Missing Magic

Watching images appear in a developing tray…anxiously anticipating the transparent contents of little yellow boxes…these were moments of truth for a film photographer. You’d either nailed the exposure, focus and composition as you’d intended…or not.

I don’t believe there’s a corresponding excitement that attaches to digital photos. They remind me of chameleons: having been post processed repeatedly to fine tune the result, they may be changed again (and again) to suit the photographer, an editor, or a client.

I’m not saying digitally-derived photos aren’t satisfying, or that a wet darkroom is superior to a computer set-up. Those are arguments for arguments’ sake, and what photographer doesn’t enjoy one of those? My feeling, which I can’t put a finger squarely on (yet), is also a question: If you can’t hold it in your hands, is it really a photograph? That was (is) films’ realness and why many photographers continue to work with it.

I’ve been thinking about analog vs. digital differences as I sort through old photos and realize that my memories of a particular event or place are strongest when I’m viewing a Kodachrome rather than a collection of pixels on a cinema display. And it’s not only the memory: somehow the experiences seem a bit more vibrant, like the film they were shot on.

The photo above was taken in the autumn of 1987 in Yellowstone National Park, on the short trail to Artist Paint Pots. It was during the rutting period for Rocky Mountain elk, and this bull was very ardent in his protection of a harem of cows. I was a safe distance away, with trees for cover, when he charged a bleached chunk of tree root and throttled it quite handily. Message: Stay Away, They’re Mine! When I saw the shot on a page of slides yesterday the moment came back as quickly as that elk herd disappeared into the pine forest. My last trip to Yellowstone was in 2005, and while I’m pleased with many of the digital shots from that winter visit…their stories aren’t as strong in my consciousness. Is it simply me, struck by a bout of nostalgia, or is there something deeper going on?

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