Nancy Brokaw and Frank Rodick talk about pixels, pickle-making, and the transition from analog to digital
Nancy Brokaw is an independent critic and writer living in Philadelphia. She is currently a senior lecturer at the University of the Arts, where she teaches Critical Issues in Contemporary Photography, and is a senior contributing editor of The Photo Review.The following dialogue was originally posted on her blog Image World and is posted with her kind permission. If you don't yet know Image World, give it a visit.
Nancy Brokaw: I always ask photographers of a certain age about the switch from analog to digital. You started with analog—although you were never working straight—and have made the switch, quite elegantly, to digital. How do you experience that now? Given my interest in the march of modernity, I’m particularly curious to understand what’s lost—the price that all this technology exacts.
Frank Rodick: Digital allows for a measure of flexibility and precision that was impossible with analog. Burning and dodging in the darkroom, for example, was a crude affair compared to what you can do with Photoshop.
Of course, the traditional darkroom was more hands-on—literally. But darkroom work still involved plenty of mediating elements, factors that existed between what my hands did and the printed image. It’s just that these mediating elements were based mainly on chemistry rather than digital code. For example, anyone who’s worked in the darkroom with stuff like iron toner knows how seemingly capricious a compound like that can be, how it interacts with things like water quality, for example, and what that can mean for the resultant print.
But, to your question, what have we lost?
Speed and tempo are big issues. The darkroom forced you to move slower, to consider the images for longer. With digital, you’re tempted to bounce back and forth, make rapid changes, and you’re not forced to live with particular images for a longer period of time. You don’t have to be as patient and there’s a lot to be gained with patience, a lot you can discover.
And there is an issue with digital’s power—all that nuance and flexibility and choice. But more choice isn’t always good. The darkroom imposed limitations that made you hone in on what you were looking for, instead of futzing about looking for something perfect or better. I’ve seen students get overwhelmed and lose their way with all the choices digital gives them. It’s one of the reasons that, for example, I’ll usually make a set of choices beforehand about, say, the colour palette I’ll be using. And then try to use those hues to the max. I’m not religious about it—I’ll deviate from the original plan when I think it’s called for—but it helps me keep focused on moving towards what’s most important. I think most working artists know that limitations—self-imposed or not—can really work to your ultimate advantage.
Then there’s luck. Traditional photography was full of luck and that could be beautiful. It’s not only that luck can give you beautiful things, but also that it can bring you something that really connects to a part of you that didn’t even know was there. And then you can build on that. Our conscious minds can be, well, so unimaginative. In digital work you can become painfully deliberate. “That doesn’t look quite right; I’ll change it.” But maybe that funky weird way it looked in the first place was better—and maybe you would have realized that if you’d been forced to live with it a little longer.
And on maybe a more pedestrian note, I personally found it very exciting to work in the dark. It gave the whole enterprise a kind of mystical, adventurous feel. It didn’t hurt to have Philip Glass playing in the background either.
I do think that there are ways of re-integrating these elements back into digital photography, so it’s not like they’re necessarily lost irrevocably. But I have to be a lot more conscious of process, a lot more deliberate about that to make it happen.
Brokaw: Let me put my cards on the table. I think a lot about what I call the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon. If we’re to believe the Home section of the New York Times, every other Brooklyn household has a chicken coop out back. A restaurant just opened here in Philadelphia, in one of our hipster precincts, where diners have a full view of the butcher who preps their meat. My neighbors—professional women all—have a sewing circle, and me? I want to learn how to make cheese. That’s by the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon—all those homemade gherkins! And I’m oddly touched by this phenomenon, oddly because it’s very clearly a choice reserved for very privileged people. Still, it moves me because it seems like a pale attempt to reclaim something that we think we’ve lost, but may never have had. It suggests an alienation, but not from our labor. From our very lives.
And I can’t help but see this sense of alienation as the by-product of the hyper-connected, virtual world that pulls us into its vortex and, in turn, all that pickle-making as a yearning for the tactile. In the photography world, this response manifests in the revival of once-revolutionary techniques (daguerreotypes, tintypes, etc.)—that now look pre-modern. I do fret about what it means that we’re all tethered to these devices that stand between us and experience.
