It’s Only Data Until You Print It

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After two years of watching social media, studying other professional photographers’ works, I’ve come to the conclusion that the influence and use of the digital medium combined with social media has resulted in a generational cascade of digitally manipulated (fake, filtered) imagery billed inside the art genre to which, in my mind, photography no longer belongs. This should come as no surprise to anyone given the current use of social media which has led to the never-ending question of whether an image is unaltered (original) versus altered (fake).

The term “graphics” is a more appropriate genre for the overabundance of images flowing through the Internet which are visually digested by millions of users daily, and which a majority I personally find without a soul, or pertaining to some meaningful topic, or relevance, other than to entice a “follow”, “heart”, or “like” click.

Digital images are digital dust; vulnerable to deletion, lost forever to hard drive failure, ransomware, computer viruses, theft of a cell phone, social media, cloud, or storage accounts. 

Blindly, a large majority of libraries, historians, and museums have come to depend on donations from persons or organizations from their communities to archive events, people, and times of a given area for historical interest.  Unfortunately, this practice presents a danger of failing future generations. 

It’s a statistical fact that a large majority of people no longer make photographic prints, and rely heavily on digital storage components from phones to cloud services to internal, and external hard drives to ensure the longevity and permanence of memories of family and events in their lives. 

Nikon F5, T-Max 100 +2
Nikon F5, T-Max 100 +2

This should be considered temporary access to a lifetime of memories, and not a permanent record that plays a relevant role in the documentation of historical and archival photographs which historical organizations archive for posterity.

Online photo printing in the US annualized market growth from 2016–2021 reached a 1.7% increase in 2021.  The market for printing photographs has dropped substantially with the development of the first commercial digital cameras and cell phones containing onboard cameras in 2004.

In 2014 Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report observed that people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion digital images every single day. That’s 657 billion photos in 2014. Another way to think about it: In 2014 humans were making more photos in two minutes than ever existed since the invention of the camera 150 years ago. 

Since 2014 the number of photos uploaded to social platforms has almost doubled to an astonishing 3.2 billion images and 720,000 hours of video shared online daily.  When faced with that amount of gluttony how do we trust, how can we know, what is real or not?  As a historian how do you separate fantasy from fact? As a photographer how do you motivate yourself to compete in any market when faced with those absurd figures? 

This generational attitude is folly; a societal downfall in understanding the digital age, its limitations, and the repercussions of the failure of the infrastructure on which it relies to guard personal, or social history.

The blind reliance on digital storage, managed by corporations who state “their interest is your interest”, is shortsighted, and dangerous, given the possibility that a current generational gap in historical media, of which photographs have been the mainstay for historians, library’s and museums, are at risk of being lost forever due to cyber-attack, natural or man-made disasters.

A first-strike weapon like an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) warhead is a good example of an event that would reshape history, through the process of decimating it, due to the loss of references and media stored on digital platforms which would be annihilated instantly, and merits credibility to the importance of beginning to print, and document the Anthropocene using archival mediums.

Iron Mountain - Nikon F5 T-Max 100 +2
Iron Mountain – Nikon F5 T-Max 100 +2

Photographic papers, and films, which are not susceptible to electronic failure or cyber-attack, and have a life-span of hundreds of years when properly stored, and maintained, are the simplest and most economical choice to fill an ever-growing void of historical reference material due to social entropy and generational attrition specific to an area.

The evolution of hardware, software, and popular devices merits why film, and photographic prints, better serve the missions of historians, librarians, and museum curators, not to mention artists such as photographers. The Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) and the 3.5-inch floppy disk are good examples of outdated, and inaccessible, media in a world full of evolving technologies that will continue to grow, and flourish, in a society dedicated to the use them with little, if any, transference between technologies.

There are advantages of film over digital images that are never mentioned by modern camera manufacturers, and never again will be.

Why Film

  • Lower initial cost for a film camera than for a comparable digital camera.
  • Film delivers a higher dynamic range, which makes it better at capturing detail in whites, mid-tones, shadows, and blacks. This includes color photography.
  • Film photography is forgiving of minor focusing and exposure issues.
  • A film camera has a higher resolution than what is found in most digital cameras.
  • Film offers a limited number of exposures available on a roll. The photographer must stop and think before making an image.

Due to film’s characteristics of being forgiving, archival, and historical (being a hard-copy negative that can be re-scanned in the future, possibly with better results due to advances in technology) it’s the perfect medium for amateurs, artists, and professionals documenting the inhabitants of the Anthropocene.

From the depths of personal responsibility, frustration, and concern, with the current social media construct, I created The F8Project; a project in which the film camera is the only tool used to convey an idea, emotion, sense of beauty, or even despair using traditional methods to create an image inside the camera, and darkroom, abandoning the use of Software.

Any image created on film is archival. Good or bad it has the potential to speak to future generations making them historical, relevant, and meaningful.

Hawk Buckman is a Getty Images® documentary wildlife photographer, and independent freelance documentary photographer. From 1998 until 2018 Hawk's clients included Greenpeace International,  World Wildlife Fund,  ABC, NBC,  Audubon, The BBC, and other publications and media organizations.  Currently Hawk works with Nebraska, Colorado and Utah Life Magazines.  His independent projects include socioeconomic, environmental, mental illness and race relations in rural America.  In addition to researching and documenting historical locations throughout the western United States, he also enjoys leading photography classes and workshops for photo hobbyists, sharing his passion for creating narratives using analog photographs.
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