Friday, December 4, 2009

Convergence of new and old

"Images ... represent a time capsule, a link to the past. To hold an image and look into the soldier's eyes, just as he was the day it was taken, always gives me goose bumps."

These are the words of David Wynn Vaughan, whose collection of Confederate Civil War soldier photographs are currently on display at the Georgia Southern University Museum in the "Portraits in Gray" photography exhibition. In fact, his quote is displayed on one of the exhibit panels and serves as a reminder of the power of photography to make connections, even with those long gone.

The detail in the pictures is astonishing. Truly. We were told about a soldier's button that, when enlarged, revealed the details of a harp imprinted on it. These photographs allow us to meet these soldiers, from all walks of life, face to face. Their eyes gaze out at us from across the ages.

And the earliest photographic technology makes this possible. We would like to think that modern technology has made photography better. That today's images are superior to those made in the past. But it's simply not true. Digital photography has made the medium more accessable than ever. No doubt. But the quality of digital images simply isn't the same. The images reflect the medium - images today are simply a collection of ones and zeroes, a cold, digitized description of light and color processed from tiny electronic photosensors.

The old tin plates and paper photographs from the mid-Nineteenth Century somehow bring us closer to the source of those images - the people depicted in them. Not only are the images something tangible, something we can reach out and touch, but they are created directly from the light reflected from the source. The negative and the print were one in the same.

The original photos in "Portraits in Gray" are too precious to display in public. There is only one, under glass, to show what the oringinals looked like. Through the magic of digital enlargement and printing, we get to gaze into the eyes of people from nearly 150 years ago. Images made with digital cameras today lose detail as they are enlarged. The more they are enlarged, the softer and fuzzier they get. These photographs from another era, on the other hand, simply reveal their details, gloriously, under enlargement. It's a convergence of old and new technology. A convergence of past and present.

Today, photographs are typically viewed on a computer screen or television set, or worse yet, as tiny images on a mobile phone. These display mediums make photographs a snap to share with friends and family, or with people all over the world. But they are simply incapable of reproducing the detail on display at the Georgia Southern Museum.

If you ever get the chance, try to extract yourselves from your digital devices and mosey into a gallery to view some photographs from the past. The details of a Civil War soldier's face and uniform. The incredible range of tones in an artfully printed photograph by Ansel Adams, reflecting the great American landscapes. The faces and scenes from the Great Depression produced by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s.

You'll be amazed at what you have been missing on your iPhone or your Facebook gallery.

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