August 21, 2011

Professor Brown loads his first roll of film in a decade in a camera he hasn't used in 48 years. Photo by Phil Gibson

Normally journalists put the central message of their themes at the beginning of their writings. I am going to put it at the end.  Be fair–don’t skip ahead. As I ramble through the evidence to make my point, you may wonder, “Where the hell is he going?” Sometimes I don’t know either but the journey is always interesting. I will give you a clue with the following excerpt from a Facebook posting from a former student, Cindy Karp:
“Some of you have asked and, yes, there are still some places available in my fall semester photo class at Miami Dade College. Its a black and white, FILM photo class, Monday and Wednesday evenings, Wolfson campus. Receive college credit or just audit and learn. We work with TRI-X film and make prints in the darkroom. Advanced students do projects. Email me for details. Who's in?”

Enter Digital, Exit Film?

I remember seeing a small, digital, wallet-sized photo in the early 1990s that was so pixilated that you could almost play checkers on the pixels. Well maybe that is a slight exaggeration. I commented, “This digital stuff will not be workable in my lifetime.” I was wrong. Since that was the only time I have been wrong in my life, it has really shaken me to the core. Well maybe that is another little exaggeration.

Technology Forecasting

I should have known better based on a paper I wrote in graduate school published in Business Horizons magazine. That paper was eventually required reading in the Sloan School of Management at MIT. The paper was on technological forecasting and was written for Professor James M. Utterback, who ultimately became my Ph.D. major professor, mentor and friend. At that time the U.S. industrial consumption of silver was approximately equally divided into three industries, jewelry, electronics and photography, with each using about one third. By monitoring and forecasting the silver supply and by monitoring patent applications of companies in the photographic industry, I predicted there would be higher resolution but smaller film formats in the future. Along with smaller formats for silver-based products there would be a number of non-silver based imaging technologies, particularly in the graphic arts. Silver was increasingly hard to come by. We had actual silver mines in the days people were taming the old west. Now an ounce of silver is derived from 200 pounds of copper ore. Technical innovation was reacting to supply issues. All of my predictions came to be. I had no crystal ball. I just monitored pertinent factors affecting the photographic industry. Since the invention of photography in the early 1800s, there have only been seven distinctly different processes: Daguerreotype, Talbotype, Wet Plate, Dry Plate, Diffusion Transfer (Polaroid), Color (of various processes) and Digital. I am leaving out many historical processes because they are just variations of the processes mentioned. Only seven major differences in process comprise technical change in photography in two hundred years. I will go out on a limb and say that digital is the last process in photography.