Rodick: What you’re saying makes sense. And like I said, analog photography is more hands-on, so it fits into what you’re saying. You’re literally handling your materials more, smelling them even, than when you’re working digitally.
But on the other hand I’m starting to see how my own experience might contrast with yours. Because when I work digitally I do feel that I’m still working with things that have physicality—as though I’m “painting with pixels,” although painting might not be a very good term. Moving pixels around anyway, changing their properties. I know that’s not the same stuff as oils or acrylics and that there’s a whole electronic apparatus (not to mention algorithms and code) “between” my fingers and the pixels. And look, that could be some kind of big illusion on my part, just my way of making sense of the whole thing by collapsing it with the old paradigm. I don’t know. It’s just how it’s starting to feel.
Brokaw: I guess my question comes down to whether the old paradigm can still hold. I’ve always been moved by photography's uncanny relationship to what it represents (the real physical world out there).
Nancy Brokaw: I think a lot about what I call the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon. If we’re to believe the Home section of the New York Times, every other Brooklyn household has a chicken coop out back. A restaurant just opened here in Philadelphia, in one of our hipster precincts, where diners have a full view of the butcher who preps their meat. My neighbors—professional women all—have a sewing circle, and me? I want to learn how to make cheese. That’s by the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon—all those homemade gherkins! And I’m oddly touched by this phenomenon, oddly because it’s very clearly a choice reserved for very privileged people. Still, it moves me because it seems like a pale attempt to reclaim something that we think we’ve lost, but may never have had. It suggests an alienation, but not from our labor. From our very lives.
Rodick: Whatever reality is. And I’m not just saying that as philosophical throwaway. But I understand what you’re saying.
Brokaw: "One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: 'I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.'” Thus sprach Roland Barthes.
Rodick: Okay, so I’m coming at this from a personal, non-theoretical, perspective. My parents were booksellers, I grew up literally surrounded by books, thousands of volumes they kept not just at their store but at home too. So for me a big part of my experience was always mediated by something: pictures, text. (I’m not even including television here.) My sense of something like war came not through experiencing it directly—lucky me, no kidding—but through text and, especially, photographs of war. The piece I did in 2010, Uncovering, no. 1 (horse in barbed wire), I constructed from an image I discovered in an old World War I pamphlet that I found on some shelf in my parents’ house. I could say that the event—a dead horse wrapped in barbed wire—haunted me, but it would probably be more accurate to say that it was the image of the horse that made this big impression. Maybe if I’d actually been there my experience would have been totally different. No doubt it would’ve been. I think one of the amazing things about photography is that it creates this illusion, the one that Barthes is talking about, in such a powerful way. A lie can be powerful and beautiful, and photography is such a fantastic liar. It’s part of what makes it such a great medium.
Brokaw: Hear, hear!
Rodick: Going back to books…. A book is a technology too. It has this physicality, yes, which can be quite lovely, this turning of pages, the feel of paper, but it’s also a technology-based tool. Its physicality belies what it “transports” to one’s consciousness. Then, too, in the past we used other mediating “devices”—things like books, but also sets of beliefs transmitted through media like sermons, speeches, religious art, not to mention our more intimate family experience.
In fact, with the possible exception of deep meditative practice, I’d say that we’re always filtering our experience through some medium—through the lens of memory, preconception, emotion, prejudices. Sometimes I think one of my major tasks as an artist is to shine a light on that medium—to use the medium of art to illuminate the medium of my own consciousness. That might be full of contradictions, but I don’t particularly care because as an artist I’m not bound by any duty to be consistent or logical.
Frank Rodick: I think one of the amazing things about photography is that it creates this illusion, the one that Barthes is talking about, in such a powerful way. A lie can be powerful and beautiful, and photography is such a fantastic liar. It’s part of what makes it such a great medium.
