Friday, April 10, 2020

Do you take a photo or make a photo? And why it makes a difference.

"Excuse me but could you take a photo of us?"  How many times have you said that or had someone say it to you?  I bet a lot.  I know I have.  A cell phone is handed over and several photos are taken--"Let me take two or three just to make sure"--and then the favor is returned.  More photos.  Ever wonder how many photos are taken in a typical year?  Mylio is a photo organizing and management
company.  It estimates that people took 1.42 trillion photos in 2019 and will take 1.56 trillion by 2022.  I tried to find an image that would give an idea of just how big a trillion of anything is but nothing really worked.  For example, it would take you 31,309 years to count to one trillion.  See, not very helpful.  It is just too big a number.  No matter what we think a trillion looks like, we can agree that we are drowning in photos and the water gets deeper and wider every year.

Cell phones account for 90% of that 1.4 trillion.  Digital cameras, about eight percent.  Tablets, typically in the hands of grandparents, the final two percent and that is declining.  Personally, I use a cell phone and two digital cameras to contribute much more than my fair share of the total.

The ubiquitous cell phone with its increasingly capable camera and storage puts a camera in almost everyone's hands.  We can take a photo almost instantaneously and then share it with friends, family, and followers.  Taking a photo of a luncheon entree costs practically nothing in terms of time, cost and inconvenience.  Imagine doing that with a film camera!  You wouldn't and no one ever did.  Now, we take photos of everything, everywhere.  We take photographs to memorialize people, places, experiences, and even meals.  We want to remember these and share the photos with others so they can share them.  Without much thought, we say we "take" a photo.  But some photographers say they "make" a photo.  To understand the difference and why it is important, we need to visit the history of photography.

View of the Boulevard du Temple, a daguerreotype made by
Louis Daguerre in 1838, is generally accepted as the earliest 
photograph to include people. It is a view of a busy street, 
but because the exposure lasted for several minutes the 
moving traffic left no trace. Only the two men near the 
bottom left corner, one of them apparently having his
boots polished by the other remained in one place 
long enough to be visible.
Photography, as we know it, began in 1839 when Louis Daguerre introduced his photographic method, daguerreotypy.  This process used a camera to capture an image on a silver-surfaced metal plate that had been fumed with iodine vapor.  This created a silver iodine surface that was light-sensitive.  The process required long exposure times--in the minutes--and created a positive image which is to say a unique image.  Each daguerreotype was one of a kind.  Since there was no negative, the image could not be reprinted.

A daguerreotype was a pristine and detailed image but the process was complicated, expensive, limited to a single image, time-consuming, and cumbersome.  It was limited to a studio.  Nevertheless, it was the dominant form of photography until 1851 when a wet plate process was introduced.

The collodion method was dominant between 1851 and 1871.  This required an elaborate process in which glass plates were coated with collodion and then immersed in silver nitrate.  This had to be done in a darkroom. The plate was placed in a light-tight holder and then inserted into the camera which had previously been set up for the specific image.  The lens cap was removed for two to three seconds and the image was imprinted on the plate, still wet with the chemicals.  The plate was immediately removed and taken into a dark room where the image was fixed on the plate creating a negative to be used later to print the image.  All this had to be done within 15 minutes to keep the plate wet and thus light sensitive.  The resulting negative was used to contact print typically on albumen paper.

Matthew Brady (left foreground)
 and assistants at Petersburg 1864
This wet plate photography required a lot of equipment and a professional photographer skilled in handling the many chemicals needed in the process.  Matthew Brady used this collodion process for his Civil War photography of battlefields and camp life.  To operate in the field, he needed to set up a darkroom on site.  This meant he had to haul equipment, chemicals, and the darkroom along with at least one assistant.  Brady could not take photographs of battles in progress because of long exposure times and the realities of active battlefields.  His battleground photographs are after-action and often show the bodies of the dead soldiers.  And that was enough to change forever how citizens saw war and its aftermath.

Dry plate photography was a major improvement since it did not require the plates to be wet during exposure and development.  Dry plates were prepared ahead of time and then developed and printed in a darkroom at a later time.  Even though simpler and more flexible, dry plate photography was still the domain of professionals.

If you look back at this brief history, you can see why "taking a photograph" would hardly do the process justice.  Daguerreotypes, wet plates and even dry plates were "making photographs."  It was a technically and creatively challenging activity, not something for the ordinary person to do even as a "hobby."  And photography was expensive.  A single ambrotype would cost $6 in today's dollars.  Family and individual portraits predominated.  Candid photography simply didn't exist.

1923 cartoon showing what Eastman might
have looked like as a wet plate photographer
All that changed because of a young man from Rochester NY, George Eastman.  As a teenager working in a local bank to support his widowed mother and sisters, George became interested in photography and began to practice the art using wet plates and their necessary accouterments.  We don't know exactly how good a photographer he was because none of his images survived.  Eastman wasn't making photographs because of the finished product but rather to learn the process of making photographs.  Using that understanding, he worked on inventing materials and processes that would improve photography and take it out of the hands of professionals and make it available to ordinary people.

