Photographers Speak Out On The Digital Takeover
by Michael Stahl
“Here. Hold this in your hand.”
Tony Vaccaro gives me a print and sticks his arm out in front of him, illustrating what he wants me to do. The paper stays perpendicular, resisting gravity.
“Now wiggle it.”
The paper wobbles, its physicality making a metallic flapping sound, like a handsaw in the possession of a toying child.
He smiles for a moment, then orders me to hold a different one at chest level. This print cranes easily down towards the ground.
“You see that? Digital doesn’t stand up! It’s the resonance of the paper. Silver is strong, yet fine. You can play with it.”
Vaccaro began taking pictures at sixteen-years old, in 1937. While attending New Rochelle High School, his homeroom teacher founded a photography club for the entire school so that Vaccaro could learn the art. He would earn his photographer stripes towards the close of World War II, where he developed prints from his Argus C3 in makeshift darkrooms, filling his comrades’ combat helmets with the chemicals, but using only his own for malodorous ones. After documenting post-war life throughout Europe for a time, he became prolific in the States, shooting the likes of John F. Kennedy, Jackson Pollack, Georgia O’Keefe, Sofia Loren, Pablo Picasso, Leonard Cohen, and scores of others.
“I try to take myself out of the photograph,” he explains. “I look for sincere photographs. For honesty.”
In an attempt to stay current, Vaccaro turned his back on developing film some six years ago, switching to digital. “I believe in going with a revolution and digital is the future. But I don’t like the paper.” He has now found his way back into the darkroom, proclaiming that there is “nothing better than a silver print after it has gone through all the steps. It is elegant. Noble.” Then he adds with a small laugh: “Digital is not noble.”
Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York, a Facebook photo blog that sports nearly 500,000 Likes, disagrees.
––––––––––––––––––––––––------- Stanton doesn’t want to use
to “denigrate film,” but . . . ––––––––––––––––––––––––----
“I would like to know exactly what is so ‘noble’ about a film print,” Stanton says. “There’s a frustration on the part of film photographers with digital because of a supposed lack of quality. What is quality? What is the importance of a photograph? Is it the moment that is captured? Or the paper it’s on?”
Stanton doesn’t want to use “fighting words” to “denigrate film,” but points to the clear practical advantages digital photography possesses over silver, explaining that his site, whose name he often abbreviates to HONY, “would not have been possible without digital.” Stanton took pictures at a furious rate when he initially started just a few years ago, topping 100,000 in his first twelve months, constructing a steep, and financially safe, personal learning curve. After finding love in photography and leaving his monetarily sound bond-trading job in Chicago, Stanton bounced through a few cities, looking for visual inspiration. He chose to settle in New York for the provided content, but despite the innumerable historical and iconic sites at his disposal for photographs, he knew that he had to take a unique approach if he wanted to make a name for himself. Now he proudly speaks of the work he put into finding his niche. “Anything that wasn’t tied down in New York had been photographed thousands of times,” he observed upon moving to Brooklyn and combing the neighboring boroughs. So, without being able to present any remote credentials, he took to hailing random people on the street and asking them to pose for him, something that at times made him look – and feel – creepy. “It was the difficulty of what I was doing that separated me from my competition.”
HONY’s following grew only incrementally throughout 2011, but Stanton was enjoying the experience and getting a better feel for how to take photos. He had his digital camera body, lenses, and computer already purchased. And because he could continue to take pictures and keep the site going for very little money, Stanton was easily able to live solely off savings he had accrued while working in Chicago.
In the winter of 2012, HONY saw its subscription numbers shoot up by tens-of-thousands as each month went by. “The Gaga Demographic” as he calls it – girls in their late teens and early twenties – showed up and CBS, The Wall Street Journal, even El Diario were compelled to profile Stanton, his work, and his story. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. “I’m broke. My savings have pretty much run out. I’ve been getting by with the help of some benefactors, but I now have to figure out a way to monetize HONY. I just don’t want to damage the energy.”
“Overcoming challenges is inherent to film photography,” says a guerilla street photographer named William Hoiles. Based in New Jersey, Hoiles jumps the Hudson to take portraits of city pavement kickers, often bumping into Brandon Stanton. Hoiles works exclusively with film though because it is “the real thing.” “Photography is easy with digital,” he says. “I may go out for a day and only have film for ten pictures. So I have to be much more selective and consider so many more things each time I take a photo. It’s not just snap, snap, snap, and so on.”
Carlos Detres, a working photographer out of Astoria acknowledges the advantages of digital, but is disturbed by the fact that one can “spray” an event with an SLR camera, pick one gem out of hundreds, place it in an online portfolio and call themselves a photographer. “If you can’t even do that, then you should just not ever pick up a camera.” He claims that the existence of digital technology has changed the expectations of contract work to unreasonable heights. “People request four hundred pictures to be taken at an event that’s a few hours long. That’s ridiculous. When I work with digital, I hope that I’m maintaining the same level of discipline it takes to shoot in film: waiting, looking for a shot, considering geometry. A good photographer will come up with fifty quality shots for an event. And even that’s a lot.”
