Camera club at a turning point

Hemlock Gorge, NewtonLast year I went to California Dreamin’: Camera Clubs and the Pictorial Photography Tradition, an exhibit at the Boston University Art Gallery. The period it covered, about 1910-1930, was an interesting time for American photography. Pictorialism — the self-conscious style so popular at the turn of the century with its gauzy ambiance, classical references, and overtly artistic aspirations — was being replaced by “straight photography,” with its modern, formal, occasionally deadpan images that embraced the camera’s ability to render reality in sharp detail. Looking at the pictures in the exhibit, I was struck by a tension between these two styles that must have made for interesting discussions in some camera clubs and shattered others.

Though the Newton Camera Club is nowhere near splintering, it’s clearly at a point where change is inevitable. As with the transition from pictorialism to straight photography in the ’10s and ’20s and the later transition from a black-and-white photographic tradition to color in the ’50s and ’60s, our group is feeling the effects of changes in technology and photographic sensibilities.

The NCC mailing list has been almost aflame recently with discussions of whether and how to continue the monthly slide competitions, how to incorporate digital photography into club events, and how to cope with manipulation and “truth” in digital imaging — essentially the role of a modern camera club. To paraphrase Marshall, photography and our camera club are big tents that can accomodate many diverse viewpoints; but that doesn’t mean we all enjoy doing the same things, which has led to some dissatisfaction.

On the whole, though, I think our club is quite resilient and will weather the challenges. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any film purists in the club who disparage digital, even though many of us still use film; we’re beyond that very 1990s debate. After a couple of years of borrowing digital projectors from various members’ companies, we’re starting to ponder seriously how to afford a projector with good color fidelity. We’re talking about the value of competitions and whether they still fill a need in the club. Lately there’s been an intense (but genial) discussion of whether anything goes in competitions with respect to manipulations, if Photoshop creates an unfair playing field between film and digital, and some rather existential discussions about truth in photography. As someone who thought the club moribund at a number of points over the last couple of year, all this Sturm und Drang is quite refreshing.

The issue of photographic truth — even more than the disruptive technologies of digital imaging — is, in my opinion, driving the slow (sometimes glacially slow) progression from “modern” straight photography to a more “postmodern” style that borrows the sharp, deadpan qualities of straight photography but infuses it with an ironic acknowledgement that our art is, in many ways, a manipulative lie not unlike a very good joke or urban legend.

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