THE GRAY ZONE

A Restorationist's Travel Guide

 

By Ross Lipman

 

This brief excerpt appears courtesy of The Moving Image.

Its complete text can be viewed and purchased here.

 

 

"The production of a perfect picture by means of photography is an art; the production of a technically perfect negative is a science."

--Ferdinand Hurter and Vero Charles Driffield, at a meeting of the Society of Chemical Industry, May 7, 1890

 

With a simple gesture the world divides.

Hurter and Driffield's declaration of a new method of determining the sensitivity of glass plates was nothing less than a call for the reconceptualizing of all photographic practice. By "picture" they meant the image one saw, and by "negative," the photographic material itself.

Photographers were at that time concluding the transition from wet and homemade supplies to dry and store-bought ones. The initial need was for plates that had more consistent properties and were transportable. Hurter and Driffield's contribution, coming on the heels of their invention of the light meter, was to mathematically relate a plate's exposure to image density; to precisely measure the response of any given emulsion to light. Their "characteristic curve," which charted this, marked the transformation of photography from an individualized, artisanal practice into an industrialized process. It symbolically sealed the moment at which photographers, in essence, stopped making their own supplies and handed that task to private manufacturers.

Whereas before practitioners integrated both artistry and science, now one could choose. And choose they did. After abandoning the manufacture of materials, photographers gradually surrendered other aspects of their craft, making manifest George Eastman's legendary Kodak slogan, "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest." There were exceptions of course--but the push-button culture had arrived.

While celebrating Hurter and Driffield's invaluable role as enablers of modern photography, I would like to call into question some of the side effects of this vision--for while it was truly visionary, it came at a cost. At the core of their work is the practice of quantification: creating a working system for the transfer of a fluid, mobile world into measureable units. A space that was continuous was now marked, drawing a line in the sand between art and science. C. P. Snow formally announced the divorce decades later in his classic 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures." For Snow, it was nothing to celebrate. It pointed to the loss of something fundamental in our lives.

The loss is of a unified view of the world. This line mapped an undivided land, carving a whole into sections. The markings can at first aid the visitor, but they are deceptive, leading to false turns and artificial crossroads. Today we face another such pivotal moment in that traditional photochemical techniques are being replaced by digital ones. On a daily basis methods are being devised--and just as quickly revised--to facilitate the translation of images into binary units.

Digitization is however not so much a revolution as the crystallization of social currents generated much earlier. The end user is more reliant on manufactured tools; the manufacturer, on quantification. While an analysis of the digital manifestations of the dilemma lies beyond the scope of the present study, the digital era's ghostly presence lingers in waiting throughout. The world spins before us, more marked than ever, and more confusing because of the markings. How can one navigate?

As one intimately involved with both the technical and aesthetic dimensions of image reproduction, the moving image restorationist is in an ideal position to assess the terrain, and so I offer this small travel guide in hopes that it might aid our transit. To mitigate our loss we need to move into the future with an understanding of the past. I shall not always address these concerns directly, but rather present a generalized field map filtered through their prism--and a model for how to traverse the field. In so doing I'll indirectly address both Hurter and Driffield's mathematicization and C.P. Snow's two-culture divide. Appropriately, the discussion shall be at times decidedly non-technical. At other times it will dive into minutia of photographic theory. Examples will come from both personal experience and the work of others. Our queries will loom in the background. The exploration will focus on our fast-disappearing photochemical heritage, as it is only with this physical grounding that we can set course successfully into a perilously disembodied digital world.

Before we set out, please note that the crossing of the terrain follows no logical order; or at least not a conventionally recognizable one. It is precisely in a circuitous navigation that we can preserve not only individual works but also, perhaps, something larger in our culture.