Bryan Appleyard: The Tri-X Factor

Bryan Appleyard: The Tri-X Factor

Anyone connected with the worlds of film and photography is probably already familiar with the debate over film vs. digital.  In this article from the Economist, Appleyard covers it in reference to a specific 35mm still photography film that was widely used for decades and continues to influence photographic aesthetics.  Tri-X, Appleyard writes, “may be the most aesthetically important technology in photographic history.”

He raises some good points, although not very surgically. Essentially, the article is about the fact that the technology of picture making influences not only the way we see pictures but the way we see the world – so the technology matters, a lot. That’s an important point to make and keep making. But he neither carefully dissects the digital vs. analogue divide nor considers the implications of the change. Is digital technology changing the way we see the world or did we choose it because we have changed? When is an analogy better than digital reproduction? Why doesn’t digital also function as analogy considering it is far more malleable? And what does ‘better’ mean?

He lets the photographers he interviews say ‘film is honest’ – which implies that digital is not – without probing any deeper. He mentions in passing that old school photography was also heavily manipulated but doesn’t dig to figure out why film, even if manipulated, feels ‘honest’ and digital, to many, does not.  Digital filters can now easily emulate the ‘look’ of any film and that seems to only make things worse. Click on the right filter and ‘your picture will instantly be transformed — grain, drama, dirt and all. It works very — to devotees, alarmingly — well.’

The important question here is why is that ‘alarming’? Appleyard doesn’t go there. If the filter can give your photo exactly the same ‘look’, what’s wrong with that? Haven’t we just found an easier way to accomplish the same thing? Or is it somehow not ‘the same thing’? There is something deeply unsatisfying about the digital mimicry and it’s more than just not having to breathe Dektol. It’s something deeper. The word is ‘authenticity’, as one of Appleyard’s interviewees put it. And suddenly we find ourselves face to face with – and this is something no one ever wants to hear – Walter Benjamin.  Like it or not, Benjamin is at the heart of this argument and there’s no point in even bringing it up if you’re just going to dance around him.

The war is already lost, as I’ve written before. Photography, as we knew it, no longer exists – even if people still shoot on film – because the simple existence of digital has changed our relationship to objective ‘truth’ – the physics of light striking an object, recorded with chemistry. Photography was the act of recording events of light. Jerry Uelsmann aside, that was all it could do. Digital ‘photography’ has no such boundaries and now that we know that we see all photographs in a different way.

My favorite thing in the article is when Appleyard coins (I think) a new phrase, ‘analogue defiance’. Admit it, you’ve been waiting for that. Maybe this phrase is already widely used in certain circles, but I’ve never seen/heard it before. Appleyard’s definition: ‘a rebellious hunger for the pre-digital world’. After the total digital triumph it will be the definition of a disorder.