Future of Photography Q&A No.5 – Philip Greenspun

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 Philip Greenspun’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?

My mother let me use a Kodak Brownie camera starting around 1970. I started out documenting boring family scenes. Probably with digital I would have started much earlier and experimented a lot more since the cost of film and processing was not affordable to me as a child.

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?

There should be a lot more great young photographers than ever before, since photography is now almost a free activity whereas before just a handful of photos would have used up a child’s allowance.

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?

For landscape work I mostly moved to larger negatives, starting with 35mm and graduating to 6×6 cm and then 4×5 inch film.

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?

Nobody interested in human subjects would be using a camera phone, especially not Winogrand. The uncertainty regarding the moment of exposure makes camera phones useless.

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 shouldn’t care and it is nice that we’re not using up the Earth’s resources with every exposure.

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?

Probably not “never”, but at least for now the typical digital camera lacks the dynamic range of film. It is a real art to make a successful digital image of a high contrast scene whereas a Kodak Brownie user with Tri-X was often able to achieve a pleasing blend of highlights and shadows.

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?

The SLR is a pretty refined device and I expect it will continue to exist as long as there are engineers in Japan and China who know how to build them.

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?

Anyone who says “an image without effort” has never tried to learn how to use Adobe Photoshop!

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?

Sure. The important skill is knowing what you want out of the image.

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?

Making a film is a lot harder and requires different skills than still photography. I think the next interesting development going forward will be cameras with the ability to choose focus and depth of field post-exposure. That’s a capability that nobody ever had in the film world (well, maybe with extensive bracketing of a static scene).

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?

With people around the world watching hours of video every day, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Still images may have some temporary impact on a viewer, but film and TV have the ability to change a culture.


Philip Greenspun has been in and around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1979. In the mid-1990s, he founded the Scalable Systems for Online Communities research group at MIT and spun it out into ArsDigita, which he grew into a profitable $20 million (revenue) open-source enterprise software company. The software is best known for its support of public online communities, such as www.scorecard.org and photo.net, which started as Philip Greenspun’s home page and grew to serve 500,000 users educating each other to become better photographers.


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