Blind Faith – A Response to Don McCullin

In November 2015 the great photojournalist, Don McCullin, said, “Digital photography is a lying medium”. He was half right. Film is a lying medium too.

Older photographers can often be heard observing the decline in standards that has accompanied the rise of digital photography. They often deplore the speed of the new format and speak warmly of the ‘beneficial limitations’ and immutable honesty of film. To a certain extent I’m one of them. I’m 46 and my training in photography was in film. As a teenager I had a darkroom in my bedroom and in the early 90’s when I became an assistant in various studios around London it was all film. There was no choice. The only ‘digitisation’ at that time was when film was scanned at great cost (or ‘put on the System’ in the parlance of the day) and usually only to correct something that would otherwise render the essential shot unusable. ‘The System’ was used in the last resort. As such digitisation was seen then as a failure rather than an opportunity.

I think it was in 1993 that I went to a presentation in Leicester (why Leicester?) on Photoshop 1. In a room above a shop  we were given a demonstration of how two different pictures could be combined to make another. In this demonstration a picture of a flame was used to replace a coxcomb on the head of a chicken. Result – a chicken with a flame on its head. A novelty perhaps – but also a clue to the way we would treat the mutability of digital technology when it would arrive in force.

Some experienced photographers argue that film is less adaptable than digital and therefore digital cannot be relied on as an instrument of truth. It could be argued that it was the advent of Photoshop in the film era rather than digital photography on its own which has undermined contemporary photography’s reputation for truthful rendition. Digital is no less a truth telling medium than film – its what we do with it afterwards that matters.

At the time of the birth of Adobe’s cornerstone software the great photographer Don McCullin was photographing for the Sunday Times capturing the horror of war and the cost of human conflict using Tri-X – his favourite black and white film. Wind forward over 20 years to November 2015 when he was quoted  in the Guardian as saying that digital photography will never equal film in its ability to reliably communicate the truth of a situation because of its innate mutability as contrasted with the innate immutability (read sanctity) of film and all the reliability that simple fact conveys, i.e. immutable film equals immutable truth. Wrong. I believe this adherence to the ‘sanctity’ of film is misplaced.

There are many reasons why digital deserves its place alongside film – each argument alone enough to vanquish the reactionary instincts of film-addicted photographers.

As John Berger wrote in his 1972 essay, Photographs of Agony, the effect on us of seeing shocking images of war and suffering and the way we cope with them is key to understanding the so called ‘power of truth’ in the media. As Berger argues, the discomfit we feel when confronted with the sundry horrors recorded by photographers in the field as we butter our toast and sip our espressos is a deal we make as consumers of such stories with the media outlets that present them to us. Berger points out that the violence we see in these pictures shock us, not into action, but is more likely to render us immobile because the established structure of western democracy means we feel fatalistically unable to put our repulsion into action. So we swallow hard and push the awful images to the back of our minds and carry on.

News carriers can safely publish unsettling pictures because their establishment-supporting proprietors know (for the most part) we will not be moved to revolt by them. No matter how good these pictures are and on what format they originated there are other very powerful factors in the dissemination of images that render the tired mutable/immutable argument irrelevant. Despite this futility the contract between viewer and publisher remains complex; how much more credibility is placed on a picture shown on the BBC website over the same image printed in the Sunday Sport? How we attribute ‘truth’ to a series of images is as much about how that story is delivered as it is about how much of our own experience we bring to the story and what degree of ‘truth’ we consequently ascribe to it.

In 2012 I wrote a piece about the beauty of organic film called ‘Continuous Change’. There’s not a word I wrote then that I don’t stand by now  but my thinking has developed. Like many people of my age I have an appreciation of both film and digital. This is a bother because I know I can use either so the decision as to which hangs over every new project. I am respectful of some photographers, such as Jocelyn Bain Hogg, who still shoot almost everything on film and love the work of some others (Chris Steele Perkins, Harry Gruyeart and the late, great Saul Leiter amongst many others) who have all have used digital cameras despite having started their careers using film. Aesthetic purpose may have some baring on which technology these photographers choose.  Some may place digital’s ease of use above film’s ‘quality’. But a good photograph is a good photograph whatever the medium. The question of origination is interesting, in aesthetic terms, only as a relative comparator or detail – not as a fundamental arbitrator between validity and invalidity.

