I was reminded of a picture I'd taken, back eighteen years ago now. Little more, actually. March 28, 2001. It's a hallway in my wife's paternal grandparents' home. I'll reproduce it for you here. I suppose the date matters, if nothing more than a yardstick of technological progress more than anything else. Here.
There's not too much to it, right? Solid single-source lighting and a lot of shadow. Underexposed, really. Blurry. Some halation/doubling/smearing from where I moved for that fraction of a second. I suppose if I looked at the metadata, I could figure out how long the exposure was, etc. That's not the important thing for the conversation at hand.
What matters is that it's a technologically inferior photograph, right? It's not clearly focused (in fact, the camera I took it with didn't really have a focus setting, but it did zoom) not well-lit, taken of a house that may or may not be standing still. If it is, it certainly doesn't look like this any longer. The last resident of the house I knew personally moved out of it in 2006, the same year I moved up to Northern California. I'd imagine that everything was stripped out, pictures on the wall taken down, etc etc. People want to make a thing their own when they move in.
Still, though, this picture captures a lot more of the character of the place, of that moment, than I suspect my iPhone camera would, and certainly either of my (much, much nicer digital cameras) would now. But this picture was taken by a very particular camera, a Kodak DC290. Now, when this came out, it was frighteningly expensive. I received it at Christmastime in 1999. Back then, the novelty of digital photography was pretty strong. And yes, this was marketed as a consumer camera, not a professional piece of kit. And it cost something like nine hundred bucks retail. Crazy, right? Normal people are not coughing that up for a camera.
And if I told you how small the pictures were, you'd laugh. You'd be appalled at the fact that a sixteen megabyte (not a typo) memory card held something like, I don't know, fifty to seventy images, probably a lot less once formatting ate into that. And one of those cards cost a hundred bucks. It was slow and clunky, taking a long time to boot up and to process/write images. Granted, actually taking photos was pretty responsive because there was no auto-focus to process. But writing them to memory took a bit of time.
It was only a fast camera in broad daylight. But even then, there's a softness to the pictures, some from resolution and compression, some from the lens. And again, there's so little light in this that I couldn't pull a sharp image if my life depended on it. Every camera I have access to now would pull bigger, better shots out of this situation. I'd have control over the exposure, etc etc.
But would the shot be any better?
A little secret. All my photography has been collaborations with machines, doing stuff that I'm not really supposed to be doing, which more likely than not gets unsuable results. This has been made a lot easier by the automation of things like focus and exposure control. My close-up vision is terrible and getting worse as I get older. If I was to use a split-ring focus through the viewfinder, I'd have to wear glasses that would make it impossible for me to see within my own reach. So autofocus is (mostly) a huge help.
So why are the results from this twenty-year-old camera so compelling? I suppose if I really wanted to, I could mess with levels and focus and filters in Photoshop to approximate this. But it was certainly easier and more spontaneous to just take the picture in the moment and get this result.
Pretty sure it was Eno who talked about art being made with technology and how that ends up being secretly about the limits of the technology, tube amplifiers and distortion, manipulation of tape spools, sampling errors, digital clipping, introduction of film scratches and dust on purely digital animations.
Art's about making choices. Art's about the imperfect, about the inability to take in every aspect, about the blur and lossiness and gauzy quality or jagged edge where the CCD can't measure the light accurately so it just blows out the source and tosses the rest into shadow.
Art's about making choices, sometimes the choices are made by the machine.