How Digital Overtook Film

Three things happened that created an explosion in digital photography beginning in the early 1990s. Professional Digital backs were introduced; camera manufacturers were freed from old design constraints and Apple Computer created the iLife suite of applications. Kodak Introduces a Professional Digital Back In 1991, Kodak marketed the first digital camera for photojournalists. It was a special back for a Nikon and had a 1.3 megapixel sensor. For the math challenged, that is 1.3 million pixels within the area of image sensor. So what’s a pixel? It’s from two combined words, picture and element. Pixels can be dots, squares or rectangles depending on the application. I think the simplest way to conceive of them is a two-dimensional array of squares much like a checkerboard. So how good are image sensors now compared to film? In the days of the 1.3 megapixel Kodak camera, it was estimated that it would take at least 8 megapixels to match the resolution of Kodak Tri-X film, the staple of photojournalists. Now even inexpensive shirt-pocket cameras far exceed that number. Tri-X had what we called grain, which was clusters of silver halide crystals. Put under a microscope, one could see space between the silver halide crystals. A 35mm negative is approximately 1 x 1.5 inches and an 8x10 enlargement was somewhere between a 6.6 to 8x enlargement, assuming no cropping. Often 8 x 10 prints were in the zone of 10x enlargements. You could see the grain structure in the print if you looked for it. Indeed, we used grain focusers to ensure the enlarger was focused. The amount of “graininess” was dependant on the inherent structure of the film, the developer chosen and whether or not you “pushed” the film to higher exposure indexes. In general, the higher the ASA of the film, the higher is the amount of visible grain in the prints.  ASA is equivalent to what you know as ISO today. It is an indicator of sensitivity to light. The higher the number, the greater is the sensitivity of the film to light. Within the Kodak label, Panatomic-X had an ASA of 32, Plus-X 125 and Tri-X 400. Prints made from Panatomc-X negatives were virtually grainless to the eye. Photojournalists need to make sharp pictures in low light levels so Tri-X was the standard. It could be exposed at higher indexes of 1,200 plus when special developers were used. With every doubling of the ASA or ISO number, the film is twice as sensitive to light. When I was in collage, Kodak had a film with an ASA of 3,200; both my memory and Google now fail me as to the name of the film. It produced what we called “golf ball” grain. Again, perhaps this was an exaggeration. Photo students used this superfast film for “arty” pictures and the FBI used it for surveillance. The Canon 5D Mark II that I shoot now uses 21 megapixels per shot. Amazingly, it produces quality pictures even at 6,400 ISO. To my eye, prints made at that ISO look roughly like Tri-X prints of yesteryear. In digital photography, we don’t use the term grain because that is a film term; we use noise, which is an electronics term. And digital photography is all about electronics. When sensors are underexposed, which is what happens at high ISOs, noise is introduced. In a print, it looks pretty much like grain. The computers in modern professional cameras and I have shot both Nikon and Canon, are amazing in holding the noise down so that very high quality images can be made in low light levels. When you combine shooting in RAW and using Lightroom, Aperture or Photoshop to “process” your images, it is truly amazing. In digital processing, dodging and burning are precise and once done, via software, every print is exactly like the previous one. In wet chemistry photography you would have to make a copy negative of a good print to achieve repeatability. RAW is essentially a data dump of the image processor. A RAW image needs software to process it to something that looks like a normal photograph. Camera Design is Freed From Constraints The design of film cameras was largely standard across manufacturers. Why? Film cameras always had to allow for the transport of film from a supply cassette to the take-up spool. Since the film cassettes were a standard size, so too were the cameras that used them. Digital cameras do not have to allow for such transport mechanisms, which freed the camera designers to go wild with novel designs. Some now even have electronic viewfinders, not optical ones. One important addition is the addition of being able to shoot video with what had formally been considered a still camera. Thus, a modern digital camera is a true convergence device. Conceive of an image. If it requires motion, shoot video. If it should be a frozen moment in time, shoot a still photograph. When I was in college, such a device could not have been conceived. iLife I remember the excitement I felt when in 2003, I watched Steve Jobs of Apple Computer first introduce the iLife series of applications: iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and later Garageband. In my mind this was huge. These apps brought the power of digital publishing to the masses. This would enable anyone to tell stories digitally. Additionally, these apps came free with the operating system.

My Influences

When I was ten years old, I mixed all my chemistry, by formula, to process film and prints. I processed film by holding it in a U shape and seesawing the bottom of the U in a 1,000 ml beaker in a darkroom. I call it the "Armstrong method." Try seesawing your extended arms for 17 minutes, which I believe was the time for Verichrome Pan in D-76 at 68 degrees F. I was fortunate in having a father who was a professor of chemistry. Thus, I had access to a chemical balance and all the chemicals that were needed for D-76, acetic acid stop bath and fixer. These formulas, and more, were in the Standard Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. This was a wonderful introduction to photography and I was fortunate to have a father who made me understand what each chemical in D-76 was actually doing and what the roles of stop bath and fixer were. After brief flirtations with College majors in electrical engineering and chemistry, I discovered Cinema and Photography at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. When I told my mother I was switching my major to Cinema and Photography, she cried for three days thinking I would have no future. There were only three professors in C&P at the time: the late John Mercer, who taught me cinema; Walt Craig, who taught me commercial; and the late C. William Horrell, who taught me portraiture, scientific photography and photojournalism. All were excellent and together provided a solid and as varied education as could be found in the country. As an adult, I continued my exploration of photochemistry on my own and I think it fair to say I was at the expert level. I even devised my own developer formulas for particular assignments. I have continually told my students, “You must be a life-long learner. New things will always come along and you must explore them to keep up.” To make the point, all the knowledge I have gained over a lifetime about wet-chemistry photography is totally obsolete. In 2007, as part of a faculty sabbatical, I visited National Geographic Magazine for a week and USA Today for a week. Chris Johns, editor in chief of National Geographic, was one of the first graduate students I worked with as a young professor at the University of Minnesota. He didn’t finish his Master’s because Rich Clarkson hired him at the end of his summer internship in Topeka. If Rolex makes fine watches, Clarkson makes fine photojournalists. I have always had the utmost respect for him and what he has done for the profession of photojournalism and for young photojournalists who have the privilege of working with him.  In 2010, Chris became Dr. Chris Johns with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Indiana University.