Aesthetics are a subplot to the main story. McCullin is concerned with the truth and nothing but the truth and any photograph that can’t be relied on for such purposes is not worth the chip it is stored on he might argue. So we must revisit McCullin’s actual words to understand what is at stake here. He said “digital photography is a lying medium”.  So what he is saying is that of the two media; film and digital, the former is truer (less mutable) than the latter and, therefore, in questions of veracity film must win out over digital. Judgement made. End of story.

But is it?

Is it not, perhaps, just a tiny bit arrogant to say that the means of image production which coincided with your life is the only one worth investing in and caring about? Isn’t it the most incredible coincidence that in the 4.3 billion years of Earth’s history, not to mention the preceding 9+ billion years of the universe and then, say, the last 200,000 years of human development that a period of some 150 years between 1839 and 2000 would take place the ONLY useful period EVER in the production of images through light sensitive reception layers and lenses? And further, does it strike you as arrogant to say that every image captured beyond this infinitesimally tiny gap in space-time will carry less weight and be less beautiful/useful/truthful ad infinitum?  For old photographers to claim that film outweighs digital in matters of integrity and aesthetics is appallingly arrogant.

Is it possible that photography has died with film – that photography equals film and therefore the former cannot exist without the latter? Of course not.

In many ways I think we’ve lost something in digital that we never considered important in film.

The list of the positive attributes of film might include:

  1. Consideration. When you only had 36 exposures on a roll you had to make them count.
  2. Time. Time spent apart from the images you’ve just shot makes for less contrivance (no chimping) and better editing later (the greater perspective of time).
  3. Spontaneity. Because we couldn’t tell what was going on on the film we had just shot we would have to hope for the best. Until the film was developed we would inhabit the world of Schroedinger’s Cat being simultaneously the greatest living photographer and the worst living photographer. This lack of control produced a more dangerous feeling to capturing the moment and produced a more instinctive reaction (perhaps).

The list of things that are good about digi might include:

  1. Consideration. We are able to lose ourselves in the moment of a shoot because we don’t have to worry about changing rolls of film or limited ISO. We can move more fluidly around the subject and the camera becomes even more effective as an extension of our subconscious.
  2. Time. We can work at any speed we choose according to mood, subject or opportunity. There is no physical preparation for a shoot and lighting is often optional. In this way we can shoot with consideration and attention to detail or blast away quickly, sending the images out in real time to clients or appreciative audiences all over the world instantly – or not as we choose.
  3. Spontaneity. My experience, aesthetic sense and curiosity lead me to take pictures.  Physical restrictions such as availability of film and relative darkness no longer apply.

The closest we can get to an ‘objective truth’ in an image is to ensure that what the originator (the photographer) was trying to say when he made the exposure is nurtured thorough all the various editorial processes in a way that reflects and honours the photographer’s original instinct . This ‘tussle’ with truth telling can be limited at the point of capture by factors such as; imagination, technical ability or the photographer’s own ability to read the situation in front of him and perceive where the heart of the story lies. What happens later in Lightroom or the hands of a picture editor can completely subvert the nature and subsequently the intended meaning, if any, of the original image. This is why when it comes to truth telling the only thing we can rely on is the photographer. Again, whether its digital or film makes absolutely no difference.

With this in mind  we should now consider the influence of an editor along the pathway from exposure to print. It is absolutely true that a manipulated image is undesirable when attempting to convey ‘as true’ an act recorded but, in truth, both film and digital are susceptible to the hand of wilful intention vis Stalin’s photographic censorship (NB this is not for us to consider here as it is concerned with political attitudes to ‘the photograph’ and truth has a different role to play here). To argue that one is better than the other is to ignore the fundamental ability of cameras to record the physical nature of a point in space and time. Neither format is impervious or above criticism so any move to claim superiority for either is spurious and wrong headed.

