A Dealer's Perspective

Photography is Going Digital and That’s It!

  • A new sign outside a major photo processing lab in Dallas reads “Do not leave any film at our counter or in our drop box. The Color Place no longer does film processing.”

  • A photographer visits a manufacturer of large format commercial grade enlargers and sees a sizeable room full of unsalable inventory.

  • In 2004, Kodak shipped almost five million digital cameras to domestic retailers, 66% more than the year before, surpassing all other manufacturers in selling to US customers. An estimated 54 million digital cameras are in American hands.

People at all levels of photography, from snap shooters to museum exhibiting fine art photographers, have had to deal with the big switch to digital. Many of the latter group have been forced into it simply by the unavailability of materials; for example, photographers worldwide have been affected by decreased availability of certain Ilford papers.

Many bemoan the effects of the digital photographic trend. An estimated 13% of digital images end up on paper versus 98% of film captured images. Have we lost something here on a cultural level? Check out the recent J. Paul Getty Museum exhibition “Close to Home: An American Album”. It’s a show of old snapshots which can be revealing about a culture. Compare finding a shoebox of old prints vs. a pile of old unreadable floppy disks (or, say, 20 years from now old CDs that the future technology can no longer read). We just have to do the best we can with the current technology, as suggested by such websites as Picturesmatter.com.

On the other hand, there are advantages to digital photography. Far more images are being shared and distributed. Webshots.com holds millions of pictures on its servers. They get 15 million visitors a month and 500,000 images are uploaded every day. Since Webshots’ beginning, more than 5 billion photographs have been downloaded from the site! There are also sites like Shutterfly.com that enable printing about as easy as going to the local drugstore.

Many fine art photographers are adapting to the new technology. We have shown digitally made prints by Carolyn Brown (ink pigment), Lee Friedlander (Iris), Yousef Khanfar (LightJet), Nicholas McCalip (ink pigment), Walter Nelson (Iris), David J. Osborn (ink pigment) and others. From the standpoint of a gallery owner, I look at the print itself; if it is beautiful and has decent longevity, it’s fine for our walls. I’m not sure one can yet achieve the sharpness and subtle tonal gradations equal to traditional methods for, say, a 30 x 40 print made from an 8 x 10 inch negative, but if we aren’t there yet, we are close.

Regarding the recording of the image, all the photographers mentioned above still use traditional cameras and film, but the technology is this area is rapidly changing also. The first digital camera I used years ago was simply abominable (I quickly returned it to the store), but it’s amazing what one can do today with the current crop of fine cameras. It wasn’t long ago that real digital quality required an expenditure of $10,000 to $20,000!

Quite a few photography dealers are reluctant to accept digital prints, but that will have to change over time if they show contemporary work. Most believe, however, there will always be a strong market for traditional prints. Photographic connoisseurs will continue to appreciate them, and they’ll surely increase in value as the materials to produce them become more and more scarce. (February 12, 2005, statistics from an AP news report and a recent USA Today article)