In 1881 Eastman and his partner Frank Strong founded Eastman Dry Plate Company to provide dry plates to photographers.  In 1885 Eastman patented the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder.  This freed photographers from handling individual plates because it could advance a roll of paper film.   In 1889, an Eastman chemist developed a transparent, flexible film that could be cut into strips and inserted into cameras.  The age of modern photography had dawned.

When Kodak introduced the Brownie camera in 1900 for $1, the age of "snapshots" was born.  Eastman realized that chemists and engineers could turn the exposed film into photographs.  His engineers figured out how to automate the process.  All the photographer had to do was "press the button" and Kodak would do the rest.  What had been a professional and highly technical process was now in the hands of ordinary people to record their lives, people and places simply by pressing the shutter.  Professional photography continued, of course, but more as an art form or for specialized purposes.  So there were still people "making" photographs but most of us were now "taking" photographs.

With the advent of digital cameras, even film became unnecessary.  What had taken a "pack-horse load" of equipment, chemicals and a portable darkroom plus an assistant now took place within a hand-sized camera.  With cell phone cameras, the package grew both smaller and more capable.  We are all "taking" photographs, trillions and trillions of them.  What does it mean now to "make" a photo?

You can make a photograph with film or digital images.  The process of getting from the image captured on film or the digital sensor is technically very different but essentially the same.  Making a photograph requires the photographer to have an idea--the more detailed the better--of what the scene in front of her can be made to look like.  It is not so much about documenting what she sees as it is bringing to life what she sees as a possible image.  One image by Ansel Adams can clarify this. 

On November 1, 1941, he was returning home after a disappointing day of photographing. Around 4:00 on a highway through Hernandez NM, he saw a scene that he instinctively knew he could make into a superb photograph.  But it wasn't what he saw but what he knew he could make it look like.  You may know the image:  Moonrise Hernadez New Mexico.

Moonrise Hernandez N M:  Straight contact print on the left and the iconic print on the right
Different prints of the same negative over 35 years
His young son, Michael, was with him as Adams and a companion hurriedly set up the 8x10 view camera on top of his "woody" station wagon to catch the waning light from the setting sun and the rising moon.  Michael has famously said that the scene he saw was not the scene you see in Moonrise.  In fact, a contact print from that negative is a more accurate capture of that scene.  Precisely because Adams"made" photographs, he could visualize the photo that was there hiding in the apparent scene.  Of course, he needed to properly expose the film.  Then he needed to develop the film properly.  Finally and most importantly, he needed to print the negative in a way that captured what he had visualized out in the New Mexican desert that afternoon.  The high dynamic range of the image made the printing process extremely difficult and complicated.  He did extensive "dodging" and "burning" to capture the darkest and the lightest parts.  Adams personally made more than 1300 prints and freely admitted that each print would be unique and one-of-a-kind.

A recent photo from Tinker Park. 
Camera exposure left and final image right.
So the difference between taking a photo and making a photo is the difference between snapshots with your phone camera and a more careful and more intentional capture.  The photographer has a visualization in mind of the final product which is often different from what appears in the viewfinder at first glance.  Ninety-five percent of the time I "take" photos.  When I "make" photos, it is a slower, more intentional process.  I visualize the final image.  It may not be as specific as Adams had with that iconic image.  And I may not be sure exactly how it will turn out but I have an idea of how I will capture and process it so that it will be different than a snapshot.  I know for certain that I am out to "make" a photo when I take a tripod along.  That means I will be setting up a shot and taking time to select appropriate settings rather than just "pressing the button" as the Kodak ad said.

So why is all this important?  There are three reasons.  First, while taking photos is important because it creates a record of our experiences, relationships, and locations, making a photo can create an image that is memorable and beautiful.  Think about Adams and his unforgettable images, not just Moonrise Hernandez New Mexico which we talked about here.

Second, making a photograph requires me to slow down and more carefully observe what is around me.  There is something about looking at the world through a lens that helps me see reality in a new way.  It is the difference between lollygagging my way through life or paying close attention.  I think it has something to do with the fact that a lens excludes a lot of reality and focuses my attention.  After a while, I begin to do that even without a camera.  I begin to see photographs in my surroundings.  I experience what is around me in a more detailed and powerful way.  And that is when I decide to return with my tripod and have a go at "making" some photographs.

Third, there is an important lesson about life and reality.  Empiricism takes the position that sense experience is the basis of all human knowledge.  "What you see is what you get" to outrageously oversimplify.  Rationalism is the opposite.  It takes the position that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience.  A botanist looks at a tree and sees a tree.  A poet looks at a tree and sees a metaphor for a well-lived life.  The poet sees something that is "not there" but is indisputably true.

A Christian looks at the world and sees the empirical reality of economics, politics and social status but also sees the deeper reality of the Kingdom of God where justice and charity prevail.  It is a reality that can be "made" by the individual actions of Christians just as a photograph can be made.  Both, however, require visualization of a reality that is not apparent but is real nonetheless.  This is what Christians call faith.  Jesus cautioned his followers to not be deceived by appearances.  There can be a deeper reality in the empirical world if we take the time to look for it and open ourselves up to a knowledge of a different sort.  This is true, I believe, of any of the great religious traditions.  Just as we can find beautiful images in ordinary reality, we can find mercy and forgiveness in evil and deprivation.

 It all depends on what we can visualize.  In so many ways, it is up to us.

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