d start to talk about companies that create hand-made products in a mass-production age; companies like Rolls-Royce that make cars that are many factors of cost greater than Ford cars, but that have properties that people are willing to pay for.

My guess then was that traditional photo materials companies would either start to charge a lot more for their products (no big surprise there) and that some of those companies would get out of the business altogether, leaving the small markets to small companies that can create the small-niche products that only a few photographers want to have.

It seems as though all of this has come to pass. The idea that film will die completely may happen, but it’s going to take a long time yet, as there are still people who want, for reasons many and varied, to use traditional materials. Those materials will be much more expensive, but they will be available for some time. The market will determine whether or not film and film camera products will continue to fade or will have a resurgence, even if it’s slight.

6. Are there some qualities or aspects of film photography which digital will never be able to replicate or replace? If so, will these aspects of photography die with film?

Yes; there are certain things we can’t do with digital technologies… yet. Or perhaps not easily… yet.

As in my response to question #5, there are certain things that people will want to do simply because they WANT to do them and with that want will come materials and equipment that allow them to do what they want to do.

Can a digital photograph mimic the look and feel of a Daguerreotype? Well.. sort of.. but not really. The processes have an intrinsic quality to them that can be approached but not duplicated entirely.

I don’t think these things will die completely, but they will become more rare or more valued.

7. Will the ‘camera’, as we (still) think of it, even remain as a distinct device? Or will ‘camera’ become just one of a plethora of multimedia features people expect to find on any number of hybrid consumer appliances?

Cameras are already everywhere. Pretty much anyone who has a mobile phone has a camera. The number of people taking pictures with their cell phones is so astonishingly large that it’s nearly impossible to comprehend.

I think that just as there were once the categories of “pro” cameras (SLR) and “consumer” cameras (point and shoot), what we’ll see over time is that divide between tools replicate itself more and more on the digital level. Pro cameras will still be expensive and have enormous feature sets, while consumer cameras will become more like the appliances they already have started to become. We’ll see those consumer cameras becoming more sophisticated, but not to the level of the pro cameras.

What will be different is that we’ll see some pros using “consumer” level cameras to do serious photography. We’re already seeing some rather sophisticated photography happening with iPhones and related post-processing software.

8. A few years back, Magnum photographer Eliott Erwitt was quoted as saying: “Digital manipulation kills photography. It’s enemy number one.” He also disdained digital in general, for its ability to produce “an image without effort”. To what extent would you agree or disagree with these sentiments?

Erwitt’s comment reminds me of the comments made when the “miniature” 35mm camera was starting to emerge in the market. At that time, the standard for journalistic photography was the 4×5 Speed Graphic or, sometimes, the medium-format twin-lens camera. Journalistic photographers of the era said that the 35mm format would “never amount to anything.” I guess they were wrong. The point, of course, is that the 35mm camera made pictures with far less “effort” than the 4×5 and digital photography is just another step in that same direction.

As far as manipulation of images goes, I’d have Erwitt look at manipulated images from the 19th and early 20th centuries and see that the desire to alter the camera’s blank stare has been there since the very beginning of the medium. Again, just because it’s easier to do it now because of advances in technology doesn’t mean anything; it’s about the desire to do it, not about the facility with which it can be done.

9. We’re all thoroughly weary of the ‘fix it in Photoshop’ approach. But defenders of digital post-processing often say, “Well, it only does what you used to do in the darkroom.” Is this a valid argument?

Yes, this is a valid argument. Anyone who has had made a mistake in shooting a photograph only to have to fix it later in post-production (either in the darkroom or the computer) has realized that 20 seconds of changing something when the image is created would save 20 minutes (or more) of changing that same thing in post.

That said, the amount of things that can be changed in digital post production and the speed with which they can be altered is astonishing compared to the “old ways” of doing things.

10. For how much longer will the general conception of ‘photography’ refer exclusively to static, two-dimensional images? Imminently, 3D is looming, and ‘convergence’ – meaning not just the ability of modern DSLR’s to capture high-definition video, but the compulsion to make use of that functionality – is a current buzzword. Does this trend – photographers becoming film-makers, and vice versa – ignore the important divisions between static and moving images?

Any still photographer who has tried to make a movie realizes that the two arts are linked together principally by their common use of a camera with a lens. So, while subject selection, composition and framing are similar, the way stories are told and the mechanism used to tell them are drastically different. This isn’t to say that still photographers can’t become film makers (and vice-versa) but rather to say that it’s a lot more complex than just picking up a camera that can shoot video and saying that you’re a film maker.

I think it would be surprising to see a time come where still images ceased to exist and were replaced by moving images. Still images, by their very nature, allow contemplation, comparison and study in a way that moving images don’t. There is room – and need – for both.

3D television hasn’t taken off the way some expected it might, which I think is related primarily to the technology involved in viewing the results more than anything else. We are such multi-taskers now that we can’t really imagine sitting in our living rooms with our 3D glasses on and watching a movie from start to finish without picking up the phone, getting something from the fridge, etc. Like flat-panel displays, and music CDs before that, as prices go down and ease of use goes up (getting rid of glasses, for example) we’ll see wider adoption of these technologies, but not before.

11. Cinema historian David Thomson, in his ‘Biographical Dictionary of Film’, wrote the following, regarding Marilyn Monroe: “She gave great still. She is funnier in stills, sexier, more mysterious, and protected against being. And still pictures may yet triumph over movies in the history of media. For stills are more available to the imagination.” How much more of a contentious statement does that seem today?

I’m simply going to reprise my sentence from above: Still images, by their very nature, allow contemplation, comparison and study in a way that moving images don’t. There is room – and need – for both.

Still images aren’t fleeting or transient or fugitive; motion images are all of these things.

Photographer and photo educator Jeff Curto was awarded his BFA from illinois Wesleyan University in 1981 and his MFA in Photography from Bennington College in 1983. While working as a commercial photographer, Curto began teaching at College of DuPage, where he has been since 1984.

Since 1989, he has been photographing the architectural landscape of Italy, exploring the visual splendor of its religious, public and vernacular structures. He works with a large format camera for its ability to express nuances of tone and detail as well as for the deliberate actions which the camera requires. While the camera and the film inside of it are “old” technology, his prints are inkjet, marrying traditional methods with modern technology.

Curto also produces two podcasts about photography. He records his lectures from the History of Photography class that he teaches at College of DuPage for the ‘History of Photography’ podcast.

Jeff also produces a podcast about photography’s creative side in ‘Camera Position’.

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