Top photographers condemn digital age

Experts are warning traditional photography could become a museum craft, write Nicholas Pyke and Andrew Johnson, but some greats are up in arms
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Terry O'Neill, one of the world's most published photographers, has condemned the rapid spread of digital cameras for wrecking the art of taking pictures.

Terry O'Neill, one of the world's most published photographers, has condemned the rapid spread of digital cameras for wrecking the art of taking pictures.

He believes digital cameras are only fit for "amateurs and paparazzi", and that the technology is turning all pictures into "snapshots".

His criticisms follow a week in which Eastman Kodak admitted the film business is declining at twice the speed of previous estimates, while Dixons reported that four out of five camera sales are digital.

Ilford Imaging in Cheshire, the world's largest producer of black and white photo materials, went into receivership in July, thanks to traditional photography's decline.

Digital cameras take pictures in much the same way as traditional ones, but the image is "captured" electronically and stored in the internal memory. The images can be printed out and saved onto a computer or CD.

With prices falling rapidly - digital SLR cameras are available for less than £1,000 and the cheapest costs £15 - the technology is now so popular that Kodak will stop selling film cameras in most of the world by the end of this year. But O'Neill, who rose to prominence with Vogue and Paris Match in the 1960s, is one of many leading photographers resisting the change.

They say the quality of the new images remains inferior and traditional negatives are a more reliable record of the past than electronic archives. Millions of photographs have already been lost because most digital camera ownersnever print their pictures out.

"You will always get better quality with film. You can talk to any darkroom expert about that," O'Neill said. "I don't use digital, and I'll always use film. Digital is for amateurs and paparazzi photographers. There is a great skill in photography. Digital cameras reduce everything to a snapshot."

Lord Snowdon is another prominent fan of old-fashioned cameras, as are the award-winning news photographers Tom Stoddart and Don McCullin. The leading landscape photographer David Parker, currently exhibiting at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, relies on film and described its decline as the end of an era.

Film will account for less than half of Kodak's profits by next year, and looks set to disappear from non-specialist stores. The digital revolution has also left thousands with unusable "intermediate" technology on their hands, as the APS format is now virtually redundant.

Lord Lichfield, the royal photographer who took the official portraits of Prince Charles's wedding to Diana believes film cameras are disappearing so fast that the art of taking pictures and developing them in a darkroom will soon be regarded as a museum craft. He, though, has become a cheerleader for the digital age. "Terry O'Neill is a dinosaur. I love him dearly and he's a mate, but he's a dinosaur," he said. "I haven't shot a roll of film for five years. I'm saving £80-90,000 a year.

"Digital technology does have phenomenal advantages and I really can't see any disadvantages. I have no qualms in saying it produces the quality of reproduction that all my clients require. The change will inevitably inspire a new generation of 'art' photographers using traditional methods, like craftsmen."

The celebrity photographer Dave Bennett also relies on the new technology. "Film was always a bit of a mystery anyway. There was always the fear that you'd open the back of the camera and ruin the lot," he said. "The romance of film will be lost, but that's about all."

David Hockney, who made his name with both paintings and photographs, described the rise of digital technology as the biggest change since the invention of chemical printing more than 160 years ago. He said it would abolish an old-fashioned - and often mistaken - belief that the camera does not lie.

"The end of chemical photography is a more profound change than any technical change there's been in photography," he said. In future people will accept digital photographs, which can be electronically manipulated, are no more objective than paintings. All images are made by something and someone. Even with a surveillance camera the boundaries of the shot have been fixed by someone." Mr Hockney, though, has lost interest in photography and no longer bothers with cameras.

"The thing is that the camera is a bore in the way it looks at the world," he said. "Picasso and Matisse are far more exciting - and I'm all for excitement."


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