Editor's Notes

sorcadmin's picture
For those who worked in the confines of the amber-lit chemical darkroom and experienced the wonder of an image emerging from paper after being dipped in a tray of liquid, the changeover to the digital darkroom, as it has come to be known, has been radical. No longer dealing with dye and density, we are now confronted with changeable codes that are handled by graphic interfaces, and terms of use that borrow from the darkroom days but have no resemblance in how they are applied. Those older terms have become analogies for what we now do with computer, software, monitor, and pen tablet or mouse. Once, large format meant bigger negative size and less magnification for big enlargements. Now, bit depth and file size call that tune. We once used additional "aimed" and blocked light and contrast grade filtration to deal with contrast and local area density control; now we map tones with histograms and manipulate curves and play with Levels to raise and lower contrast, and adjustment layers, Blending modes, and layer masks to "burn and dodge." And, thankfully, hue and saturation and duotone dialogs have replaced malodorous toning techniques.

What we are really doing with all those new tools is changing the code of the pixels we are manipulating. We still see the results as if we are doing work by hand, but we are in fact operating a huge calculating machine that is constantly crunching numbers behind the scenes. To increase overall contrast, for example, we simply plot a new curve or move some sliders and voilà, we have gone from a Grade 2 to a Grade 3, in darkroom terms, except in the digital environment we can now go from a Grade 2 to a Grade 2.8576, if desired. We now have more exacting controls than ever before, with the ability to refine our images to the nth degree. Aside from all the fancy new tricks, like HDR, stitching panoramas, and immediate, additional acutance at the touch of a button, we can also use these tools to affect classic image manipulation techniques in new and amazing ways.

With it all, however, there still needs to be some visual literacy involved; that is, the understanding of what you want to do with the image once it lands on the screen. In that, those who have worked in the darkroom, or have studied the classical techniques, seem to have a leg up on those who have not. Having a histogram to read out the tonal map at hand is one thing; knowing what tonality means, and its effect on the experience of the image is another. This seems to open the debate that still rages among the photo schools--whether or not teaching photography with film, developer, and darkroom printing makes sense. Or, perhaps more to the point, how can the visual skills in photography--the seeing rather than the settings--be taught in the digital realm? Does digital preclude an appreciation of tonality or simply assign it to a graph? I don't believe digital will or should stop those classical studies--it's just a question of how this will be done, which I leave to the teachers and photo departments out there.

The amazing resurgence of interest in black and white using digital tools does give me hope. This has brought the spirit of classical photography into the digital realm and further raised an awareness of what makes for an effective image and print. For those who still carry the torch there are old darkrooms to make light, and a new generation of photographers and printers who will experience the thrill of an image appearing on a sheet of blank paper, albeit one that comes off an inkjet printer and not up in a tray.

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