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The Golden Age of Photography Part 1: Looking at 'The Look'



by Don Sutherland

The Golden Age of Photography, Part 1:
Looking At "The Look"

It must have been the Campari. We were at a party co-sponsored by Agfa, at Duggal labs on West 23rd Street. It was PhotoPlus Expo time, when there are lots of parties and everyone goes out to freeload. At the Agfa party, you could have any drink you wanted as long as it was Campari. That's all they were serving. That was fine with me. At the photokina show in Cologne years ago, the Germans taught me to like the stuff mixed with orange juice.

At the Agfa/Duggal party, they were serving it mixed with other kinds of liquor as well. This produced genteel versions of what longshoremen call "boilermakers." After tossing-back four or five boilermakers in the time it takes to quaff so much OJ, one becomes unusually vocal, and passionate in one's convictions. That's when I overheard the editor of a noted photography magazine say, "I like the way a film image looks better than digital."

I was surprised to hear myself retort, "Well, if you want 'the film look,' simply open Photoshop and go to the 'filter' menu and click 'noise.'"

Now, that may sound like an innocuous thing to say, even geeky, but to a film advocate it's like telling a longshoreman that his wife is too lumpy. After four boilermakers, you should never tell a longshoreman that his wife is too lumpy.

It must have been the Campari.

History Repeats Again

The editor of the noted photography magazine, I must admit, took the slur more diplomatically than a longshoreman probably would. He simply rolled his eyesas if to say, "oh, these digital dudes, they're so proud of their garish digital colors"and changed the subject.

I was glad he did, because I was not prepared to exchange haymakers curbside on West 23rd Street in defense of my statement. "If you want the 'film look,' apply a noise filter," indeed! Where did this come from, this sleight on film? I may be PTN's digital editor, but I've always liked and supported film. It was like my personal Mr. Hyde was becoming less "hyddean," right there in front of everybody.

It reshifted my mental gears altogether. It made me turn philosophical. Up till that moment, my deepest reflection had been nothing more than "why Campari?"

Now it was, Why did I say it? Suddenly sobered (sorta) by my own outburst, I took to deep contemplation. And I realized that this was not the first time I'd heard someone voice preference for the "soft" tones of film over the "garish" tones of digital. Last July, on the Fourth to be exact, a representative of Nikon told me the exact same thing.

Well, Nikon produces both film and digicams, and noted photo mags sure cover both. So maybe these guys were simply exercising their Constitutional right to like film, too.

And this "film look" argument is a lot older than digital. Since the dawn of videotape more than 40 years ago, videographers have been struggling mightilysome might say desperatelyto endow their taped productions with "the film look."

Videographers have felt that "the film look" was much to be preferred over "the video look," and they were right. And I always thought videographers were silly for the efforts they made to emulate "the film look." Why didn't they just go shoot film?

What Is "The Film Look?"

For starters, I've never heard a consensus on what, exactly, constitutes "the film look." Whatever it is, it comes straight out of the box of film, as-is and turnkey, while these video guys are trying to cram something into tape that just can't be cassetized.

Some videographers describe the "film look" as "softer" than video. So how do you "soften" a video image? Stick a nylon stocking over the lens. Or some Vaseline. Or a diffusion filter. Or a special filter designed to give video "the film look." I've been on video shoots where they tried 'em all.

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