Death by Digerati? 

copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved 

Stockholm, Sweden 
N 59 deg. 20.321 min. 
E 018 deg. 04.591 min. 

I met a Japanese film researcher during a stopover in Elstei, Mongolia. He works for Fuji making the next generation of silver-based photo products. Maybe it's a dead business. 

Don't get me wrong. I love film. I'm addicted to film. In fact, for every digital image I'm making on my global trip I shoot four or so traditional ones. But in reality, which ones will be more uesful?

Consider this. I have three cameras with me, one digital and two 35mm. The digital photographs are stored on microchips. I take lots of pictures and throw out the ones that suck, keeping the good ones. I send the nice ones to a web site when I can get on a computer, erase the microchips and start again. The 35mm images, roll after roll, are packed into airmail pouches and sent back to the United States for processing. I'll get to them in a few months, and I'm sure there are some really nice ones waiting patiently there for me to look at them and smile.

But think of it. I've been on the road for a year. I have around 4500 slide images in a box in Boston waiting for me to come back and edit them, combine the best ones into a slide show, and give a presentation three or four times to maybe 400 people. 

In contrast, my digital work, created with a little available-in-retail-shops camera, has helped create a web site with 1000 photographs and twenty or thirty stories. The site is alive, and changes as I move around the globe and plug into the internet. This collection allows anyone to view and discuss the pictures while sitting anywhere they can connect to the internet.  In theory, thousands of people could look at the images and read the stories, versus only a handful with the traditional pictures. Which process makes more sense?

Granted, the media I use to create the pictures doesn't usually matter. I could scan my silver-based photographs into digital format and then place them on the internet. But in my particular case, traveling around the world, the amount of extra work that would entail would make the job undoable. Especially in places where there is nowhere to have your film processed like Lombok, or Burma.

I think the immediacy of the digital work adds something to the content as well. It's an incremental process, a little of each country, just after having been there. Although I know there is some fine work waiting for me back home, I fear the sheer volume of effort to bring it together will make any end result less interesting, a retrospect piece of work instead of a living one.

There are, of course, questions of detail, color fidelity, and resolution. Film wins every time. All but the finest digital cameras fail against the purity of detail and color of your standard 35mm slide film. But at what point is a format good enough? I'm comfortable that my digital images are being made for consumption on the web, that their resolution will not reproduce well in print format. That is a constraint of the medium. Would I rather see my pictures in a nice coffee-table book that my mother can page through after Christmas Dinner? Yes, probably. But I am not a famous photojournalist, and it would be difficult to convince someone to publish the work. Books are expensive to produce, web sites are not.

So, is silver-based photography going to die? I don't think so. It's still easier to take your roll of film down to the pharmacy and get the pictures back the next day, and share images of your sunburn from Cancun with your friends at the local pub. But in some cases, and those will become more and more frequent, the digital world rules. 

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© (1998) James Waldron Design --