The Past and Future of Photography | Leif Norman | TEDxManitoba

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven My name is Leif Norman, and I make all of my money
with this finger and this eye. What do I do? Oh, I thought someone
was going to say proctologist. (Laughter) Yes, I’m a photographer. Here I am on an adventure in Iceland – I shoot festivals and contemporary dance
and architecture and stuff, but I will not shoot your wedding. (Laughter) So, where is photography at now?
Where is it going? We’ve seen an enormous change
in lens-based electronics over the past – well, this eight-year period here, this is Saint Peter’s Square. This is the choosing,
the magicking up, of either Pope, Francis and Saint Benedict – Saint Benedict? Benedict.
He’s not a saint yet. And you can see a big difference here – everyone’s got an iPad eight years later, and there’s one phone in 2005. So, how is a photographer supposed to
differentiate themselves among this crowd, where everyone has a lens? What is the future of photography? I think to understand the future
and the present of any technology, one must look back. If I was just to do this and say,
“Okay. I’m going to teach you chemistry. Memorize that. Now you know chemistry. Done.” That’s awful; that’s rotten. What we have to do
is go back to Aristotle and say, “They thought fire and water
and all this stuff were elements, and we have to go through
wrong, wrong, wrong, mistake, fail, incorrect, slightly more correct,
slightly more correct, and then we get
to an actual science today: you add a proton, take a proton away, you’ve got mercury, you got gold – fascinating – silver. So photography is
best understood, I think, by going way back to the beginning,
to this guy, Fox Talbot, born in 1800. He was a rich, southern,
English gentlemen – very smart guy – he was a mathematician. He had leisure; he had leisure,
smarts and money. So he was in Italy one fine summer, trying to sketch this lake landscape with this device called a camera obscura. You put paper on top
of the little diagram there and you trace it all out, the lens focuses
on what you’re looking at, and then he took the paper away, and it was garbage. It was just squiggles;
it didn’t come out at all. And he thought, “Why can’t I just get
this dumb machine to do it for me?” I just want the photons
to draw themselves; I want nature to do it for me.” He knew about this stuff
called silver nitrate. In fact, the alchemists
knew about silver nitrate; they called it lunar caustic. So, the moon is associated with silver. It should have been
associated with the sun; they should have called it
solar caustic because this stuff, even though it looks like sugar
and salt, it’s kind of magical. You dissolve it in water,
and then you put that solution on things, and when that solution dries
and gets exposed to light, it turns dark. So he started playing
around with this stuff, and he put it on some paper, and he put that in a modified camera, a camera obscura, right? It means room.
I think it was up on that slide. And it took forever,
took two hours or so, to get an image. He was burning the image
right in the camera; he kept opening it,
looking in there, and then, finally, he got this image, but it would fade after a while –
once it continued to hit the light, it would fade away and you’d get nothing. So that was a problem. Then he discovered this stuff
called sodium thiosulfate – more pretty crystals. I love chemistry. And this is the fix. So, you pull the image out of the camera, and you got the image,
and quickly wash it with the stuff, voilà, it will stay there; you can expose it to light
and it won’t get ruined. But then he discovered another thing,
called the latent image effect. He didn’t have to leave it
in the camera for two hours – he could leave it in there for two minutes and then take it into a darkroom and put that developer-type stuff on it – which was a secret back then,
I don’t know what it was – and you would get an image right away;
it was hiding there the whole time. It didn’t look like anything
happened in the camera, but then you take it
in the darkroom and voilà. This must have been like alchemy; this must have been just magical
at this time – this is 1839. And this is a positive print
that Fox Talbot made in 1843 – so, they’re quite beautiful. They have this old-worldy look to them. The calotype is the negative part – kalos from beautiful – and the positive part – what you do – let me just put this here for a second – this is your negative; it’s all black and white
and everything’s reversed, left and right is reversed. And you put this on top
of another piece of paper that’s coated with silver nitrate and you expose the back
to some light, sunlight, and you peel it apart –
oh, a little bit more – then you peel it apart, and you fix it,
and you have a positive. You can make hundreds
and hundreds of these. And to this day, this is
still how photography works. So, once again just to show you, it just reverses around
like that – quite pretty. The sepia – and the positives
are called salt prints, so calotypes are the negatives
and salt prints are the positives. The sepia color is quite
otherworldly and very nice too, and it’s from cuttlefish, like the cuttlefish we saw
in the video earlier today. It’s sepia: the color of the ink
that comes out of this fish, and that’s why sepia photographs
are called sepia photographs. And like I said, modern film
still works this way. Go to Don’s Film and get
some black and white film, and you get the negative, and you
