Not long ago, I read an article in papermag.com in which David LaChapelle interviewed Steve Sasson, the creator of the first digital camera. I mean, serious business here. There’s a lot of myh on the invention of the digital camera, I mean, that of Kodak locking Sasson in a closet and the evil board of directors hiding the blueprints of the gizmo at the bottom of a safe so that tech breakthrough didn’t ever see the light of day. That isn’t accurate. It’s true that Kodak failed at making the transition from basically a chemical company into a digital imaging one, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. In fact they were making zillions out of licensing the digital camera patent to third parties, sometimes even mounting Kodak sensors onto their camera models. If Kodak didn’t want to make a profit out of this patent, we wouldn’t have seen our first digital camera until 2005, when the original US patent expired. They wanted to sell digital cameras, but, much like Xerox in the 80’s, they failed to translate the fact that they had all the relevant patents into a position of total market dominance. They tried. And failed.
Back to the interview, LaChapelle starts by thanking Sasson for all the good things digital cameras have brought. First of all, not getting cancer by breathing toxic fumes from mutagenic fluids. That’s a huge point. Even us, the analog bunch, must admit that this is a huge point. Digital imaging emancipating photography from chemistry has been as important as photography itself liberating painting from the need of realism. Yes. there have been serious drawbacks. The economy around photography has gone through a severe reconversion since the first commercially available digital cameras: erasing chemistry off the equation and replacing it with one and zeroes has also erased all those jobs related to chemistry in the photography world. It’s devastating that someone has to lose their job, and, believe me I know most than many; but the inherent benefits of computing vs. polluting the planet, killing lab technicians, having to wait for results, need for highly skilled personnel for the most simple editing, etc. are too apparent to give up. Digital photography has made both pro and casual photogs’s lives simpler. It’s like the Dark Side: faster… easier. And you know what, little padawan? I’ve never got what’s wrong with the Dark Side. Photography wise, you don’t get better than fast and easy.
Of course, there are those who keep the old ways. In the digital imaging brave new world, we still love the stink of fixer, same way those pagans still loved a good old human sacrifice no matter what those Christians said. We are the alphas of photography. The whole pack. All alpha. But no, I’m not going to boast on my analog superpowers today.
Jobs weren’t the only thing lost with digital photography. For camera design, digital imaging was like an asteroid hitting the Gulf of Mexico with the power of a million atom bombs: most evolutive lines gone extinct overnight with a few survivors diversifying after the event. It’s utterly futile to go with the wat ifs and to lucubrate too much on what would have happened, but sometimes I just wonder how would have everything been if digital photography never existed.
If I tell you to think about classic or iconic SLRs, you would probably think in the Nikon F or the Asahi Pentax. Or if you don’t know too much about cameras, in a light-tight box with a lens that reads ‘50mm’ on, covered in fine leather, with chrome and shiny parts. Because in the world of Platonic Ideas, SLRs are all chrome and shiny and wrapped in leather, like the gods intended. Maybe if camera design of the 1990’s had kept evolving our definition of a 35mm SLR or even a rangefinder, would be very different.
Just think of it: in the early 90’s 35mm cameras had reached a point in which low-end user cameras were functionally better than pro cameras had been just 10 years ago, and pro, hi-tech cameras were becoming more and more exquisite. Take the case of the Contax SLRs, made by Kyocera: they developed a system for auto-focussing your lenses by moving the film plane instead of the lens, which is revolutionary, because this is radically different not only from more conventional autofocus solutions but also from what focussing a 35mm has always been. By moving the film plane further into the body of the camera, it also gave you the equivalent of 10mm of macro tubing just by pressing a button. Macro. With. Any. Lens. To be honest, it wasn’t the fastest autofocus ever, but it was fast enough for most journalism jobs, and who knows what would have happened if the Contax SLR line hadn’t gone digital. Oh, also by Kyocera, there was another camera which incorporated a film flattening system without a pressure plate by creating an air vacuum into the body so it was totally flat, even able to be used in photo-astrography for which only glass plates were really reliable. Also by Kyocera came the first (and last) autofocus rangefinder system. Nikon and Canon were pushing the limits of physics with their ultra-fast sequence shooting, unmatched by digital computing cameras until much later. For the casuals there was a whole world of compacts made in Japan so sophisticated that they made true Kodak’s promise of you pressing the button and the lab doing everything else. Quality wise, users of compact cameras still still aren’t where they were in the 90’s. All this gone. Lost in time like tears in the rain.
And yes, some of those wonders you can find in my store. So enjoy. I mean, buy.