Is Film Dead?

While at the Geographic, I asked how many active Geographic photographers were still shooting film. About three, I was told and two of the three were in the process of switching. If arguably the finest magazine in the world known as the showcase display for the work of the finest photographers in the world is essentially digital, isn’t that the death of film? One would think so. But then comes the notice of another of my brilliant and talented former students, Cindy Karp, offering a class based on wet-chemistry photography in 2011. What gives? At the moment there are seven “Likes” and 42 Comments on Cindy’s Facebook post. Here are some of the 42 comments:
“film? darkroom developing? from the dark ages of Lou Garica's time?!?!?!”
Cindy replied, “Yes! Real photography!”
“I'm surprised they still make the chemicals and equipment, etc.”
Cindy replied, “Its a fine art. But Kodak, Agfa, Ilford are still manufacturing film, paper and chemicals. Our lab at MDC is about 12 enlargers. Joseph Tamargo has kept the program going. He's one of Miami's great documentary photographers. Our students turn out amazing work.”
“Cindy, I've been wanting to take a photo course. I have a Nikon CoolPix.When does it start & what times?”
Cindy replied, “Nikon Coolpix cameras are digital. You need a 35mm film camera for this course. This is a FILM photo class. You have to register through the MDC system. The course begins 8/22. The info is above.”
Cindy wrote further down the discussion, “Biggest difference between then and now...we collect the silver out of the developer. And as little bad stuff as possible is put down the drain. I wish Jim Brown my grad school photo advisor and one of the best foto profs ever was in this discussion. He taught us all...April Saul to Annie Griffiths. The Flor de Cana cocktails came later.”
April Saul replies, Hey Cindy, thanks for the mention! Jim Brown is a Facebook friend of mine, I bet he would love to hear from you. BTW, I'm still shooting Tri-X on a project about American families I've been following since the 1980s and am actually enjoying scanning black and white negs into my laptop and playing with them in Photoshop, too...It's all good!
Cindy replied, “Hi April, I think Jim might see this discussion. We're fb friends too. I love teaching b&w film to young students. Problem is, just when they gain some control and really start to "get it" the semester ends. We were so lucky to have learned photojournalism with Tri-X.”
I replied, “I will jump into to the conversation but my mind is busy organizing what I want to say. Sometime over the weekend I will write a blog post and put a link here. It seems I can't say anything within the word limit of Facebook ;-)”
Hence comes this essay. First let me say I don’t think I really taught anybody anything except perhaps an enthusiasm for the power of visual communication. Chris, Cindy, April, Annie and the many others I worked with are great photographers due to their own initiative, drive and talent. Over my 38 years of teaching, one characteristic does emerge in student evaluations of my teaching. There is almost universal agreement on my enthusiasm. My favorite of all my evaluations was from some anonymous University of Minnesota student who wrote, “When you ask Jim Brown a what time it is, he tells you how to build a clock.” I suppose that is only natural since I actually helped a friend build a clock. Or maybe it’s that I just can’t come to the point quickly. Recently, Joe Young, a retired photojournalist for The Indianapolis News asked me to help him learn to edit his first digital video. In return, he asked if he could do anything for me. “Do you have any film that needs processing? He said. I thought I did and I made a trip through the basement and found some film. The number of rolls astounded me–77 rolls. A few were marked with a Sharpie as to what they were, my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary for example. My father died in 1991 and my mother about a year later. Some had the ASA marked others did not. So how did all this film accumulate? When I joined the faculty of the Indiana University School of Journalism, I was charged with founding a journalism school at the Indianapolis Campus. Since it was a startup school and had almost no budget beyond salaries, we had no money for lab equipment. I tried to use the lab at the art school but it just wasn’t set up as a photojournalist would set it up. Later I tried teaching photojournalism in the Continuing Education Lab. I had to stop using that lab when it was converted to office space for the staff of a new Vice Chancellor. With no warning to me, the lab was converted to office space. Without lab space, I turned my attention to computers and computer-assisted reporting. I held the first national conference on computer-assisted reporting and over six years helped over 1,000 journalists from five countries to learn to interview data much as they would interview a person. The course that Andy Schneider and I team-taught helped Joe Hallinan and Susan Headdon, reporters from The Indianapolis Star, win the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Schneider, a two-time Pulitzer winner, was their mentor on reporting and I helped with the computer analysis of the database that the reporters