Future of Photography Q&A No.12 – Nick Morrish

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 Nick Morrish’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 18. I was in college, and a friend handed me a camera and asked me where the shutter button was. I didn’t know; but the camera felt like an extension of me. Almost like my hand had been made to fit the camera perfectly. I grabbed my Dad’s old kit, and a proper retro book and spent my time photographing bricks and close ups of tree trunks.

Really, though, I was much younger, less than 10 years old – I’m not sure when. I was given a Kodak 110 by a relative. According to my parents, I took it everywhere with me. I just wish I knew what happened to the images. I still have the camera somewhere.

With all the changes, the hook is still the same – to capture what I see in people in an aesthetically pleasing way. Also, I remember being addicted to the excitement of wondering how the images have come out, which has now disappeared; but the trade off is the ability to show off your image to all of the 2billion+ people who can dial up the internet.

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?

Photography is the medium of capturing light. You have to combine the science and the art to create medium.

The formula of science and art within photography will never change. We will always refer to aperture/shutter speed/ISO to capture light and, of course, composition to create a visually stimulating image.

The science has moved from crystals, chemicals and darkrooms to CCDs, computers and software. The art has always been there, with the fundamentals of composition as important today as they were in the early days.

For me, cameras, digital files, film, computers, software, darkrooms, studios, lights etc are tools to create an image. It has always been the content that matters most to me. What you capture in that moment you hit the shutter button.

The rise of digital has altered the way we do things beyond all recognition. But people talk about digital as if it has killed photography. It hasn’t; it has just taken a different path and opened up many, many new possibilities. Change is always a scary time, but we adapt and normally come out stronger in the end. So although photography is changing at breakneck speed, the foundations are still there.

I guess also it is easy to forget that photography – ever since it’s beginnings – has been about change and technological advances and progressing. This is simply another phase.

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?

Digital has changed the equipment I use, but at the end of the day I still press a shutter button – either on camera or when shooting tethered on a laptop.

I use equipment in the same way, with the up-most respect as they are the tool I use to earn a living. I think to truly get good results, you have to be at one with the camera. It has to almost be a part of you, and you of it. You wouldn’t beat your wife, or your business partner – so why smash around a camera (digital or film)? Does it make a difference if a camera is loaded with film or a CF card? Not for me.

Photography is the same, analogue or digital. It is about capturing light and making the image – that split second you have just captured – last forever. So for me it wouldn’t have made a difference if I had gone digital earlier. At the start of my adventure, I used the tools that fitted my budget; that is true today, but with the added caveat that I use the tools to suit the shoot.

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?

All the photographers in that list were pioneers; on that basis I think they would have tried the new technologies.

Would they tools suit their work? I am not sure.

Perhaps if Garry Winogrand, Henri Carier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and other great street photographers were using camera phones, the constant stream of phone calls may have hindered them. I think when they were shooting, they were able to immerse themselves into the environment without that distraction of phone calls.

For me, it comes back to the idea of science/art; how you capture an image is up to you and the preference of what tools you use. You can get digital tools or analogue tools. You still need to see creativity to see the picture and he tools to capture it. There are some incredible images captured on film; and yet the same is true of digital. Content is key.

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?

We should care; but I don’t think digital has won out yet. Although most of my work is done digitally – to save time and money – I still shoot film when the job suits that set-up.

Something quirky happened to me recently; I had shot a portrait of a musician on 120 slide. The developer noted that there are an array of phone apps trying to get the same effect I had got with a past the use-by date roll of film. I find it bizarre that some digital apps are seeking to recreate film effects.

Digital maybe the most popular tool, but it is still seeking to replicate what film does.

I look at it like music. My first record was a single on vinyl -The Ghostbusters theme tune. Then I bought hits compilations on tapes. Then I bought albums from the 60-90s on CD. I can buy and download an Isaac Hayes album digitally. The sound from the digital file is extremely good and it is convenient to use on a music player you can put in your pocket. But I can still get vinyl and play it; and many people prefer vinyl to any other format. Digital is on top, but vinyl is still there, against all the odds.

Photography is in a weird space. Digital is a major shake-up. But once we get used to it, the dramatic calls that digital has killed photography will be forgotten. Film will have a place and always will. There will always be the people passionate enough to keep it going.

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?

*Assuming* film will die, you will lose forever a key physical manifestation of photography (obviously). There is something amazing about holding negs up to the light, and feeling those images in your hands. They feel real. Even the ability to analyse that frame through a magnifying loupe is a skill in itself. There is a magic in these little things.

I also think you could lose the ability of creating an image through sheer knowledge and talent. Yes, you need both key skills in the modern age of photography, but the margin of error is less on digital as you can check what you are doing as you go along. I would like to know how many photographers are now automatically tilting the camera forward to check the image on the back. I know I do, for the first few frames at least, when I shoot film.

But that said, digital could actually help film; it can give you the confidence to try new things, to perfect your skills and give you an excellent start in mastering film. I enjoy the challenge of shooting film but like to think of digital almost as the stabilisers on the bicycle.