can make infinite positives from it. So, early photography
was quite complicated: you needed lots of equipment,
lots of knowledge; you probably made lots of mistakes. You had to be like an alchemist
just to get an image. But let’s run through
what I would say are the greatest hits of 20th century photographic technology. It starts off with Kodak in 1888. He said we’re not going to have
the public being educated at all, we’ll give them a camera: “You push the button, and we do the rest.”
That was his motto. These cameras shot circular images, and there were 100 photos
in that one camera. You had to send it back
to the factory to get it reloaded, but, ah, what the heck? You didn’t even have to focus it,
just pointed it, pulled the trigger, voilà, wind it a little forward. So now anyone could be a photographer. In the early 1900s, these little guys are basically
magnesium bombs – that looks like its a fuse on there? It is a fuse on there. You’d light the thing,
you’d run over to your camera, it would go woosh like that, it’d give off light and smoke – I guess you’d do it indoors?
I don’t know – they’re crazy. In the 1930s, Kodachrome,
color film, became popular, and also that camera there
is a very early 35mm prototype, and we still have the 35mm size in modern, full-frame digital cameras. And then Poloraid introduced in the 1940s
the idea of instant photography – “Oh, I want to see it right away.” And then in the 1950s, you didn’t need
an external meter to read the light and have it separate
from your camera – click, click. they were all being integrated –
things were becoming easier, faster. And then in the 1970s: Instamatic. I’m sure you remember that –
you just load it in, slap the door you don’t have to focus it;
it’s idiot-proof. It’s like 1888 all over again –
anyone could be a photographer. And tourists everywhere had these things. In the 1980s, Minolta came out
with the very first auto-focus SLR system. So everything’s becoming
more computerized. In the 1990s – this is actually
a film camera, it’s not a digital camera – this is a film camera,
and it looks like a computer. All of these things
are still with us today: in our iPhones – chk, chk. People take pictures like this now. Weird. And the modern digital cameras, like that one right there. So, what’s technology doing to us? Are we going to have robots
chewing our own food and hugging us in the future for comfort? It’s a little bizarre. I have one of these fancy digital cameras, and I do make all of my money with it. I need it, and people
come up to me and say, “Oh gosh, that’s a really fancy camera.
I bet it takes really good pictures,” as if the camera took
the pictures all by itself. So, people seem to think that technology is nothing more than
this candy store they can go into, and if they just had enough money, they could also be a brilliant whatever – a brilliant photographer, or a brilliant – if they just had the right car, they
would win Le Mans or something, right? This is a bit funny how people think
of technology as solving their problems. So, we have this, I think –
here’s a bit of social theory for you – I think we’ve got this authenticity
versus technology. Technology is trying to make everything
cheaper, easier, dumber, faster, and authenticity – this hipster-type of movement
we’ve been hearing about? They want to spend a little more money; they want to take things a little slower. They don’t mind taking
the tough road to do things, and so they’re not using iPads; they’re using typewriters in Starbucks
and stuff like that – it’s pretty funny. But this has been around
since the 60s and 70s with the back-to-the-land movement;
there’s a BBC show, “The Good Life.” So people took their entire
backyards and turned it into – they’d be goats here
and growing carrots and stuff, so it’s not really a new thing,
but I kind of dig the idea of it. So, back to me, in the 90s, I taught myself photography; I said, “I’m going to be a photographer.” So I bought these developing tanks
and set up an enlarger in the spare bedroom in my house, and I didn’t even go to school; I just failed and failed and failed and finally worked out how to do it, and taught myself how to frame
an image and be a photographer. And seeing that developing tray with that image that would
slowly come out from nothing, was magical – I was hooked. You guys must have done that
in high school, right? All the people who were born in the 90s, they won’t get that amazing
photo-club feeling in high school and the red light, you know. So, I still had a bit
of an inferiority complex because if anyone can just
go out and buy a camera, what makes me any better
than anyone else? So, I decided to start
looking back in time to alternative processes,
as they’re called – but this was the calotype process,
the actual paper negative process. To distinguish myself, to say, “Oh look, I’m doing
this really tough thing, and I bet you just go
to the store and buy a camera, but I’m doing this really
tough thing, so ha.” And I bought all these books, and they’re from 150 and 170 years ago, and I was reading all the recipes: okay, buy silver nitrate, buy potassium iodide,
gallic acid, acetic acid, all that stuff, and I built Gladys. She’s called Gladys because it’s
an old-timey-sounding name, like Barbara or Edna or Ruth. This isn’t Brittany – that wouldn’t work at all. Let’s put that down there. So, Gladys, as you can see
by the slide, compared to this – you can have different lenses on her. She’s sort of a fully-functioning,
Victorian-style camera – that’s a big portrait lens on her there. And the images I made didn’t work. The recipe? Something