built themselves about medical malpractice in Indiana. Another person who was an incredible influence in my career was Wilmer Counts, the late professor of photojournalism at Indiana University at Bloomington. Will became my mentor and friend while I was a graduate student at Indiana University. I had not yet finished all my courses or my dissertation when Will learned of a job opening at the University of Minnesota working with Smitty Schuneman. Will told me to apply for the job. I said, “No, I can’t leave campus until I finish my dissertation.” This was the advice my father had given me and it was backed up by some hard data. Fifty percent of those Ph.D. students who had finished all their coursework and passed qualifying exams, never finished if they left campus without a completed dissertation. I certainly didn’t want to be in the 50 percent that never finished. Will kept pressing me on the matter. Do I listen to Will or listen to my father who had an incredible influence on my life? Will finally won. I applied and I got the position. It was the foundation of my life’s work. Burning lots of midnight oil, I did finish my degree. And best of all I got to meet some fantastic students that Schuneman and the reputation of the school had drawn to Minneapolis. I thanked Will for my caree the week before he died. While scouting a location for a weeklong documentary field trip in my documentary class, I was in southwest Minnesota and happened on to a copy of the Worthington Daily Globe. The entire area above the fold was a striking scenic of a Minnesota prairie. I studied the photo and looked at the credit line. It was someone I had never heard of before, Jim Brandenburg. I knew I had to ask this guy to come up to the big city and talk to my students. He did and we have been friends since. He is one of the most accomplished wild life photographers ever to pick up a camera. After many years as a field photographer for National Geographic, he felt the need for a period of self-renewal. If you manage to live long enough, you are sure to feel the same need. Jim set out on a project so constraining that I don’t think anyone but him could have accomplished it. Traveling from his cabin in the north woods of Minnesota, he decided he would make only one exposure per day for the 90 days of the fall season. Let me repeat that, only one exposure per day for 90 days. He was discouraged so many times. Sometimes the daylight hours passed without finding the one image for the day. He would set up a tripod and make a night exposure. These 90 pictures are stunning in their content and inspirational when you know the story behind them. You can view them in Chased by the Light ( book and DVD). In my last years of teaching, I showed the DVD to my Introduction to Visual Communication students. Jim’s comments make the DVD much more than simply exploring stunningly good pictures. It is his path to creative reinvention. It was his challenge to himself to really see and be critical about what he chooses to capture. It is about self-renewal. To close the discussion of the DVD, I tell my students that they too will have to reinvent themselves. Jim’s message is to figure out a challenge to make you grow into a new direction and then do it. No every one has the talent to do what Jim did so successfully but everyone can design a challenge that is within his or her own means. I loved the school, the students and Minnesota but when an opportunity, as a photojournalism teacher, to become the founding dean of a new school of journalism presented itself, I leaped to the challenge. I moved to the faculty of the Indiana University School of Journalism and I was the founding Executive Associate Dean directing the new School of Journalism at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. It was then that Will Counts was an actual colleague, not just a friend. As the senior faculty member in photojournalism, I really appreciated his strong defense of photojournalism and visual communication in the curriculum. I also appreciated his continuous focus on new projects. He too was reinventing himself over and over again. John Ahlhauser did not start his Ph.D. program until he was in his mid-50s after a long career as a photojournalist at the Milwaukee Journal. Indiana University was wise enough to hire him as a professor of photojournalism following completion of his degree. John was very helpful to me as a young professor at Minnesota and the two of them were wonderful to me as a young dean at Indiana. When you start a Ph.D. program in your mid-50s, you are reinventing yourself. With Dean in front of my name, people listened to what I had to say. At my urging and based on the pioneering work of the Indiana News Photographers association, all the major professional photo competitions in Indiana went digital for judging in the same year. INPA was already digital and had done a terrific job of setting up file naming conventions, etc. I was president of the Indy Pro Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists so I just announced to the board we were going digital and I implemented the INPA system. One of my former grad students works for Hoosier State Press Association. I called her and told her HSPA was going digital. After she got over the initial shock I laid out