Newer tunes

Wednesday August 25, 2004

I remember, long ago and in a galaxy that seems rather remote to me now, being told by a computing futures man that the computer punch card was dead. I received the information with considerable joy; only those who have run a 36-tray card file sort on 11 columns will understand just how much joy. About the same time I was told that the paper tape as a means of computer input was dead, too. I welcomed that, too, though I was a little sad about it, because I had programmed some neat physical I/O routines for paper tape. I was the first to admit however that locating and correcting a mis-punch in a couple of hundred yards of paper tape was tedious.

When was this? Oh, ages back, when a large computer disk had a capacity of some 14 megabytes and you needed only five or six of them on a computer system configured to run the entire business of a fairly large company.

Was I alone in believing the news? Pretty much. The guy who ran the unit record section of our data processing department didn’t believe it. The young women who sat at data entry machines all day producing box after box of punched and verified cards didn’t believe it either.

So, I played the waiting game to see who was right. Didn’t have to wait very long.

When I first encountered a functioning desk top computer of the business kind I forecast the end of the mainframe in normal business computing. I was laughed out of court on that one, especially when I told it to an audience of IBM engineers in Poughkeepsie. Or it might have been White Plains. Can’t remember and it really doesn’t matter any more.

When I first sat at a PC/XT connected via an acoustic modem to VNET I stated that a computer system without telecommunications was like a dinosaur who’d died but had yet to receive the information. I was laughed out of court on that one, too.

And so it’s gone on, year after year, me accepting the onward march of technology, playing the waiting game, smiling quietly and being nice to the dinosaurs about me. I’ve not always been right of course. I was one of those who thought Betamax was a good idea. In the main, though, by sticking to the principle that science and technology isn’t about opinion and, more important, isn’t about me, I’ve seen an awful lot of dinosaurs pass away while I’ve moved on about my business.

It’s no surprise to me, then, that people are lining up to take sides on film vs. digital photography. The facts don’t seem to matter too much to the proponents on either side. They’ve already made up their minds. It’s rather like the Apple vs. PC debates. Amusing to watch but rather lightweight as reference material. And almost all of it based on personal experience, rather than non-selective interpretation of the observed and recorded facts.

When, yesterday, I reported on the demise of Ilford, I put it down to their failure to adapt to the digital age. My interpretation is borne out by investigation. The facts are that their business was fading away at an accelerating rate, the most recent figures pointing to a 25% drop in the past year. Ilford’s business was wholly concerned with traditional film photography so, given that there is no corresponding improvement in the fortunes of other traditional photographic companies over the same period, it’s not unreasonable to attribute that drop to the inroads that digital technology is making in the photographic world. Nor is it unreasonable to suspect that the same impact on their traditional photographic business is being experienced by other photographic companies.

I’m no expert in photography futures, nor do I wish to become one. I’m happy to follow my old Time will Tell line.

I have made a personal commitment to digital photography. That’s not because I think it is superior to film photography. It is in fact because I find it more affordable, comparing like with like, and infinitely more responsive and immediate as a creative medium.

I don’t like waiting for a film to be finished and sent off for processing, to yield results at best days later, sometimes weeks. Even if I hop in the car and take a film down to the nearest 1-hour lab it’ll be the best part of a day before I’m back at my desk working with the prints and negatives. Even when done in the darkroom at home, colour film processing is a long, tedious process. Imagine, if you will, an artist loading a brush with paint, applying it to the canvas, and then waiting a week to see what it looks like. Think of applying pencil to paper and waiting days before you can read the poem. I’m a firm advocate of the view that creative art is in the process rather than the product but there are limits to the argument.

So I’ll nail my colours to the mast only so far as to say that, for me, at this time in my life and this point in my circumstances, digital photography is much more suitable for my needs than traditional film camera and darkroom work. Film and paper will of course survive so long as there are people who want to use it. Good luck to them. I have newer tunes, different drums, and other paths to tread.


Boston, Aug 25,'04
pencam photo



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