Monday, August 28, 2006

Pointed Sticks

Well, Dear Readers, you catch me in a philosophical mood tonight.

In my last post, I commented on just how difficult it is to take and process pictures on ‘real’ film, when compared to digital.

What really made me think was MC Etcher’s comment that traditional photography is a ‘Dying Art’.

My question is simple…Is this a bad thing?

It begs the question, “What is the difference between keeping a tradition alive, and hanging on to an obsolete and outmoded way of doing things?”

For example, when it comes to photography, it takes a lot more time, effort and skill to go from triggering the shutter to finished picture traditionally than it does digitally. So, is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Traditional photographers would obviously tell you that this is a good thing. That their method is closer to true ‘art’, because of the level of skill involved. Digital photographers would obviously say this is a bad thing, because the whole point of the process is the finished picture and they can achieve the same results as a traditional photographer much more easily and in a fraction of the time.

In many ways there is a lot of jealousy and snobbery involved in these situations, simply because no one likes to see a method of doing anything come along that is so easy anyone can do it…especially when they’ve spent a large portion of their lives learning to do things the traditional way.

This happens often in the workforce, where someone has spent years training to do a particular job and then one day discovers that with a computer, anyone can do the same job with 20 minutes training. We’ve become obsolete so we choose to pride ourselves on the ‘fact’ that our way is the ‘real’ way, and anything that makes it easier is just ‘cheating’.

The same is true in pretty much all walks of life. In a few short weeks, I personally have achieved a level of skill at airbrushing in Photoshop that would take me months, or even years to achieve traditionally. While I’m still definitely a novice, I definitely couldn’t get the same results with a real airbrush that I get in Photoshop.

Inking drawings is the same. It doesn’t take nearly as much skill, because if I mess up a line, I can remove it and re-do it as many times as I like. Whereas traditional inking is a one-shot deal…digital inking is entirely reversible.

The question is then, is it the final product that’s most important, or the process of creating it? When you look at a piece of art, does the amount of time, or the skill involved to create it really have a bearing on how much you like it? Would the Mona Lisa be any less of a masterpiece if DaVinci had knocked it up in an hour in photoshop?

In some cases, the answer is clear. For example, if a family member spent weeks crotcheting a blanket for you as a gift, it would be far more greatly appreciated than a store bought blanket, due to the time, thought and effort involved.

On the other hand, is a wedding album made as a slideshow on a CD-ROM any less thoughtful than traditional pictures put into a paper album by hand? Is a reproduced print of a painting any less beautiful than the original?

If we look deeper into this way of thinking it brings up a lot more questions.

Would this blog be any more important if instead of writing it in Word, cutting and pasting into blogger and clicking ‘publish’, I wrote it out by hand, employed a typesetter to lay it out on a traditional printing press and then paid someone else to deliver it to your house?

Would your gardening tools be any more useful if they were hand-made by a blacksmith, rather than mass produced by machines?

This all reminds me of a story I read in a book about computers back in the 1980’s.

Computers were just beginning to become common and many people where complaining that computers and machines were taking people’s jobs. The book answered this complaint with the following (very) short story:

On a building site, a construction worker was watching a JCB digger digging a hole. He turned to his friend and said “You know, if that machine wasn’t here, there would be five men doing that job with shovels.”

His friend thought for a moment before replying:

“And if it wasn’t for your shovels, there would be 50 men with teaspoons doing that job.”

This highlights the flaw in the traditional versus technological debate. What exactly is traditional? Why favor a less advanced tool than the best available? Also, why is your tool the ‘traditional’ one?

If you use a drill press, why not use a hand-held power drill? If you use a power drill, why not use a manual drill? If you use a manual drill, why not use a spoon drill? If you use a spoon drill, why not just dig the wood out with a pointy stone?

For example, going back to photography for a second, isn’t it also true that the ‘traditional’ means has benefited from advancing technology?

At one time the picture was made entirely in the camera. If you wanted a large picture, you needed a large camera. The chemicals and light sensitive media wasn’t nearly as fast as more modern means, meaning the subject being photographed would have to remain perfectly still for over 5 minutes.

In this case, can’t an argument be made that ‘traditional’ photography isn’t ‘traditional’ at all, but a modernized and technologised version of the original and ‘true’ photography? Going back even further, why not use a camera obscura, which was just a lens that projected the picture onto paper or a canvas to be traced by hand?

If we follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, doesn’t this mean that today’s digital photographers will at some point in the future be making a case against newer technologies, because their way, of having to take a picture, run it through Photoshop and print it is the ‘traditional’ way?

“These holo-imagers are stupid. Just point it in the general direction and it picks out the best angle, records the image, gets rid of any blur and camera shake, gives you the perfect color balance and instantly transfers it to your holo-projector. In my day, you had to connect the camera to your computer…that’s right, with wires. Then you had to click ‘auto levels’ and ‘auto white balance’. This shit’s far too easy…it’s not ‘art’.”

In the end, I think as a culture we are wired to think “Difficult = Good, Easy = Bad”. You’ve heard all the sayings ,‘No short cuts’ appears to be our motto.

I’ve even heard people complain that today’s students have it ‘too easy’, because they can do research over the internet, instead of having to visit a library. The problem arises when you really think about this statement…we’re calling it a bad thing that it’s much easier for people to learn things.

It’s a matter of perspective. To a carpenter who only uses traditional tools, power tools are ‘cheating’, the Carpenter who uses power tools sees mass production machines as ‘cheating’ and so on and so on.

There is definitely a case to be made for keeping the traditional ways of doing things alive, even if only from a purely historical point of view and to remind ourselves of how easy we have it today.

On the other hand, progress is progress. If we held onto the traditional way of doing everything, we’d be digging wells instead of turning on a faucet, lighting candles instead of turning on a lightbulb, and walking everywhere instead of driving our cars.

All we need to do is, as a culture, drop our assumptions and realise that just because something is easier, it doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.

1 comment:

MC Etcher said...

I love technology, and I'm tingling with anticipation for the day when nearly every manual labor job is done by robots. Because really, who wants to spend their day digging ditches or flipping burgers?

(Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of high artistry to be found in construction and cooking, but a lot of it is base and repetitive)

The artistry of any process is an important part - we shouldn't forget how to do things to old ways. From the look of things, hobbyists will keep everything from Civil War re-enactments to the camera obscura alive for a long time to come. Cool.