Lets consider the shot of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (aka the Napalm Girl) by Nick Ut. Compare the two images below and you will see both the classic ‘authorised’ version and the full, uncropped frame. The full image reveals a photographer (perhaps Burnett) calmly reloading film into his camera as chaos and suffering surround him. I make no judgement of the photographer but the fact remains that this image has been cropped to tell one story while the full frame tells another.

We have no idea what the conditions were like at the time of exposure and we are all implicated in the lazy acceptance that what is purported to be the truth is, in fact, such. We should ask ourselves at what point the ‘truth’ becomes locked into a picture; at exposure? At printing? In Lightroom? Objective truth does not exist at any stage in the process. A photograph has only the veracity which we, the viewers give it. Despite the simplicity of the alteration of ‘Napalm Girl’ – it is only cropped after all – film is just as mutable as digi. Its only that film has a physical base that leads us to value its inherent truth but in the hands of the master manipulator film and digi have the same plasticity.

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Before continuing it would be good to put another trope to bed – for good. That is to say that film is more truthful because (as alluded to above) it is a physical object and therefore the film grain tells an immutable story. Conversely digital is a conditional array of pixels which can be moved with impunity. It is ‘easier’ (good skills are still required) to move elements around, clone and comp a digital image but the same can be said of film – it just takes a little longer. Beyond that we are still reliant on all the conditions already laid out elsewhere in this essay for the original image to be a faithful representation of an event.

NOTE IF you’d like to see a trite collection of manipulated film images click here.

The semblance of truth of a photograph occurs only when certain qualities or criteria are perceived to align:

  1. source – where did the image originate/who shot it?
  2. means of diffusion – who is claiming it to be a record of the truth?
  3. who is perceiving the image – are they/you reliably experienced to weigh the balance of probabilities and estimate the truthfulness of an image?

These three criteria will apply whether the photograph originated on film or digital and all three are dependant on our own investment  of what we hold to be true much as it is in other areas of our lives where matters of trust require an element of blind faith.

Old habits are said to die hard. In my own attitude to film I find some very persistent inclinations pertaining to its aesthetics but in reality I know, as a printer of many other people’s work, that this reactionary inclination to film as the medium of inalienable beauty is often misplaced. McCullin is suffering from the reactionary inclinations of someone whose love of their medium is built up over half a century. It is a remnant of previous necessity that today looks more like blind faith. It is human to love something so familiar. But change is inevitable and no amount of prevarication and justification will avoid this. At some point we need to grasp the new – not for its ‘newness’ but for the improvements it brings. Writing an essay like this is my way of understanding all the benefits of what went before and what we have to gain from adapting to the ‘new’.

Change is a matter of fact. The second law of Thermodynamics confirms this – change is the key of life. The move away from film to another medium is inevitable – to argue that film should be the sole carrier of the message is Canutian in its futility. Whether shooting on digital or film the only important thing is that sole agency be given to the photographer. This union of human and machine is where beauty and truth are created. Truth watches on, hoping for its moment in the sun, not caring one grain or pixel how its message is carried so long as it eventually arrives intact and intelligently consumed.

Alex Schneideman, December 2015, London

2 thoughts on “Blind Faith – A Response to Don McCullin”

  1. Werner Herzog said, “the truth should never get in the way of a good story” and that is the same for photography. absolute truth doesn’t exist in any medium or even any human being. Everything we create has our grubby manipulative mitts all over it. We are incapable of presenting or processing anything that hasn’t been altered by our own perception so essentially its all lies and half-truths.

    1. I think that’s broadly right but I think there is a place for honest documenting – it’s just that decisions made by people
      further up the editorial line make decisions for other reasons which can skew the meaning of the original story and hence the ‘truth’.

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