Unblinking Eye
Whither Analog Photography


Whither Analog Photography?
A McLuhanesque Approach
by Harvey W. Yurow Ph.D.


Since its invention in 1839, photography has encountered a number of crossroads or paths to be taken, the current one being a choice between chemical (analog) and electronic (digital) techniques. One approach is to evaluate each of the major crossroads in photography, utilizing criteria from Marshall McLuhan's media theory. In it, he proposed that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of study – popularly quoted as “the medium is the message” (Wikipedia). Another concept of McLuhan's, which is of  considerable significance in the analysis of photographic techniques, is differentiating between “hot” and “cool” media, an important categorization tool (CMA, Levinson), which will be considered in detail in this article. It works best when applied to two things that are attempting to do the same. A hot medium is described variously as: being very detailed and requiring less effort to obtain meaning and hence less participation; usually providing complete involvement without considerable stimulus; favoring analytical precision, quantitative analysis, and sequential ordering; emphasizing one sense over the others. Cool media usually require more active participation to fill in detail and to obtain meaning, and can involve two or more senses (Wikipedia). However, it must be noted that as in physics, hot and cool exist on a continuum. In a chapter devoted to photography, McLuhan generalized in stating that photography is a hot medium, but in the current view, the concept of grading media on a continuum has been favored (Koten). Consequently, as Scott Rosenberg explained it, a medium can be both hot and cool, e.g., radio is hot, but talk radio allows the cool element of listener participation, television is cool, but high definition “hots” it up.

McLuhan believed that when Gutenberg printing was introduced in the 15th century, Western Society began to change from one in which all of the five human senses were actively involved (preliterate), to a literate society in which the visual sense predominated. With the advent of electricity in the 19th century, which is “only incidentally visual and auditory, it is primarily tactile”, the visual sense began to lose some of its dominance, especially with the introduction of television, which McLuhan considered above all, “an extension of the sense of touch, which involves maximum interplay of all the senses”. McLuhan described basically visual societies as being, uniform, continuous, or repetitive, while the tactile mode of perceiving is “sudden, but not specialist, counter, original, spare, strange, total and synesthetic, involving all the senses”  

Ever since its invention, photography has shown tactile (cool) flashes to compete with its primarily visual (hot) effect. Illustrative of this is to first compare the Daguerrotype with the Calotype of Fox Talbot (Neblette). While both techniques made use of the photosensitivity of a silver halide salt, the former, using a metal (copper) support, applied a physical form of development (mercury vapor)  to the latent image, which resulted in a positive of exquisite detail, while the latter, employing chemical development on paper to produce a negative, and requiring a second step to obtain a paper positive, gave a less detailed image. Daguerrotype consequently was the “hotter” medium of the two being considered. Yet, McLuhan noted that daguerrotypes on close examination have a “stippling or pitting with minute dots that was echoed later in Seurat's pointillisme” a distinct shifting away from an essentially hot medium. However, in practical terms, it was the principal of negative into positive, which harmonized with the contemporary concept of mass production of identical objects (mechanical age) , as exemplified by the “cool” Calotype, that predominated in subsequent photographic improvements. Interestingly enough, viewing calotype negatives, sometimes exhibited per se in museums, produces perceptual dissonance and requires learning that tones are reversed. This visualization ability varies among individuals (Hammond), depending upon experience and the perceptual strategies one can bring to bear (Stroebel). This shift from a hot positive to a cool negative has existed throughout the history of photography, and is prominent today in connection with those television commercials where color negative images are “way cool”. Interestingly enough, in the early 1970's Kodak produced a Video Negative Color Analyzer that electronically scanned, reversed, and displayed a positive full color image of a negative on its video tube.


The next significant advance was the wet-collodion process of Scott-Archer in 1851. In essence, collodion (nitrocellulose in an ether-alcohol solvent mixture) was mixed with a soluble iodide, coated on a glass plate, and while still wet, treated with aqueous silver nitrate, and quickly exposed. The  superior image detail as compared to that of the Calotype on paper, produced a shift towards “hot”.

