Once upon a time, photography was a waiting game. After you clicked the shutter and removed the exposed film from your camera, each step to get to seeing the end result required patience. You’d have to wait for the developer and fixer to prepare the negatives for printing. The prints themselves took time as well. If you weren’t able to do this yourself for whatever reason, you’d need to send the film off to a lab. That could take up to a week or more, depending on the lab you selected. While I’m young enough to adapt to various new electronics with ease, I’m also old enough to remember sending my film off to a lab. Gotta love being born in the mid-80s!
I started thinking about this after reading a post about one woman’s memories of the photographers in her life and her dabbling in the craft. While I didn’t grow with darkroom enthusiasts nearby, I do have some darkroom experience. When I was in fifth grade, I did an experiment comparing the effectiveness of suntan lotions and sunblocks. Given that I grew up in Florida, this seems like a perfectly reasonable science fair project. 😛 Anyway, to control for differences in melanin, I used black and white photo paper. I slid a sheet of paper in a clear plastic report folder that had four taped sections. I applied the sun lotions to separate quadrants and set the folder in the front yard for an hour or so to get some sunlight. Once that was done, I brought the paper in the house for development. I was in fifth grade at the time, so I was allowed to do some of development work. The thing is, we never obtained the light bulb needed for darkroom work, which meant I was truly in the dark. The reason we didn’t get the bulb was because we converted the guest bathroom (my bathroom) into a darkroom for this project. I set everything up and stuffed a couple towels in the bottom of the door to ensure no light came in to muck up my prints. It had been a real chore getting all the chemicals and photo paper, but we did get all the materials. Keep in mind this was back in the mid 90s, and I lived in a small town. I’m surprised there was even a photography store that had everything in stock. Armed with fixer, developer, rinses and bins, I set to work developing my sun exposed science project prints. They turned out pretty well, and it certainly got the attention of my classmates come time for the science fair. I don’t know what happened to those prints. I kind of wish I still had them.
The point of that story is I know how to wait. Having put my hands in the developing chemicals at a fairly young age (before I even started taking my own pictures) gave me a chance to understand the processes photographers have gone through many, many times. It’s not a quick process, especially when you’re doing all the processing yourself. When I started taking my own photos in my teens, it was back to the waiting game. I’d take my disposable cameras and APS canisters to Publix and later Walgreens so they could send it to their offsite labs (as many outlets with in-house processing lacked APS capabilities for the first couple years). That involved waiting a week or so for my photos. This was especially annoying when I was 15 and took nearly 100 photos for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Since my family bought the film, I did not get the negatives back and barely had a chance to look at the prints before handing them over. I had only been taking pictures even halfway seriously for a year at the most, so that waiting game was kind of annoying. It got a little better once I got out of high school and got a job in a photo lab. I’d still opt for next day service since it was cheaper, but I got to look at my photos right away. It was a good time. 🙂
Along the way, film gave way to digital, both for my personal endeavors and throughout the photography world. This wasn’t an instant catalyst to instant photos, but the wait time shrunk significantly. For those who embraced digital right away, there was still a need to visit a photo lab and stick your memory card in the appropriate slot. Then you’d go through and select the prints you wanted (not to mention making edits). While you could get your prints within an hour at most, those kiosk areas got crowded and a little unsafe for others in the store. Half the time, if I was helping someone at a kiosk I had to also play traffic cop to ensure nobody got hurt. I left the photo lab in 2005, but since I still took pictures, I kept tabs on what changes developed (heh). I was making photo CDs of my digital pictures pretty regularly, so I could see when the commonly used equipment started to shift from cameras to phones. It’s fairly recent, all things considered. Even when the first iPhone rolled out in 2007, people were really relying on their separate camera photos up until 2009-2010. That’s when the shift to cell phone cameras began. It didn’t really pick up for another year after that, but now everything is available instantaneously.
How do I feel about it? I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I can appreciate having something more readily available and not requiring extensive processing. This can be especially useful in the wake of disasters, crimes, or other events that would benefit from real time photography. On the other hand, I’m dismayed at how having photo editing software in smart phones is making everyone think they can take pictures. Even though I’m a photographer, you couldn’t pay me $80 billion to set up an account on Instagram. It’s all not my aesthetic, but that’s mostly because I’m not up for filtering my photos to an oblivion. Some people may complain about snotty attitudes from some photographers regarding what constitutes “real photography”, but I can understand why some people who have extensively practiced the craft get upset. When I worked in the photo lab, I saw a lot of things that could go wrong with taking pictures. While it’s not as likely to see the finger in the lens mistake these days, camera shake is still a problem with any form of camera, and completely out-of-focus have diddly to do with art. It looks like a drunk person’s point of view, at least from where I’m sitting. I could go on about all the various basic things I’ve seen people do that they think is cool but is not going to be taken seriously by anyone with even a passing interest in the craft. I acknowledge that even with taking pictures for just about half my life now there are still things I can do to improve. The thing that bothers me the most about the instantaneous nature of photography these days is that the speed of the process tends to obscure the weak points in a photographer’s craft, thus hindering improvement and progress.
On that note, enjoy some photos I took at Blank Park Zoo way back in April! Since the weather was rainy when I went, I’d like to go back in more pleasant conditions (and with a longer lens). It was a good time.