Sunday 11th February 2018 12:17pm
Aged 13, standing in the semi-dark and sliding a stiff piece of glossy blank paper into a chemical bath would arouse in me an anticipation like nothing I had felt under any other circumstances. For me, watching the latent image I had exposed into the silver-halide doped gel of a sheet of Multigrade IV was a form of magic. It was the number one thing that hooked me on photography.
There’s nothing in the digital domain that is quite the same.
Fortunately I was hooked well before digital cameras became main-stream at the turn of the century, so I didn’t miss out on the magic of the darkroom. (The first digital image was produced in 1920 and the first digital camera in 1975 – but like most of us I knew nothing of such things in the dark ages of the nineteen-eighties).
But there is another aspect of photography that is magical, and which remains a part of the magic even in this digitized cyber world in which we now live – The All Seeing Eye…
The camera of course isn’t really an All Seeing Eye, it suffers practical limitations as all things must; but the camera sees differently to the human eye and so sees things that the eye either cannot or does not or else chooses not to see. As a result, sometimes, a photograph can take your breath away – especially when new techniques emerge such as HDR, focus stacking or simply ultra-high pixel resolutions. Of course these stunning ‘hyper-real’ digital imaging techniques, whilst initially spectacular, can readily become tired clichés; but they demonstrate the point that the camera’s unique visual capabilities create for us an alternate view of reality, one which we cannot construct unaided.
And yes, this does feel like magic to me – exploiting the power to control time, to see the invisible, to stretch or compact space, to look into the dark … These are the kinds of powers of Hollywood movie blockbuster super heroes all in the palm of your hand without the need to suffer an insect bite! Consider:
Some things are invisible not by virtue of their speed, but rather due to their size. The best the eye can do is to clearly distinguish (or resolve) a thing of at least 0.04mm (like a hair maybe). Anything smaller cannot in itself be so distinguished by the unaided eye. A 24Mp full-frame sensor has a maximum resolving power of about 0.006mm, about 6x that of the eye. Furthermore a camera lens can quite readily achieve significantly greater magnification than the eye can, perhaps up to 4x in-the-field with extension rings and close-up filters, much more in a studio or lab setting.
When I visited Romney Marsh’s Listening Ears it was an ad-hoc opportunity, we happened to be passing while on holiday so we called by. It wasn’t planned, it was the worst time of day lighting wise and we had no permission nor access to select a favoured viewpoint. In fact, looking at the out-of-camera shot it seemed like a pretty futile subject, despite the unique and historic nature of the constructs. But I relied upon the camera’s ability to record shadow detail and then in post-processing I massively expanded a small slice of the tonal range, creating an image with details it was impossible to have appreciated in the moment.
Even in these days of PhotoShop there is an expectation that photographs speak the truth. The very suspicion of ‘PhotoShoppery’ can utterly discredit an image, and its maker. This is especially true in photojournalism (see Reuters’ Guide to Standards), documentary and street genres – and there is a massive PhotoShop backlash when it comes to advertising, fashion and portraiture. People believe the camera never lies, and feel the betrayal keenly when it is shown to have done so.
And in deed the camera doesn’t lie – but it sees the truth (the world) very differently to humans, if we allow it to. It can give us a different point of view upon the truth, whilst remaining honest. It is so much more than a record, a document, a substitute for seeing. It expands our vision and shows us not just the unseen, but oft times, the un-see-able.