––––––––––––––––––––––––-------------------- Over two million photos are
uploaded to Facebook
every twenty minutes ––––––––––––––––––––––––--------------------
Another pro, Jesse Winter, whose subjects include George W. Bush and Oliver Stone, agrees. “Digital makes everything possible and it’s seamless, but it doesn’t have the character of film.” Like Detres, Winter was trained in the art of film photography in college, but has found few opportunities to get work where digital is not expected. A Long Island City resident and Tony Vaccaro cadet, Winter says he has a sort of “bitter nostalgia for film,” but adds: “I don’t want to be hating on digital. I guess you just have to adapt. However, I do resent how things have changed.” He feels that there is a pride that comes in working with film because in digital “you never see the real thing. When you hold up the camera to your face and look at your subject, you’re looking at a digital screen. So, digital feels synthetic, but that’s only in the eye of the beholder. If you don’t know anything but digital, you wouldn’t use that term for it.”
According to OnlineSchools.org, over two million photos are uploaded to Facebook every twenty minutes. Tumblr boasts nearly 67 million blogs that are predominantly photo-based. ITunes says, “50 million users love Instagram!” Yahoo! advertises that Flickr provides a forum for 51 million people to post photos, while, the most ironic figure comes from Hipstamatic CEO Lucas Buick, who told Fast Company that there are 27 million users of his product, which is designed to give a hand-developed, classic tonality to a mega-pixeled pic. Says Winter of Hipstamatic: “Just add water and it’s beautiful.”
While talking across his all-time favorite photo, a shot from an airplane of German-dug trenches ensconced in a World War I battlefield, which is likely the only print of it in the world, Detres says that he would definitely agree with the notion that digital photography is diluting the art. More SLR camera sales and smartphone apps surely stir more competition for paid work and website hits, but Detres isn’t terribly worried, saying that, regardless of the number of participants in the photography community, there’s still a weeding out process and that “the great ones have that fine art, film mentality, even if they weren’t trained in film.”
Hoiles concurs: “If you’re good, you’ll rise.”
Walking the streets and having a conversation with Brandon Stanton while on a Humans of New York photo excursion is like trying to sleep through the night with a newborn in the room; Stanton’s just way more polite about the interruptions, excusing himself as he dashes after a potential subject and excusing himself again to the momentarily puzzled stranger – this one a curly-haired rocker chick with pink highlights carrying a Fender Strat without a case. He has a card to offer her. She goes along with it all and Stanton accompanies her out of the way of traffic to the sidewalk. He gets down on a knee, asks her to hold the guitar with both hands out to the side, then carefully snaps two, maybe three stills. Stanton stands up, his frame dwarfing hers, and sincerely thanks the girl, adding that she should see the picture up in a day or two.
––––––––––––––––––––––––-------------------- “The art world demands scarcity,
The pop culture world demands quantity."
“The art world demands scarcity,” he says later. “The pop culture world demands quantity. Humans of New York fits right into the current infrastructure. I’m constantly able to produce material, but it’s hard to commodify it in the art world.”
Tony Vaccaro might feel similarly. He states: “I want each print to last a thousand years. If a print is going to last a couple of months, it’s a waste of my time. If you have a piece of art, you want to give it to your children; you want to sell it. People will always pay for it.”
“Like records, film will live on,” agrees Carlos Detres. Holding up that German trench print, he adds, “This is tactile. I love that with digital I can go to the park, shoot something that is beautiful and go home and put it on my website. But God forbid the power goes out. We could lose everything and you don’t need electricity to make a film camera.”
Jesse Winter can’t help but admit that digital software has granted him some fun times and good moments, but hopes contemporary photographers remember to “go all-in” and continue to move the art forward, offering: “Anything that enables some sort of creative process is pretty cool to me.” Still, there exists the hands-on development of a print that has an undeniable attraction to the artist. “There is no doubt that developing film in an analog environment on a piece of fiber paper is just an incredible thing to behold. It transcends. Digital will never have that feel.” He closes with a positive, hopeful outlook: “The paper is coming though. They’re working on that stuff.”
When Brandon Stanton prepares a photo to be unveiled on Humans of New York, he will log a few touchups or brightening clicks, but concedes, “I don’t really know what I’m doing” when it comes to working on Photoshop or any other digital editing program. He learned through all that trial and error of his first year what light he prefers and how to properly frame.
Tony Vaccaro still remembers when his learning process began. The first photo he ever took some 80 years ago was of a horse and buggy with two passengers that was stopping at a street corner. He snapped the scene, but it was after developing that picture that he fell in love with photography. On the print he saw the driver pulling in the reigns, the horse’s neck more upright than before, one of the passengers reaching into his purse for payment, and two other men on the corner hailing the cab. “I thought to myself, ‘What a story! What possibilities photography has!’” The decision was made to become a professional photographer.
––––––––––––––––––––––––-------------------- “I like puppies,
and old people,” ––––––––––––––––––––––––--------------------
“I like puppies, little kids, and old people,” Stanton discloses. This Holy Trinity of Adorable has certainly been enough to land The Gaga Demographic, but the extraordinary level of interest Humans of New York has garnered, along with the fact that Stanton has begun selling prints of his photos as part of that reluctant plan to profit from the site, indicates that his simple Facebook photo blog perhaps has much more depth, content, and spirit than many might suppose, even the creator.
Ultimately, Vaccaro says there is room for both digital and film photography, but in digital he hopes that “here and there comes a rebel who challenges the norm.”
He reflects a little more, shrugs, and says, “I like the world. I feel the world is for everyone.”