Volume 9 • Number 2 • June, 2016
Obsolescence Be Damned!
Note: A condensed version of this article originally appeared on the Luminous Landscape website in October 2015.]
Obsolescence Be Damned!
by Huntington Witherill
Back in 2004, I had occasion to write an article extolling the virtues of what (at the time) was a relatively new and controversial approach to photography. Of course the approach I’m referring to involves the use of digital technology as a means to produce photographs.
Admittedly, twelve years ago when that article first appeared in the PSA Journal, digital photography was not really new. It had been gathering steam ever since the mid-to-late 1980s. However, by the early 2000s – primarily due to the advent of higher quality inkjet printers and archival pigment inks – the approach was finally beginning to enter the mainstream.
Within that article (titled: The Hamster Wheel of Progress) I speculated that adopting a digital approach to photography might very well impede and frustrate its practitioners by nature of the fact that once you've climbed aboard the digital hamster wheel, you either commit to spending significant amounts of time re-learning the basic nuances of your tools as they incessantly change, or you do as I have and attempt (with predictably diminishing success) to ignore all the upgrade paths and stick with the tools you know. And I concluded: Acquiring and subsequently maintaining control and familiarity with digital tools and materials remains an elusive, redundant, and time-consuming task. An interesting and informative task to be sure, but not one that is conducive to the actual production of art. (The complete article can be found here.)
Given the ongoing prodigious advancements in digital technology over the past twelve years, the question I’d like to explore herein is: Do I continue to feel the same way, today? Well, the short answer is: Yes... now more than ever!
Reality dictates that one’s available time will continue to become increasingly precious as time, itself, continues its forward march. Contemplating the onerous task of having to re-learn the basic nuances of my working tools – for what would soon be (literally!) the eighteenth time since having initially embraced the digital approach in 1991 – such repetitive nonsense, at this point, seems an even more squanderous use of time than it did some twenty-four years ago!
Acts of creativity are best negotiated via the path of least resistance. Yet in this case, the path, itself, is being continually obstructed each and every time one is forced to stop along the way in order to (figuratively) re-learn the basic act of walking. Or put another way; imagine what life would be like if the art of creative writing demanded an upgrade to the latest "new and improved" alphabet with such requisite regularity? (ÃcûH Ðïu, NwñÍìÌfo!) Planned obsolescence must surely be the ultimate creative roadblock.
You’d think I’d be less cantankerous in the above regard. After all, the digital approach has afforded me (and so many other photographers) unprecedented expansion of our visual vocabularies – a truly liberating development. Yet, this particular freedom has come at a steep price. Caveat emptor!
There was a time (back when I first took up photography in the early 1970s) that I would occasionally ponder (tongue-in-cheek) about a day when the mechanics of the medium would become ultimately streamlined. Rather than schlepping fifty-pounds of "lightweight" gear in order to take a picture, I would, instead, simply blink my eyes and, immediately thereafter, pull an exposed and developed sheet of film out of my ear! Fast-forward to today, and despite the absurdity of that idea, I can’t help but be amazed at just how close to that notion the process of photography has actually become.
Yet, like everything else in life there are trade-offs to be made. Software and hardware manufacturers have no interest (whatsoever) in what it is that you are ultimately attempting to accomplish through the end-use of their products. They only want to sell you more "stuff." And let's face it, the only way that they're going to be able to get you to continually re-buy what are, essentially, the very same products, over and over again, is to render whatever product you do buy from them as being obsolete, and therefore functionally unusable, as quickly (and quietly) as they possibly can. As such, the exponential expansion of our visual vocabulary seems to have come at the cost of a necessity to repetitively re-master the basic mechanical nuances of a relentlessly evolving set of tools and materials. I questioned, within The Hamster Wheel of Progress, whether jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker could have achieved such remarkable artistic accomplishments –were he to have been compelled to re-learn a "new and improved" fingering scheme on his horn every six to twelve months. I’m still not convinced that this particular trade-off is one I’m willing to continue accommodating. A more creative solution to the problem must surely exist.
Here's my latest strategy: About a year ago I purchased a brand new (old stock) computer of exactly the same type and configuration as my current six-year old MacPro. I took it out of its factory-sealed box, plugged it in, tested it, returned it to the box, and immediately put it into cold storage. When my current MacPro gives up the ghost, I’ll transfer my backed-up hard drives to the stored computer and continue to work as long as I can. And when that computer goes up in smoke… I just might take up golf!
Obviously, a recalcitrant strategy like the one above dictates that virtually nothing associated with one of my most important photography tools can be further upgraded to take advantage of ongoing technological "advancements." Yet (believe it or not) I’m delighted by the prospect. Frankly, I thought Photoshop was a perfectly capable tool for producing fine photographs some nineteen years ago, using Photoshop version 4.0 which, by the way, was fully seventeen differently configured, "new and improved" (and now obsolete) versions ago!
Will my latest strategy succeed? I’ll report back in another decade or so. For all I know, by then I may well be confined to a local rest home watching Gilligan’s Island re-runs!