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?

Yes, it will. In work, I use a full digital SLR kit. But then, for everyday photography, having a small camera in your phone is handy. I use it if I am with friends and family to take snapshots with. That is all it is intended for. I have lost some special moments faffing around with lenses and doing things properly. For me, both have a place in the world as each bit of kit suits a different purpose.

I am not sure there will ever be a loss of desire for a distinct camera and the person capable to squeeze the absolute best results from it. I can’t foresee being asked to shoot a cover on a camera phone instead of digital medium format on a regular basis.

I guess this question of cameras-in-other-items is where I get funny about photography. I love it. I want it to be all mine, and a secret to the rest of the world. But then I see the joy that it brings to people when they are looking of the photos of “that night” or the special life event and I think that is what photography is about. That can coexist with what we pros are doing. This isn’t a war. Photography is about sharing moments, and there are no sides so I think it is cool people can have a camera in their pocket at all times; at the same time I am grateful that I get to use top-end camera equipment on a daily basis.

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?

He is absolutely right. Nowadays, you see many more people pointing cameras at everything in sight. Digital has made photography easier and more accessibility because – in the hands of an amateur – it has taken out that element of sheer miracle that the images will come out. Because you can see the results straight away, it has made it possible to produce an image without effort.

That said, the key to a photographer is their eye, the ability to see the picture. Digital is a tool. I like to think of it as a more complex and improved quality Polaroid.

Digital manipulation – and I refer to the manipulation beyond the “darkroom” techniques – is what is truly killing photography. There was a time when the photograph was the ultimate truth. Now it is the ultimate truth according to someone’s version of the ultimate truth. Why do we need to do that? That is what the imagination is for. Photography is meant to offer a view that is inaccessible by the viewer. That is its purpose and its responsibility.

It comes down to the ethics and morals of the person in control of the mouse. That is where the danger to photography lies. I strongly disagree with altering – let’s say – a model’s figure to make her look skinnier. Why do it? It is not the truth; it is a myth. We have all these new tools to create incredible work, and yet the times when they are abused because of someone’s low ethical code is when photography takes another hit. It is up to every photographer to ensure they remain true to the core ideals of photography for it to survive.

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?

Post-production is a weird thing. I have to say, I keep post down to an absolute minimum. Tones, saturation, sharpen. If I am required to by someone higher up the food chain, I can “fix it in photoshop”.

This is simply an excuse to be lazy. You should get the image as correct as possible in the first moment you hit the shutter.

Photoshop is the new darkroom. You have to have a strong ethical and moral code using it because the tools available are so much more advanced than the traditional darkroom.

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?

Again, I think this question refers to the change of photography, and the changes made as a result of photography’s pioneering foundations.

Photography as a static, 2D format will always be here. Forever. Some of life’s greatest moments of joy and darkest days are remembered through a still image.

From my point of view the important divisions between stills and motion – what they should be used to communicate – remain, but the two disciplines can cross the lines to improve each other. The still and moving photographer looks at things in a different way, but both forms are important. I think they have to co-exist in order to support each other. Moving images offer the information; still images provoke the thought.

2D has always been with us – it started as a tapestry, worked through painting and reached where we are with photography. And throughout history, each of these mediums of the 2D genre has thrown up vitally important and revered works – the Bayeux tapestry, the Mona Lisa etc. So although this is the final 2D frontier, 2D is established enough to remain important for years to come. In fact, I wonder if the people making the tapestries were having the same dialogue when painting started to catch on? What about as painters when photography began to take hold?

Again I think 3D and HD are tools to be used on the right occasion and should be embraced in the same way that all change and technological advancement in photography has been throughout the years. It is vital too that we remember our roots and that we keep the traditional methods alive. I love film and all that stands for, but I also like that I can – if I choose – create a multimedia project.

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 think the point is still valid today. As noted earlier, still images are what we use to make sense of events that happen in life; to freeze the moment for proper analysis, or as a happy memory captured forever.

Motion images give you everything. You don’t have to think. Everything is presented; yet with the still image you have the questions – how did the photo arrive at that point? What happened before and after? Why did it happen that way? Think of Henri Cartier-Bressons image of the jumping man reflected in the water. I love to image the story either side of that moment. Where was he going? What was he doing? That moment would have been lost in motion as we would have seen the answers to all these questions.

For me the statement is not contentious. It is merely a statement on the strength of the still image to hold its own against the moving image. I would argue that it is still as important today. Many images of the great events of the last century are captured in our minds through the photographs. They allow though and assessment and acceptance of fact. These fundamentals will continue, despite the rise of digital methods.

Nick is a Welsh photographer who loves shooting portraits. He has shot commissions around the world, including Europe, the USA, Iceland, India, and parts of Africa. He started out in press photography after studying on the NCTJ Press Photography course in Sheffield in 2003, and is now currently working in London.

His views in this piece are his own, and not those of the clients he works for.

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