By Jerry Ginsberg
Like most of us of a certain age, I shot thousands of rolls of film over many, many years. As a result, I have five large, steel, filing cabinets in a cold room that are just chock full of carefully filed archival slide pages. Those who feel a pang of nostalgia for all of those 2 x 2” cardboard slide mounts, please raise your hand.
When digital technology began taking over in the early 2000’s, I characteristically and very firmly resisted the change. I hoped that if I ignored it long enough, it would just go away. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
After having invested years in learning to see the light just as my chosen film emulsion/s would, I had no intention of chucking all of that hard-won knowledge and essentially starting over. Alas, by 2008, I felt compelled to try dipping just one toe into the murky waters of the digital world and bought a crop sensor DSLR boasting a whopping 10 megapixels and a 24 – 67 mm (full frame equivalent) zoom and began to experiment.
One thing that I still find frightening is that these digital files have no hard copy backup. The inevitable hard drive failure can simply cause trillions of pixels to go poof! Happily, the cost of those drives – both spinning disks and SSD – has come down very sharply and is no longer an obstacle. Nevertheless, one can never have enough redundancy.
At least with film, I have always felt that if every one of my many thousands of digital scans went away, I would still have the original piece of celluloid to fall back on. Yes, I know, even that don’t last forever, but with careful archiving, it won’t spontaneously evaporate either.
As Ilfochrome, type C printing, and the color separations used in publishing went away, I was obliged to scan my medium format chromes with the largest Nikon film scanners and send CDs (Remember those?) out to publishers. This naturally pushed me into the need to learn at least a little Photoshop. I got involved with the digital darkroom just as many folks were asking if they should migrate from Photoshop 7 to the new CS (aka Photoshop 8).
Over these intervening years, digital photography has taken over and largely vanquished film to “the dust bin of history.” As a result, my remaining film stock has been relegated to a freezer in the garage, the film scanners have not been turned on for a long time, my compact DSLR has long been replaced by several generations of hardware presently culminating in a hefty, 51-megapixel howitzer. Having progressed from trying to understand the difference between a Layer and a Curve, I now actually teach intermediate Photoshop to eager students.
No one is more surprised by that twist of fate than am I.
So, like virtually all of us, I have yielded to the inevitable, although often grudgingly. One benefit of this revolution that I thoroughly enjoy is that when I return home from a photo trip of several weeks, I do not have a four-digit processing bill waiting for me. The flip side, however, is spending literally hundreds of hours in front of a monitor editing, keywording and processing those images. It’s ironic that in the dark ages of film there was little work involved aside from sorting and ranking the frames and then shoving them into those hanging slide pages, whereas in the hi-tech digital age, everything has become so very labor intensive.
“The negative is the score. The print is the performance,” wrote Ansel Adams. Those sage words from the pioneer who almost single-handedly elevated landscape photography into an art form are even more true now than in the halcyon days of the wet darkroom. In the digital age the RAW file has become the negative and the processed TIFF or PSD is the performance.
Experiencing an epiphany
While I had long clung to the belief that this new-fangled toy would never equal film photography for superior results, I just had a real awakening.
The very first book of fine art photographs that I acquired had a great influence over my perception of what makes a great landscape photograph. It is a monograph with over a hundred landscape images made on large format film that I bought in the small visitor center at Canyon de Chelly way back in the early ‘90’s. After not having looked at it for many years, I took it down from the shelf a few days ago.
What a shock!
While the compositions are as good as ever, the detail, colors, tonality and contrast are really weak. They simply cannot hold a candle to what we regularly produce with everyday digital captures and just a few tweaks in Photoshop and other software in the digital darkroom.
I am beginning to think that this stuff might just be here to stay.
The next chapter
This little essay marks the 100th consecutive month that my musings have appeared in NANPA’s blog. In addition to recounting some of my travel experiences and offering advice on photographing our wonderful National Parks and other special places, I am privileged to have had this forum to advocate for some of my favorite causes such as backing up data and adequate funding for our beloved and irreplaceable national treasures. As one friend has told me, “Everyone is entitled to (my) opinion.”
It’s time to take a break. While I will miss the pleasant task of assembling these pieces every month, I’m confident that with some time, I will find more issues on which to bloviate.
This year I plan to travel to some combination of central Europe and Argentine Patagonia, governmental restrictions permitting. You can expect me to report back on these trips once I return. And of course, should Congress get the crazy idea to create a new national park, I’ll hop on the very first plane.
My heartfelt thanks to those many of you who have emailed with questions over the years, giving me the opportunity to offer individually tailored suggestions, to the folks of the National Park Service for their many kindnesses, as well as my friends who have very generously contributed their help and expertise to some of these pieces. You know who you are.
Note: The images that appear here were made over the years at some of my favorite spots scattered across the nation in various national parks. With just a single exception they were made on color reversal film, scanned and optimized in Photoshop. Can you guess which is the sole digital capture?
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.