wrong with the recipes? No, couldn’t be the recipes;
it had to be me. No, that didn’t work either –
this is getting a little better, but what are all these brown
splotches on everything? This is a nightmare. And I finally got pretty good at doing it, and I got completely hooked all over again on the beautiful other-worldliness of it; I took this a year ago, but it looks like it’s from 100 years ago. And there’s that beautiful sepia tone, and this is flipped digitally in Photoshop. I haven’t figured out
how to make the salt prints yet; I’m just doing
the negative, calotype part. And I discovered something
called “calotype weather” because the reason my negatives
weren’t working out and were going brown, and they would work
and then wouldn’t work – is because , I discovered, it’s the heat; I was doing a lot of these in July and the heat just makes them
go rotten, makes them go bad. And I don’t think
it’s written down anywhere – I have a lot of these books – so, I think I have “discovered” something
about the history of photography, in that there is such a thing
as calotype weather. Once it gets above 22 Celsius
and if it’s a little too humid, it’s just put your camera away. And so, in the future,
I’ll write a book about calotypes and maybe that will be in there. And so, just to illustrate: this is what a negative looks like – and once again,
in Photoshop I have to do this because I haven’t quite perfected
the chemical way of doing it – and this is off my little tester camera; the little tester camera
is a four by five, not the big one like this because this takes 12 by 12 images,
so I can’t be using it all the time. And how good is this image? We can zoom in,
and we can zoom in again, and it turns out that if you scan
a 4 by 5 calotype negative, which is a 175-year-old technology, you can get 120 megapixel image out of it. So in a way, this is
like post-apocalyptic; this is anachronistic, you know, if Canon and Nikon
and Ilford suddenly just ceased to exist, I’ll be okay, as long as I can
get some lunar caustic. So, this guy’s 820 megapixels
because its a 12 by 12 image. Is there any – can Canon
and Nikon compete with that? Not yet, but boy. So, how do you actually make a calotype? I was going to make paper
from scratch, but that’s too insane. So, I went to the arts supply store,
and I got some vellum, this stuff that doesn’t fall apart
when you get it wet several times – you cut it to the right shape, and then you put potassium iodide
and silver nitrate on it – this can all be done in the light – and then you have to wash it
and wash it and dry it and wash it. And then, you take it into the darkroom where the lights are red – oh, thank you, ahh,
there’s that magical feeling again – and you apply the silver nitrate solution,
and it becomes sensitized, and then you can load it
into one of these guys here – let’s see, is this the right one? I made this from scratch, too. So, there’s your blank paper and then – Gladys-demo – then you can go outside – so the lights come back up again –
“Hey, we’re outside,” and we go and we choose
just the right place. It’s a bit heavy which is why I take lots
of pictures of the Exchange District because it’s close by to the studio. So, we have to focus it by moving
these things forward and back – here, let me show you … simple as that – ooh, have to get some WD-40 on it – and you look at the image here, and that’s where I’d normally put
the black focusing cloth over my head. And then, once you’ve got that
set up, this is the shutter. Block out all the light, put this guy in here – woop – make sure nothing moves, pull this out, pull this off, and you go, “One Mississippi,
Two Mississippi” – and I’ve got a stopwatch – take 60 seconds at a very, very bright day at f5.6 to get a proper image. Put that back on there,
put this back on here, and … you get the image, but only after
you get into the darkroom and put developer
on it and all that stuff. That was just a magic trick. So, where are we at now? So this is how an image
is made in the camera: So what is up this way, crosses and becomes
upside down in the camera. So this anachronistic photography, where up is down and black is white and left is right
and the past is the future, at least for me anyway, I think this is possibly
the future of photography in the way that we’re taking
a bit of power back, you know, we can do it ourselves, and I can make better images
than Nikon can even make. There is a yearning
for this anachronistic photography, because with our iPhones, we can buy these little apps
that make old-timey-looking images – I’m just going to put this down here – and so there must be something
in the society that wants that. And so instead of just getting an app, I would recommend, and my challenge
for everyone here today, is to build your own camera from scratch. (Laughter) No, that’s ridiculous. I’m just going to try to demonstrate here
what it looks like through the camera. So, this is upside-down – can I bring all the lights
down in the room? Hopefully this works, please. It should say, you can see it here:
“Take the tougher road.” Can you see that here? (Audience) Yes Let me try to turn it a bit,
so I can show you guys here, there, can you see that? So this funny world which is full of contradictions
and ironies and all kinds of stuff, is where I’m going to spend my future. I think it’s quite fun,
and perhaps you can join me and mix chemicals
and get stains on your fingers. I just need to start making
some positives out of my negatives. Thank you. (Applause)

