You have some old photos in a box someplace. Take them out and look at them. If they're more than ten years old, they're probably chromogenic prints made in a wet lab– that is to say, sheets of light-sensitive paper coated with a layer of silver halide crystals, which, upon exposure to light (through the negative of the picture in question), were burned, changing their color. This crystal-coated paper was then fed through a series of chemical baths, developing, fixing and sealing those crystals so they maintained their newly changed appearance.
Basically, when you're looking at a wet lab print, whether it was made in a darkroom by your mom when she was a teenager, or by the kinda-cute Walgreens photo person, back when every drugstore had those big wet lab machines (that automated the darkroom process but ultimately accomplished the same thing using light and light-sensitive paper)... you're looking at something special. You're seeing silver halide crystals that have been burned by light. The areas of the picture that are black have been burned the most, and you can tell there's some sort of organic process at work here. Look at how deep that black is.
You're looking at an original.
Now, the cute Walgreens person isn't there anymore. If only that were the biggest loss. (S)he's been replaced by a friendly machine. You put your memory card in the slot, and minutes later you get your prints. It's quick, cheap and easy. Great.
Go home and compare them to the old family photos. The easiest place to tell the difference between a wet lab print and an inkjet print is in the blacks. Remember those silver halide crystals burned by exposure to light, causing them to turn into the most impossible, deepest shade of black? Well. All the inkjet print has to compete with that is– black ink. That's just ink. It's an approximation of black. It's not a bunch of crystals burned by light. It's got nothing on the wet lab stuff.
The other place you'll see a noticeable difference is in the flesh tones. This is more noticeable in larger prints (or on a movie theatre screen). Flesh, especially in natural light, is made up of many different color tones. Film surpasses digital in many ways, but most obviously in tonal range. Most digital cameras can delineate thousands of colors. That sounds like a lot, until you remember even the cheapest 35mm film camera can record millions of colors.
Also, you know that a digital picture is made up of a bunch of smaller units called pixels, each of which has only one color value. You're basically looking at a bunch of squares. The number of pixels is how we determine resolution. Film, on the other hand, has no resolution equivalent. It doesn't break down into smaller units. It just is. It's an image. It's not a bunch of squares. The silver crystals on the emulsion are visible as grain, but because they're organic and thus unpredictable, they offer a living texture that adds to the picture something tactile, rather than detracting from it. This is most visible in motion picture film. Nobody can tell you digital pixelation adds something to a picture.
You might ask what all the point of this is. That's your left brain talking. Listen to the other side of yourself. Let your intuitive response to the images breathe.
There's a difference between looking at a replica and an original. There's a difference between thousands of colors and millions of them, a difference in the deepness of those blacks and the richness of the blue in that sky. There's something like us in the organic nature of film grain. You feel it. On some level you know it, that sensation of the familiar, authentic, natural, the details, the imperfections....
Quite simply, it's real, and it belongs, as you do. You are not clinical, dust-free, or mass produced; your lifeblood and the things that matter to you are not quick or easy. Why then should art, described by Viola Davis as "the only profession to celebrate the act of what it means to live a life," not be the same?
Given the short amount of time I've been around, there's a conversation I've had a few too many times. I'll be standing at the counter of a business that's closing, talking with the owner. People just don't want this service anymore, they'll explain, as the afternoon light fades. It's quantifiably better in quality, but it costs too much to maintain. We can't keep up. We're throwing in the towel. We'll sigh together, they and I, searching for something positive in the face of this loss.
In ways difficult to pinpoint, there has been a widespread acceptance of lower quality in many areas of life. I've had this conversation with regard not just to darkrooms, film, wet labs, and chromogenic prints, but also books, shoe repair, politeness, electronics, clothing, non-electronic interaction, children's toys, washing machines, and cars. Nylon is now deliberately made weaker to stimulate continuous revenue. Its original use was for parachuting out of planes in WWII. That's how strong it used to be (don't try that with your leggings...)!
Adapt or die, I know. Take life as it comes, and make the best of it. I really do believe in these mottos, and I have to, or else I'm headed straight for curmudgeon-land. It's all a matter of perspective. Everyone probably thinks they were born twenty years too late, as I often do, forgetting that the core of life remains almost exactly the same, and forgetting the great progress in other parts of contemporary life; we get accustomed to how things were when we were children, when we did the hard work of adapting to the world around us, perhaps assuming it would stop changing so much once we reached adulthood.
Many of the things I love were bigger presences in earlier times. Film is an example– but the world still contains film, thank goodness, and I'll keep using it until the last lab shuts down.
"Original Hits by Original Artists," the inaugural show in the new Good Arts Building downtown, interfaces with the above issues in a number of ways I'll leave you to discover. It's a show of thirty-three "totally fake" album covers, each by a different artist, and one of which is mine. My piece was printed on Fujiflex Pearl photo paper, identifiable by a faint metallic tint in the whites.
It was the last print on that paper type made in a wet lab in Washington State.
That's a big thanks to Carl at Color 1 Photo, who closed down his stellar wet lab last week after decades in the business (I was able to get 22 enormous matte prints in at the last minute, which I hope to get the chance to show you someday...). I signed up for this show because it sounded fun, and is being put on by friends who were kind enough to invite me. But it grew into something much bigger for me, more personal.
We struggle our whole lives with change; it's usually hardest when it presents itself to us as loss. That's what my piece is about, and I suppose it's fitting it's the last of its kind. If you happen to be downtown, take a minute to stop in for a snack and reflect. I will not be able to attend the show opening, except in its very last minutes.
Original Hits by Original Artists: Fake LP Album Covers for Imaginary Bands by Real Artists!
Good Arts Building
700 1st Avenue (at Cherry St)
"Record" Release Party (opening night reception): May 4, 6p-9
On view May 4-31, as explained by the 57 Biscayne website:
"A Release Party and reception for the artists will be held First Thursday, May 4, 6:00- 9:00 p.m. followed by the Upstream Music Fest, May 11-13, when there will be actual live (if unrelated) music on site, programmed by Upstream during the run of the festival. One of a handful of free venues in the neighborhood, it will be open from 4-10PM on May 11 & 12; and 11AM-11PM on May 13. The exhibit will also be open on the last two Fridays and Saturdays in May, from 1-6PM and by appointment."