a plan and helped execute it. When the AP heard what was going on, they went digital. Then I learned that HSPA did not have photojournalists judging the photojournalism categories of their annual competition. I asked to speak to their board and got that changed. Even without a lab to do my work, I continued to work on the behalf of photojournalists in Indiana. This is how 77 rolls of film accumulated in my basement. I gathered up these rolls of film just as Cindy’s discussion of her film-based class came to Facebook. I had decided to us Diafine as the developed because as a two-bath developer. I found an unopened box of Diafine to make a quart of solution. The price on the box was $3.95. I thought maybe I should buy some fresh chemicals. I called Phil Gibson at Robert’s Imaging and asked if they had Diafine. Phil said, “What’s that?” I thought, “What has the world come to?” I explained what it was and gave him all the advantages of a two-bath developer. He couldn't really hang up on me because I am a regular customer. Phil has learned to expect the “make the clock” responses from me. I Googled Diafine and found the current price to be about $20.95. That is an indicator as to how long I have had it. I happened on to a blog site that indicated that a Diafine processed negative is perfect for scanning. I have a film scanner that I haven’t used in years so I became interested. The day after Cindy’s message arrived, I bought four rolls of Tri-X 120 at Roberts and descended to the basement to try to find my old Rollei. I did find it and tried to remember how to use it. When I opened the back there was a sticker in the camera for Nowell’s Camera Shop in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Bill Nowell gave me my first job at 16 years old. I swept the sidewalks, worked the counter to sell cameras, film and chemistry to customers and even learned a little bit about camera repair. Two days ago, Phil Gibson and I did a motorcycle ride. I only brought the Rollei. I stopped at the Cottonwood Church near Helmsburg, Indiana and loaded the camera. It had been probably 48 years since I had used that camera. Apparently I had not remembered quite enough. I made one exposure but the winding handle had jammed.  About that time the preacher came out to introduce himself and I immediately wanted to do a sound/picture production on him and the church. I whipped out my Zoom H4N and started interviewing. Then I grabbed Phil’s digital camera and made pictures. Phil seemed to be highly amused. We have always heard the expression that the best camera is the one you have with you. In this case the best camera I had available was Phil’s. As you read through to this far, if you have, you may have concluded that this is just a collection of random thoughts. What’s the point? Let’s review. I have not shot film for more than a decade. My first digital camera, an Olympus E-10 4-megapixel wonder came on the market in 2000. Because I did not have a lab for a number of years, I accumulated a lot of film. While teaching a friend digital video, he offers to process my film. A former student encourages me to chime in on her Facebook posting about her film-based course and another intern I worked with inspired me to buy a cheap plastic Holga lens for my expensive camera. In researching a new source for Diafine, I am inspired to buy film and dust off my Rollei. My initial experiment failed but I have cleared the jam and am ready to try again. I can’t wait to see what in on those 77 rolls of film. See–it all makes sense to me. Maybe I am reinventing myself. This issue that you perhaps initially thought I was writing about was digital vs. film (or analog as its now called). The marketplace has gone digital but that doesn’t mean analog doesn’t have it’s place. I am working with a friend now trying to help him understand the relationship between f-stop and shutter speed. It would be much easier to explain to him the relationship by just opening a film camera (without film) and letting him look through the lens as various shutter speeds and f-stops are applied. Which is better Ford or Chevy? Who cares? Different people will have different opinions. Both will get you to your destination. Which motorcycle is better Harley or BMW? (Note. I am riding my fourth BMW and I don’t have any tattoos.) I do wave to Harley riders on the road and they wave to me. So who cares? We both smell the freshly mown hay and the pig poop as we ride the open roads. We both have fun. Which operating system is better, OS X or Windows? (Note. I have an iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro, and a Mac Pro.) I will admit that Windows is somewhat workable. An intern I worked with several years ago, James Brosher, is now a working photojournalist. I have followed his work for several years and really like it. He carries two Holga cameras with him, one loaded with ISO 100 film and one with ISO 400 film. Since these cameras are fixed aperture at f-8, he picks the camera to fit the lighting available. I used to joke with him that he could achieve the same effect by smearing Vaseline on his Nikon lenses. But the fact of the matter is that I rather like his Holga work. I even found a Canon mount Holga lens, which I have just begun to play with. Perhaps a real Holga is in my future.

