Some thoughts about Hockney & the end of chemical photography

I first discovered David Hockney back in the late 1980s, through his fascinating and eye-catching Polaroid collages. I was thrilled at the way that you could experience so much of the area that had been around and in front of him from each collage; the way he’d distorted the ‘normal’ vision of the camera and expanded it to be much wider than what its lens could encapsulate in one ‘eyeful’.

This video is a recent interview with Hockney, in which he talks about his visit to Adobe in 1989 for the launch of Photoshop. That was the year I started using Photoshop… then a quirky, slow program that was more useful – for me – to get a taste of something that was bound to get better and better as the years went by. It was something to experiment with and art college was all about experimenting… any way one could before the three-year playground adventure ended and we were ejected back into the real world again.

To hear Hockney say that he had predicted in 1989 that Photoshop would spell the end of chemical photography is no great surprise. The man is a great artist. He’s passionate. A great photographer born of the chemical photography era. I was born of that era too. I understand what he means when he says that Photoshop has made ‘a lot of magazines seem similar, boring’. But maybe he’s just letting his years make him nostalgic….

Photoshop, like many things in life, can easily be generalised about. It’s a tool. Sure, it’s also been a very influential catalyst or driver of the digital photography revolution becoming a verb in itself: ‘did you ‘shop that?’.

There has been a kind of dumbing-down of photography that has come with digital techniques and tools. Maybe, though, we could also call it a ‘second democratization of photography’; the first being Kodak’s 1890 Box Brownie, which put photography into the hands of the public in an accessible form for the first time. Photoshop and the many software program like it have ushered in a convenience and immediacy, hand in hand with the DSLR, compact digital cameras and most recently the smart-phone. But has it made photography boring, the same, a production-line?

My theory is this: there may well be a homogenous look and feel to magazines, as Hockney says. Photoshop and digital processing software has undoubtedly had something to do with that. But I would suggest that people believing their own hype might have something to do with as well: I have a camera, Photoshop and InDesign, therefore I am a photographer, magazine designer and publisher. Wrong.

There are, of course, ways to repeat every process exactly for another photograph in Photoshop as would have been done to a first. But could we not then say that the One Hour Photolab – which Hockney refers to with nostalgia – also contributed to mechanisation, repeatability and sameness? True, there is always something ‘random’ about wet-film photography…. and it’s ‘organic’ after all: the capture of an image using silver, salts and gelatin. That image is developed with more chemicals and printed on tactile paper using more organic processes, silvers and such-like.

Photoshop is just ones and zeroes…..

All true.

Music used to be live. Then it too was ‘fixed’ just like the image. It was recorded: first scratched into wax, then vinyl, then recorded to magnetic, ferrous and chromium tape. Then it went digital… became ones and zeroes.

Recorded music then ceased to be ‘tactile’ at all. It’s something that, like a photograph, can be captured, recorded and transmitted across space without ever being ‘manifest’ as a tactile object.

Has that made music the same? Has it made it boring? I don’t think so. It’s changed it, obviously. And music and photography are not the same, obviously, so this analogy or comparison may not be entirely valid.

As far as I am concerned, sameness, duplication, facsimile… these can all result, yes, in boring results. But creative individuals have faced this issue before. In the drive for consistency of results and convenience – easier-to-use cameras, 35mm casette film, more stable films, multigrade papers etc – photography has been on a sort of path towards ‘sameness’ and, perhaps, boredom for some time. Some time before digital.

Digital is just another step in that. A big step but just another step.

Being an individual, being creative, being original.. not being boring: these are the challenges of the photographer, the creative in any field. They have always been challenges. Digital didn’t bring them. Digital made the playing-field bigger and more full of players….

Maybe it’s just that – with the explosion of smart-phones and DSLRs – more people call themselves or think of themselves as ‘photographers’. And maybe a lot of them are getting published in magazines. Perhaps some of ‘the craft’ feel of photography has gone to the grave with film.

For me, though, whatever tools I use to make and process and share my photos there has always been the challenge and the desire to use them as individually as possible.

My eyes and imagination drive how I use these digital tools. There is nothing in Photoshop that has dumbed me down.

Perhaps what Hockey was trying to say is that Photoshop, unlike shooting film and being in a darkroom, doesn’t offer quite the same ‘roll your sleeves up, smell the chemicals and get your hands dirty’ experience that photography used to be. And because of that it’s made photos and the magazines that publish them more boring. There would be some truth in that. I was lucky enough to learn on film and I would recommend that anyone really serious about shooting and learning to shoot should have the film experience asap, before it’s not possible.

But if you are going to do film, for god’s sake develop and print your own as well. Don’t just shoot it and give it to a lab…

So, Photoshop may have changed the game but for those people out there with genuine imagination, talent and creativity nothing has really changed…. just the mechanism to get that creativity out of themselves and shared. And anyone with real talent will just get on and use whatever mechanism suits them best.. and get the best from it.


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Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

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