Posts created 2006

22 thoughts on “The Past and Future of Photography | Leif Norman | TEDxManitoba

  1. Yeah. I should have put in a bit more about the future. My prediction is that technology will continue to detach people from actual tangible involvement with image making, like chemistry, wet paper, metal dials and larger amounts of time wondering if the film is OK. But also people will find richness in the history of photography and indulge in tintypes and other vintage processes making the future full of anachronisms.

  2. Great talk Leif, very entertaining. I agree that along with the latest technological developments, traditional photographic processes will also have place. I have been doing alternative processes of late and began to develop my own B&W film and its a blast.

  3. why are you forgetting Chinese philosopher mozi who discovered that light passing through a pin hole into a dark roomWill make upside down picture and this phenomena is the key technology of today's cameras

  4. Talbot used a Camera Lucida as a drawing aid, not a Camera Obscura. Sir John Herschel discovered fixer, not Talbot. Talbot also made his first photographs (most famously the lattice window) along with his ’sun pictures’ (early photograms) in 1835, not 1839. (1839 was the year both he and Daguerre published their discoveries in England and France, respectively). Sorry to be pedantic but if you’re educating people in history and planning to write a book, do it proper.

  5. Very entertaining and informative, Leif. I would love to mix up chemicals with you and build a Gladys….or perhaps a Hilda or Ermintrude! Lol… Where can I see your work online or in publications? Thanks, Martin (London, England).

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