In Conclusion

Finally, you are thinking. Setting up a dichotomy such as film vs. digital is really not very important. Each medium has its own advantages and disadvantages. Switching to an unfamiliar medium is often a way of moving from a stagnant creative funk to a period of wild creativity. Whatever excites you as an instructor will also excite your students. Each of us is a product of the people who have shaped our lives. My parents George and Ethelyn Brown gave me a really good foundation. John Mercer, Walt Craig and C. William Horrell were fantastic teachers in college. James M. Utterback was a great mentor in grad school along with Ralph Veal and Harvey Frye. My wife, Becky, has been wonderful as my partner through life. Our children, Jennifer and Brian, have been amazing to watch grow to the adults they are now. And we are looking at that process all over again though our grandchildren, Katie and Audrey. I have had the honor to work with thousands of students some of whom have gone on the major professional distinction. I have had a remarkable career in higher education and in the later years have had some amazing colleagues at IUPUI, Sherry Ricchiardi, Jonas Bjork, Maggie Balough Hillery, and Deb Perkins supported me for years. Bob Dittmer is an outstanding teacher with multiple teaching awards. Pam Laucella and Julie Vincent are new additions. The late Will Counts, John Ahlhauser and Steve Raymer have been terrific colleagues from the Bloomington campus. I am also grateful for the many professionals who have taught as adjunct professors in the program I loved. The landscape has changed in the year I have been retired. But that is a subject for another blog. I am grateful for my mentors, my students and my colleagues. I have learned from all of them. Life is good. So the issue is really not which is best, film or digital, but rather what is it at this moment that keeps you alive creatively. What is it that makes you want to keep working? If you are a photographer and digital is what excites you then digital is best. If film is your thing for the moment, then film is best. Since both David Letterman and I am from Indiana, I will borrow the idea of his top ten list and list some things that I think are import in teaching or in just getting though life. Make up your own top ten. Be who you are from a framework of values.
  1. Enthusiasm is infectious. If you don’t have it, don’t teach.
  2. Learn to identify when you are stuck in a rut and devise a plan to move out of it. Execute the plan.
  3. Perhaps another question is a better teaching device than an answer. You don’t necessarily have to have a classroom to teach. Find a younger person to mentor.
  4. Learn to listen. Academic advising is almost never about academics. It’s called empathic listening. I am not very good at it but I consciously try to improve. This doesn’t just apply to academics either. Be slow to judge. Sometimes people just need someone to listen to them.
  5. When you critique student’s work try to incorporate what is good about the work as well as what is wrong. Students usually want the criticism so that they can improve but a little positive reinforcement helps generate enthusiasm. Ranting and raving is not as effective as you think it is.
  6. Technology is fleeting and in constant change. Teach principles that are independent of technology. Yes, apply current technology too but don't lock students into technology.
  7. Always incorporate ethical discussions in your teaching. It helps students think about the impact of their pictures, captions and stories.
  8. Be a lifelong learner. What you are good at today may well be obsolete tomorrow. There was an Adobe CS 1 and now there is CS5.5. While not certain, there will likely be a CS20 if not by that name. If your employer does not invest in your professional education, invest in yourself. Say to yourself as they say in the hair care commercial, “I’m worth it!” You are worth it.
  9. The answer to stagnation is reinvention. Look around you. Successful people reinvent themselves all the time.
  10. Always tell the truth, verbally, in writing and in your photographs. The commodity of highest value to you is not your camera gear; it is your integrity. You can sell your camera gear but never sell your integrity.
Thanks for listening.