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This semester at Harvard, when the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Department offered a studio course titled VES 40a: “Introduction to Still Photography,” the students might have expected to learn the alchemical process of mixing chemicals in the darkroom to produce their prints. But this year, half of the 20 enrolled students were given Canon Rebel XTI digital cameras instead of the Pentax K1000 film cameras that the other 10 students received.
The move, according to teachers, may be controversial, but is necessary.
“Before, you would conserve and put all your energy towards that one picture; and now, it’s like you take it, you see it, you fix it,” says Irina A. Rozovtsky, the teaching fellow for the class.
She explains that there is no need for digital photography students to wait for negatives to come back, or to ever handle film. Because the digital students get instant feedback on their work, they end up taking almost four times the number of photographs that the film camera students take in a week.
At the same time, she says it frees up a lot of time for the digital students to take risks with their photographs instead of having to concentrate on correcting the color, as film students have to. In addition, the digital camera students will be able to apply the skills from the class more directly to their lives outside the classroom, she says.
Chris Killip, professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, waves away any suggestions that digital photography is any less of an art than art photography.
“Digital has taken over the world of photography,” he says. “We had to do this sooner or later.”
After seeing the first round of shoots, he says he was “highly impressed by the digital end,” but that the real suspense lies in seeing how the two sections will progress and improve over the semester.
Killip also says the students have a unique opportunity in this class—one they can’t get by doing digital photography on their own.
“You can’t do this at home,” he remarks, as he explains that the high-end computer lab and the printing facilities would push the digital photography students to edit at an advanced level, something the average digital camera owner doesn’t have access to.
For Killip, the move to update VES photography goes beyond a question of art—it’s about future careers.
“I’m actually also enhancing someone’s employment opportunities by doing this,” he says. “If they’re one of three employees who can use Photoshop, then it’s worth it.”
John L. Merrill, the manager of photographic services in the VES Department, agrees with that sentiment. “The goals of the course, and this department historically—it’s called VES, not ‘art department’—has to do with teaching people how to look and how to see,” he says. “It’s a reality-based form of photography, with a direct relationship to the world.”
It’s also a matter of survival. “We’re being forced to do it anyway—the processors who used to develop our film are going out of business,” Merrill says.
“This is the new standard,” Rozovtsky says. And when asked whether she thinks one method is more ‘artistic’ than another, she lightheartedly replies that digital photography has “more of a stigma,” but that “you have to push the opportunity,” regardless of your instrument.
Merrill says that, even from a technical point of view, the single lens reflex (SLR) digital cameras allow you to “exercise a fair bit of creative control.”
He also draws a parallel to another change in photographic technology that was met with initial doubt.
“At first, color photography wasn’t seen as a valid artistic form because of the little control over color,” he says. “And now, the art world is dominated by color photography.”
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