From the Archive: Don’s Editorial, Photo Review Issue 5 June/July 2002


From the Archive: Don’s Editorial, Photo Review Issue 5 June/July 2002
A month or two ago (April 2002), at the opening of the World Press Photo Exhibition’s Australian showing, those of us in attendance learned from the organisers that a record 49,253 entries were received from 4,171 photographers across 123 countries. Three of the winning photographers were Australians: Narelle Autio, Craig Golding and Dean Sewell. Not a bad effort at all by our local shooters and something rightly applauded on the night.
But what caught my attention was the fact that over half (55.7 per cent) of the entries arrived in digital form. The year before it had been 27.5 per cent. Roger Hutchings, chairman of the judging panel acknowledged the significance of this change in the way photographers work, but added a cautionary tone, “it needs to be said that the technical quality of the digital pictures varied wildly – too much fluorescent grass and lurid skies in landscapes populated by characters with crimson faces.”

The technical quality issue is not unimportant, and Hutchings was right to mention it, but as someone who has the good fortune to see the latest digital cameras on a regular basis, I’m confident the lurid skies and crimson faces phase will be a brief one. What the aforementioned statistic says to me is that photographers who’ve worked with digital like it so much they’re willing to wear the qualitative compromises.

Clearly the photo editors who buy these images are also prepared to live with the deficiencies as well. Over time, as the technology advances, and as photographers begin to internalise the characteristics of their digital tools in the way they used to internalise the characteristics of their favourite films, the average results will steadily improve.

The real point though is that the image is what matters. Blurry, black and white pictures of bent cops on the take are more than adequate for the purposes of both the public record and the public prosecutor. Of course many would like high resolution, perfectly focused colour, but these matters are very much secondary to the essential value of the images. Indeed, colour is very often an unnecessary distraction. A large percentage of the images in the World Press Photo Exhibition were black and white and I’m willing to bet that 10 years from now the proportion of colour to greyscale will be little changed.

While technical quality problems are a transitory issue, digital documentary and news photography does present all of us with some rather more subtle challenges. Many of you will remember the now famous image of former US President, Bill Clinton, being the recipient of an enthusiastic hug by a then anonymous young Whitehouse intern. The picture was captured on film and, though none of the images on that particular roll were used at the time, it was dutifully filed away by a newspaper archivist who, it turns out, had a remarkable memory for faces. When the Clinton-Lewinsky affair started to appear on the front pages, the archivist by some miraculous process remembered seeing Lewinsky or someone very like her with Clinton in a single image. After searching through hundreds of rolls, the archivist found the buried treasure and therest, as they say, is history.

In a purely digital world it is quite possible that such an image would no longer exist. One of the great things (apparently!) about digital is that a photographer can review images moments after shooting and immediately discard the duds. The same applies to the photo editor who, at the click of a mouse button, can consign secondrate shots to alphabet heaven. It is so easy to discard the almost-good-enough shots (and there is an immediate benefit in doing so because it frees up memory) that many digital photographers fall into the habit of deleting after every round of picture taking. Ninety-nine per cent of the time the discarded images are no loss to civilisation. But now and then every digital photographer will press the delete button and instantly regret it. In the case of the Clinton-Lewinsky photo, it is all too easy to imagine a weary press photographer reviewing the images after a long day’s shooting and deciding none of them were worth keeping. And in the blink of an eye, the buried treasure vanishes.
For a regular dose of Don, subscribe to Photo Review magazine here.