Text by Evan Walsh
Photography by Evan Walsh and Nour Basaad
Models: Hannah Carpenter and Julia Thesing
Styling by Andrea Fernandez and Blythe Bruwer
The first photo processes, discovered between 1826 and 1841, began to carve a place for a fresh visual culture in the art world. With these innovations, Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot jumpstarted a medium that began to oppose a prevailing artist milieu derived from masters of past millennia. The pressures of art to follow the painterly way, the high-class aristocratic exclusivity of the viewing experience, and preconceived notions of beauty challenged photographers of the 1800s to forge a place for this new mode of art.
The public by no means had easy access to photography in its humble beginnings. The processes and patents rested with the rich, whose wealth and prominence gave them the funding and time to shoulder an expensive, highly scientific process. But similarly to the Internet and the digital machines of our time, improvements in technology both greatly cheapened and expanded the reach of the practice.
Nearly 180 years later, the medium of the “now,” photography, pervades everything we know. Two centuries of photos have withstood fluctuation and redefining: newer techniques replaced the methods of the 1800s, and the days of the “negative” have faded like an old daguerreotype print.
Ruled by images, our society stares down a vital crossroad. As the prevalence of Film dwindles, Digital seeks to hold its brazen, newborn head high. There’s a controversy, however, with the way we have revered Digital: often considered unique and revolutionary, it has no identity to call its own. With Film as its mother, Digital still has yet to come of age. Like an infant learning its first words, Digital mirrors what Film has been doing for years.
This connection appears most in editing. Popular applications like Instagram, Photoshop, VSCO, Afterlight, and Lightroom (opposed to “darkroom”) commonly are used to make Digital photos look like Film.
Think of Instagram. From light leaks to muted tones, from red haze filters and vignettes, IG attempts to mirror a cross-processed, “vintage” look of analog. Cropped in squares reminiscent of a 6x6 medium format frame, it popularizes a new “order” for the digital image (an order that isn’t actually new at all).
Then there’s VSCO filters. Widely used as a media-sharing platform and an editing software by iPhoneographers and Photographers alike, VSCO pulls exclusively from the styles of old films. Filter names like “Portra 400 NC,” “Fuji Superia 1600,” or “Ilford Delta 3200” comprise the registry for their “Classic Films” pack, each one tailored to make the photograph resemble each respective film. Priced at $119, many photographers view these filters as invaluable to their editing process.
With Photoshop manipulations, too, many forget that analog photographers often could change physical appearance, exposure, physics and basic reality in the darkroom. Words like “dodge” and “burn, or “folder” and “file” come from analog editing and archiving—the qualities we attribute so readily to Digital were actually hallmarks of Film too.
As American visual consumers of art, we seem to be so desperate to hold onto the aesthetic of Film, but care little of watching it deteriorate. Major photo stores like Calumet Photographic have closed their doors forever. CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and other pharmacies have too phased out their developing in many stores across the nation.
There is no denying, though, that digital has blessed the photographic world today. What started in the 1800s as an assertion of subculture from aristocratic amateurs, fighting for recognition and inured by the eyes of haughty art connoisseurs glaring down their backs, has been reinvented. To the painterly traditionalists who dared scoff at photography, the millions of photos posted per week glare back at their laughter with pity. We have reclaimed the already-once reclaimed; through the Internet and social media, photography today can be done and shared by all, and clearly is the medium of the “now.”
This convenience, however, comes at a price. The feeling of the darkroom—the glory of that tactile experience—is at stake. In our future, that experience will be all but memories, practices that no photograph can recount: I will remember fumbling in the dark with can-openers, simultaneously loving and hating the way the bleachy smell of fixer just radiated through my clothes, and obsessing over every detail from corner to corner to corner to corner. I will remember how much every shot mattered, and how meaningful a print would be when I toiled over it and thought about every little detail.
“I fell in love with the process of taking [analog] pictures,” renowned Magnum photographer Alec Soth said in an interview with Aaron Schuman. To Soth, the experience consists of the framing, the chemicals, the fixation on perfection, and the nomadic, contemplative wandering that Digital strips from photography.
With near-infinite button clicks and no price tag attached, what will happen to our way of seeing? Even more, how can we glorify a medium that still crawls in the shadow of its parent? Without identity, our new medium has no principle except to emulate its predecessor, and in this infantile imitation, drains Film of all its life.
You can see more of Evan's work on his website.