Seeing ourselves through the evolution of photography

I am led to reflect on photography today by the photographic portraits Peter Feldstein took of 20 members of the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center, including me, very large photographs hanging in the Assembly Room of the center through March.

The exhibit is “Images of Aging.” These beautiful photographs were taken with a digital camera and printed digitally so, although I was a “chemical” photographer between 1986 and 2003, I am enormously impressed by what is now possible.

Photography always has embraced extremes of practice. Twenty plus years ago everything from large format cameras (with bellows and a black cloth over the photographer’s head) to the more portable medium format to the ubiquitous 35 millimeter to cheap cameras with plastic lenses (because the resulting distortions were aesthetically “interesting”) were used by serious photographers.

Now art photography is produced digitally, partly digitally, or still with film and chemistry. Anything goes, and sometimes only the label in a museum or gallery tells you whether the large color print you are looking at is or isn’t a digital print.

The portraits by Feldstein are fine examples of documentary photography. They are neither retouched nor manipulated. They show exactly how we looked when he photographed us. Images of Aging indeed! I look at my portrait and it objectifies how I look now compared to 10 or even five years ago.

I can’t be fooled — and isn’t that a good thing?

The other subjects have reported similar reactions. It also is possible that as relatively active old people, we are comfortable with what we are. In the self portraits I shot in the late 1990s, I aimed to show a frankly old woman. I am not surprised that she is now even older!

digital photography is at home in the art world and in daily life it clearly has many benefits for recording family events, sending images electronically to distant people, and even for the fun of instant results on a little screen.

Years ago we had Polaroid. But now casual photographers can all too easily accumulate images without ever editing, choosing and deleting all but the best.

Even though they can’t run out of film, as we could in the old days, even though they have almost unlimited electronic storage, not every shot deserves eternal life! I would enjoy viewing the best dozen views of the 900 my friend shot, and my friend would have benefited from exercising critical judgment in trimming that 900. (Of course, why shoot 900 in the first place?)

Photography is a wonderful medium that has given me great joy, as a practitioner and now as a viewer (and sometime subject). It is a house of many rooms.

Comments are closed.