Brokaw: To be clear, what I’m describing is not all speculative, or theoretical, but rather quite personal. I very much feel the difference between writing on paper and writing on a machine and, although virtually all my writing is on a computer now, I have to admit that I just don't like the physical experience. And so I resist writing, and this has become a real problem for me as a writer. I just don't enjoy the sitting down and doing it anymore. To counteract that resistance, I have to have a very high level of engagement. I don't have the experience of my medium being embodied. And perhaps that has to do with my sense of words being far more abstract than images, far more abstract than anything except maybe mathematics. The relationship between the word and what it represents is completely arbitrary. So maybe I just can't stand another level of distancing.
Rodick: Interesting. I can get that. For me, the act of putting pencil to paper is incredibly personal. For the writer, there’s a visual representation, not only symbolic, but tangible too, of not only what you’re saying or thinking but of your presence. And it’s not just your handwriting—it’s your scratch-outs, the pressure you apply, your margin notes, your personal symbols, all the stuff that doesn’t make it to the final product. Maybe it’s analogous to the difference between words as abstract things and the particularities of the spoken word: tone, pronunciation, accompanying gestures, those sorts of things.
Take this piece by Duane Michals, The Human Condition. What moved me most about the piece wasn’t the imagery; it was the handwriting on the image. It was so frail, so vulnerable. So human. It made me think about how we’re on this earth for just a moment or two, then, poof, a footprint in sand waiting to be blown away. I found it really sad, beautifully tragic, very moving. And, as a footnote to that, I never appreciated that about the work until I saw it in the flesh, the actual print on the wall.
Brokaw: Handwriting as the literal trace.
Rodick: As you said, this isn’t theoretical. It’s as emotional as anything. For me, I really did grow up in a largely mediated universe: an only child surrounded by mountains of books. That was a world for me, a universe, and I got used to it. I won’t say I always liked it—there’s loneliness there—but I adapted to it, got comfortable with it. I really relate to whoever it was who said that things don’t look real until they’re photographed. (Was it Winogrand?) And that’s not because I hated reality, whatever the fuck reality is, but it’s just that a photograph had this stillness and calmness to it that allowed me to really contemplate it.
To this day, I don’t like working with live models. There’s just too much energy emanating from that other person. It gets in the way of getting a true sense of what I’m actually feeling here, which, when it comes to art, is probably what I’m really trying to work with. I think other people are basically unknowable; oneself a touch less so, so I focus on that. But it’s also what attracts me, maybe because it feels more real, a little less of a guess. I’m a subject I always have, and also one that I feel I have complete license with: I can be as ruthless or harsh as I want to be, for example, without feeling that I’ve stepped past a line I don’t want to cross.
So rather than work with live models, I’d rather work with images. To be clear, sure, I’ve used live models, but that’s only for the very initial, almost cursory, part of the process. In Arena, I pored over videotape in the dark, by myself, looking for moments on the tape, images I could talk to, build on. That was fun, it was beautiful and exciting, like being in someone’s house, alone, and discovering their secrets. Of course it turns out it was my house. But I had to be alone, away from the buzz and static of other people.
In a way—and maybe I’m pushing this idea—the relationship was more direct. I wasn’t only relating to the image, but using it as a conduit to something inside myself. And at times, that experience starts to feel pretty direct. More direct than when I’ve got another person in the room.
Brokaw: I have this vision of you all alone in your living room, slouched in front of a glowing screen—and it’s Plato’s Cave all over again.
Rodick: The thing is that the world “out there” isn’t all there is, obviously. There’s also an inner world, the subjective world. But then that implies a bifurcation between the two, which doesn’t seem right either; that bifurcation is just another conception to make things easier to grasp. So we have this big schmozz, where the boundaries disappear. Well, maybe what some artists try to do is to tease out what’s in that schmozz, shine a light on parts of it, amplify other parts. Whether they’re successful or not, who knows?
I do know that sometimes I get to an image—it could be something I made or someone else made—and I say to myself: “that feels close.” Close to what is hard to articulate, but maybe that’s part of why the image got made in the first place. And that feeling of closeness is a bit of a rush, it feels like maybe you’re getting close to that “magnificent cathedral” Houellebecq talks about, the one that towers outside the ordinary, that hides itself so well.
(Postscript from Nancy Brokaw: The image that opens this post, Parade in Petticoat Lane, is one of those pictures that Rodick reluctantly admits "feels close.")