"You are the generation of lost photographs,” a family friend told me as he handed me another Leica camera body to examine. The camera had a solid yet reassuring quality to it, like a semi-automatic weapon with a harmless trigger. He went on, “I used to work at Bel Air Camera, and I met my wife there when I was your age. I know cameras. There’s just something about film that digital technology can never achieve.”
It seems that film is out and digital is in. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January, following Polaroid to the technological graveyard. What’s amazing to me is that Kodak actually invented the first digital camera, but chose not to focus on developing the technology for fear of undermining their monopoly on film. Oops.
I’m no Luddite. I appreciate the convenience of digital imaging technology (and technology in general) as much as the next man. Digital images are generally a lot easier to work with: we don’t have to make our film pass through the X-ray machine at the airport, we don’t have to wait more than a second to see what our pictures actually look like, and we can carry thousands of them with us in a chip not much bigger than our thumbnail.
The jump to the digital has been largely driven by these convenience factors, but digital images have no permanence. There are no negatives of digital images. You might have seen a .jpg of Keanu Reeves this week on the internet with a quote: “Archiving digital images is a technological dilemma. The idea of that discovered shoebox of pictures, or wedding album, will not exist digitally in your camera or on your computer or in a ‘cloud’: you should print them.”
How many of your pictures does Facebook own? We’ve all blindly scrolled through and agreed to the Terms of Service. Suppose Mark Zuckerberg woke up one day, unsatisfied with his life as a billionaire, longing for a Charlie Sheen-esque harem and a garage full of Bugattis, Paganis, and Ferraris instead of his single modest Honda Fit, and so decided that Facebook photos would cost $100 a year. Would you pay? I personally wouldn’t want to lose the 750 photos my friends and I have taken over my 6 year Facebook membership. I’m not quite sure any of those photos exist anywhere else anyway. We’ve put all of our photographic eggs into only a few digital baskets, which are tenuous at best.
Digital image technology is partially responsible for furthering our own narcissism. Cameras are omnipresent, as are Photoshopped magazine cover models. You don’t like the way you look in that picture? Push that trash button and try it again. This is nearly impossible to do with film; it’s hard to know immediately if you’ll get a shot “right,” and either way it costs you some money. We all know that guy or girl on Facebook or Myspace with all of their pictures thoroughly vetted to portray themselves in the image they desire, rippling 6-pack abs and all.
And to a certain extent, that’s all that we see of others. Gone is the private photo album, saved only for your close friends and grandchildren. We “Like” to see others keeping up appearances and showing themselves off to the world. It is a compulsion created by the panopticon of Facebook and social media: your digital self is being watched constantly, but you can’t be sure when or by whom.
We might be hooking up with the digital but we still love film. Consider Instagram, Apple’s 2011 “App of the Year.” All it does is make your digital photos look more interesting and lifelike by putting a film-like filter over them. Film is what makes the Ride of the Valkyries scene in Apocalypse Now so incredible, since all of the helicopters and guns have to be genuine, not just digitally added ghosts. Film is reel.
Keanu Reeves is releasing a new documentary this summer entitled Side By Side, in which he speaks with filmmakers like James Cameron, Danny Boyle and George Lucas about the shift from film to digital cinema. I can’t think of a better person to tackle the uncanny valley and the issues with digital 3D than Keanu, who brought the world into the age of CGI with The Matrix way back in 1999.
This week Google began testing their new augmented reality glasses, with the potential to overlay digital images onto our everyday lives. It’s an amazing sign of progress, but a reminder that we must overcome the shortcomings of digital imagery and cameras in our art and our culture before we can move forward.
I bid farewell to my family friend, who had given me another antiquity, a fountain pen, before bounding down his brick front steps and into my car. I tuned in to K-EARTH 101.1 only to hear Paul Simon pleading with the world, “Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away...”