Weren't We Supposed to Have Hovercraft by Now?
Most photographers today grew up on digital and may never even seen film let alone shot film. The future is here. The promise of digital is an established fact. So why has so little actually changed?
When I first visited the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1980's, the Space Needle and the surrounding Seattle Center grounds were a sight to behold. If I could see the Space Needle from wherever I was in the surrounding neighborhood, I would often catch myself looking up at it. My eye was just kind of drawn to it. It was unique, and downright cool. When it was built as part of the 1962 World's Fair grounds, the Space Needle symbolized the future and all things possible. Welcome to the space age. But many locals (myself included) tend to take it pretty much for granted these days. It's become just another tourist attraction. Now that I've lived here as long as I have, I'm no longer as enamored by it. I got used to it. For us locals, it's just where we live.
This week, I've been spending some time in in Orlando Florida, right near Disney's Epcot Center. Like Seattle's Space Needle, it evoked the future when it was built. The name EPCOT actually stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Cool. Kind of like the Space Need in Seattle. I suspect if I stayed in Orlando long enough though, Epcot would seem like old hat too. Things just seem more exciting and revolutionary when they're new. In large measure though, I'm guessing this is mainly due to new things being different, at least at first. We always pay attention to what is new and different. All around Orlando, it's Disney this, and Disney that. But in amongst all that, it's basically the same as any other town once you get used to it.
This holds true in the world of photography too. When digital burst forth on the scene now some years back, it seemed as if everything had changed. Film was the past and digital the future. With digital, all things were possible, or soon would be. I used to keep several bricks of film (each a pre-pack containing 20 rolls) in my refrigerator. When I got my first digital SLR, I was running low on film but found myself very conflicted as to whether I should buy more, or whether I no longer needed any at all. I felt pulled in two directions at once. Rooted in the past, but looking forward to the future.
There was a lot to learn when making the switch from film to digital. I had already started using Photoshop to optimize images scanned from film on my trusty Nikon CoolScan. But whereas I only did that to some images before switching to shoot digital, Photoshop became part of my workflow for every image after switching. The digital aspects of photography demanded a lot of attention, and it was easy for the basic photography-ness to get lost in the shuffle. Much as the Space Needle or Epcot, the fact that cameras were suddenly digital cameras initially demanded a lot of attention because I wasn't yet used to this fact. If I look back on what I've written here on Earthbound Light over the years, I can clearly see a period when everyone wanted to know about digital and I wrote very little about other aspects of this craft we all love.
At this point though, photographers have grown used to digital. These days, digital photography is synonymous with photography as a whole. Yes, you can still find film if you try hard enough, but getting it developed can be even more challenging. Yes, to a degree this growing comfort with digital is because digital cameras have gotten better and thus don't demand so much attention. Many of the hurdles in the way of getting good images can be overcome automatically by our cameras rather than us having to pay so much attention to this sort of thing ourselves. At this point, I know I'm more comfortable with digital than I was a decade ago. And I suspect you are as well, if you were even taking photos (digital or otherwise) back in those early days.
But when you get right down to it, all this digital change stuff hasn't really ever been about photography at all. Sure, it's closely related to photography, and indeed wrapped around it, but at its heart, photography has always been the same. You point your camera at something, focus the lens, adjust the exposure, and click the shutter to allow light to render an image on a recording medium. Even the most fully automated camera can't go find those great shots. Cameras can't decide where to point themselves and compose the shot. A camera can't feel what it's like to be there, and search for a way to capture that feeling visually.
All that digital stuff is extremely useful of course. Having good tools and knowing how to use them are both important regardless of what craft one is trying to hone. But they aren't what we hone with those tools. It's up to us to decide what to create with those tools.
Back when I first saw the Space Needle in Seattle, I kept getting distracted by looking at it, much as the sight of that big ball that is Epcot did for me this past week. Much as the trappings of digital photography did to all of us when digital was new.
Both the Seattle World's Fair grounds and Epcot were built looking to the future. Everyone at the time was caught up in future frenzy. Everyone dreamed of someday flying around in a hovercraft and having all manner of other futuristic conveniences. But those hovercraft never did arrive. And in the end, as cool as it might still be to try one someday, life itself is thankfully still the same. What matters in life is still the same as it always was, even without a hovercraft. The darned things probably would've just caused more traffic jams anyway. Epcot and the Space Needle may have seemed new and exciting at first, but you get used to them in time. They're cool, but not what really matters.
So too with photography. In the end, photography is still photography. It has always been so. Whether we have digital cameras or film, or whatever comes next, the reality of what photography is all about hasn't changed. Photography is about being a photographer, and that means you and me.
So maybe we never did get those hovercraft the Jetsons cartoons promised us. Maybe for all that digital cameras can do, they can't take themselves on vacation and cleverly share the results with us later on Flickr. But is that ever what you really wanted anyway? As cool as digital is, you get used to all that new and different stuff. It's still photography. And that's what matters.
All that stuff wrapped around photography may change over time, but not photography itself.