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Film to Digital & Back Again (again) — Part 1

November 2019

“Nope. Call me hard-hearted, but I’ve never, not even once, thought to myself ‘Oh god, this would be so much better on a film camera.’”—Daidō Moriyama

“Until photographs become purely electromagnetic, they are a connecting link between industrial objects and pure information.” —Vilém Flusser

Vilém Flusser was writing in 1983, eleven years before the Associated Press announced its photographers were using what it enigmatically called electronic cameras. The AP had partnered with Kodak to cram a digital sensor with its mass of circuitry into a modified Nikon N90s. The result was a nearly four-pound, $17,900 photo-machine that produced images arguably satisfactory for press use. The revolutionary “News Camera” made it possible to deliver pictures in mere minutes on a satellite-based news wire service. Two years after 1983, I was delivered, weighing only slightly more than that ambitious apparatus.

Photos sent around the world in near-real-time via "end-to-end digital” systems were becoming the standard for the press; yet, the sluggish television occupying considerable carpet space in my childhood home's living-room was fed by a local analog signal. The TV's antenna stuck up above the roofline to pull in up to four channels on clear nights. Had cable been available in the neighborhood, my family might have been able to watch as many as fifteen. Like most of America, our visual news came from low-quality broadcasts and slow-moving newspapers. The internet, what was known of it, was a research tool not open to the public. Photos were a decidedly mechanical medium reserved for particular uses like art galleries, periodic magazines, and occasional snaps to share with friends and family.

One hundred eighty seconds, an eternity to me at four-year-olds, it took for the photo to develop. Open the heavy top to reveal the lens, look through the tunnel-like viewfinder, frame the subject, and push with force the big orange button. Back against the spring, the button slides with slight plastic friction. A switch somewhere inside moves. Gears whirl as it stops. A thin sheet of film is extruded. Wait three whole minutes as the umber square blossoms in full color to reveal a household moment. There it is, a manifested connection “between industrial objects and pure information.”

Media in 1995 was somewhere between machine-tool products and signifying object ephemeralities. Value not in the skills to create but in the means to transmit.

Polaroids were, in retrospect, a strangely appropriate avatar of recording light in the nineties. Pieces of evidence cherished for their uniqueness to a moment but rapidly available and ontologically material. They defied the coming debate over whether the hasty new digital image-making was as good as traditional photography, if it even was photography.

Regardless of what photographers thought about digital, markets were indicating what the information-hungry public wanted. By 1997, the number of US internet users had more than quadrupled to 21%, the world’s first digital photography magazine was published, Eastman Kodak’s stock hit an all-time high of $94.75 per share, and for the first time photo was sent via cellphone. Henri Cartier-Bresson, then eighty-nine, said in an interview with American Photographer, “As photojournalists, we supply information to a world that is overwhelmed with pre-occupations and full of people who need the company of images.” Then, only a few lines later, “I hope that we don’t ever see the day when a ready-made photosystem, which guarantees good photographic compositions in advanced goes on the market.” My mother took me to buy a camera.

After the Polaroid One Step’s ready-made three-by-three inch positives, I had been using a mysterious black box to record scenes. Its exposed rolls of film were dropped at the neighborhood pharmacy and retrieved a few hours later, having metamorphosed into bizarre negatives and exciting 4-by-6 prints. Shuffling the snapshots into different stories, I knew there was more expressive possibility than I could access with that point-and-shoot. This prompted a search that began at the 1990s standard in high-tech retail—Service Merchandise.

Something felt wrong. It could have been the bumptious sterility. Each product a protectively encased specimen. It could have been the unfamiliar language that seemed over-engineered to impress: 850K pixel, progressive CCD, SmartMedia. Terms I had not read in any books or magazines. Terms that suggested those cameras would also necessitate a computer. Whatever the jagged plastic gadgets and their descriptions were, it was not what I wanted in a camera. It wasn’t really photography.

By comparison, film was cheap and accessible. Photo sharing had become such a public passion that retail photo-finishing was a 4.5 billion dollar business. Prints were as easy as those visits to the neighborhood pharmacy. And they were ready for sharing at social events, photo clubs, art shows.

If the experts at the locally-owned camera shop who sold me my first real camera thought the future wasn’t analog, the closest they came to saying so was an offhand remark that “someday you’ll point your watch at something and take a picture.” No one mentioned the digital future might have arrived two years earlier when Kodak made their “electronic camera” from the same analog one that would I get that day, the Nikon N90s.