The Agony and the Ecstasy in a digital age

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” about Michaelangelo (1475-1564). Pope Julius II (1443-1513), played by Rex Harrison (1908-1990), keeps asking Michaelangelo, played by Charlton Heston (1923-2008), “When will you make an end of it [ the painting of the Sistine Chapel]?” To which Michaelangelo replys, “When I am done.” I have long marveled at the artists of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries who could spend seven or more years on a single painting or sculpture, or the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages who took on a task that would take longer than their lifetimes.  They were all working for the ages.  And let me offer, as a final example, the fact that Edmond Halley (1656-1742), of Halley’s comet fame, near the end of his long life, began a new sky survey that would have taken him seventy-five years to complete.

In what context then should we view the world of digital photography, a world of instant gratification, that fits in so well with all of the other hurried aspect of our lives?  I have huge respect for the modern day practitioners of large format photography.  The entire art is a time consuming labor of love, where the end is only accomplished when it is finished.  Back when I was taking analogue photographs, albeit in 35 mm, the dark room was ultimately the rate limiting element.  Achievement a single decent print might be a studied two hour plus process.  The darkroom had to be setup, finally cleaned up, and you were thrilled and satisfied if the evening’s labors produced a single good print.  Printing negatives was always is, but never to be printed.  And I haven’t even mentioned the cost.  Printing was costly, and still is.  All of this, for me anyway, conspired in the picture taking process.  Do you really want to take that picture?  Will you ever print it? Will it be worth the effort and the money?

And of course, color was pretty much out of the question.  Most photoprint shops did a lousy disappointing job.  The only way to get the color that you wanted was to take transparencies.  And then what?

There was a lot of adversity in the whole process.  The great thing about Ansel Adams’ books was that they provided a method that, if adhered to, could lead to a decent and satisfying photograph.  I still have several of these silver gelatin, selenium toned images hanging in my hallway and I still pause to contemplate them.  They still elicit the memory of their production, particularly the smell of the darkroom.

Here, then, is yet another consequence of the instantaneity of digital photography.  The process, while still time-consuming, fits more comfortably into our day.  There is no setup and cleanup.  You can experiment to your heart’s content.  Printing your own digital images can still be a bit costly.  But I have found that I do not print enough to justify this cost and choose a good printing service instead.  Indeed, and I say this with a twinge of guilt, I have stopped printing all of my finished work.  Of course, the eco-minded will probably applaud me for this.

We are left with the question of motive.  Are we creating for the ages?  I believe that social media has taught us that fame and notoriety are ever so fleeting.  I create for myself.  It’s nice, of course, to share and to be appreciated by the like-minded.  We are in no position to comprehend what access posterity will have to our labors or whether and in what ways they will even care.  So it is hardly worth worrying about.  People create because that is what people do.  It is an essential element of being human.  Digital photography has just made it more accessible.

This entry was posted in Essays on Photography.