The third basic change (Maddox 1871), which has continued to the current day, makes use of silver halide in a gelatin matrix, coated on glass, film, or paper. Because of the mass production of these items, the photographer usually had little more to do than snap the shutter. The gelatin plate, continuing a trend, produced a “hot” image in tune with an increasingly literate society.

However, there were various attempts on the part of amateur practitioners to turn the medium towards cool, especially with regard to prints. These paths took two basic forms, 1) adding a textural effect to a two dimensional image, 2) decreasing the sharpness of the image. These tendencies may have been influenced to some extent by ideas from painting (Robb and Garrison, Stroebel), including the sketchy, unfinished effects of the French Impressionists, the pointillist style of Seurat, and the heavily coiled rolls of pigment in the works of Van Gogh. Consequent  photographic media introduced were: platinotype, kallitype, gum bichromate, carbon, carbro, and bromoil (Anderson), each of which required considerable preparation. In addition, many of the resulting prints were made on a variety of paper surfaces of varying textures, such as watercolor drawing papers. Paul L. Anderson (1937) paid special attention to the tactile aspect of a photographic print when describing hand-sensitized platinum paper. Because of renewed interest in media of this type, his following quotations are relevant. “The Whatman rough is rougher than will be generally desired for anything except broad effects; (The Strathmore) grain is more regular, and therefore less interesting; A good platinum print on a fine tissue has an esthetic quality which rivals that of a fine etching; I have seen very beautiful prints made on the parchment-like paper in which butter is wrapped”. In a similar vein, Arthur Hammond wrote, “ A good bromoil print is often so much better than a straight enlargement. The slight softening of the edges and outlines and the fact that the tones are composed of pigments applied on the surface instead of being embedded in the gelatin give the picture a breadth and carrying power that is most attractive”. In this connection, bromoil makes use of pigments applied by special brushes to a bleached silver print to give results in the pointillist style.

Starting early in the development of silver halide photographic printing paper, surfaces of various textures were manufactured, often either in imitation of drawing media, or of certain fabrics. According to McLuhan, media involving more that one of the human senses would require the recipient to be more of a participant  and hence yield a cooler result .  A number of these textures involved a considerable raising of the print surface and included silk, linen, tapestry and tweed, and the quite descriptive Barnet “tiger tongue”, and even utilized emulsions coated on artist's canvas (Du Pont).  In addition, texture screens,  usually employed during enlargement, such as tapestry, canvas and bromoil, gave a significant tactile impression (Agfa-Ansco, Du Pont, Mooney). Textures were also produced via the paper negative process, which started with a film negative from which was made a film or paper positive that in turn produced a paper negative from which a paper print was made (Gibbs, Kodak). Texture and subdued detail resulted when both a paper positive and a paper negative were prepared, with exposure of the paper emulsion facing, respectively, the negative and the diapositive.


Besides  textural effects, a print image was often “unsharpened” by employment of diffusion discs or lenses on the camera, or by a diffusion screen, or fabrics such as cheesecloth, during printing of the negative. The technique was quite popular during the 1930's, as indicated by the many examples of this “school” found in photographic periodicals and in books (Anderson, Hammond).  Anderson, in discussing soft focus lenses to produce a diffused image, indicated that “ it is possible to obtain greater diffusion, thus aiding in the suggestion of mystery”. “Mystery” here can be interpreted as filling in the details in the image, which greatly involves the observer. However, this writer has viewed illustrated examples of diffusion so extreme (too cool) that it hardly seemed in his opinion worth the involvement to study them in any detail. Interestingly enough, inexpensive cameras with either an uncorrected glass lens or a pinhole lens are currently in vogue, and carry on this tradition (Freestyle).

In an excellent article titled “Sharpness and Pictorialism”, Eleanor Parke Custis compared photographic results between f:64 razor sharpness and soft focus effects, where the former “leaves nothing to the imagination”. Custis probably gave the best exposition for considering pictorial photography as what we now call a cool medium. In contrast, the f:64 school, which included Ansel Adams, objected to the pictorial approach, and made clearness and definition a paramount requirement for a photograph. Adams spoke of the reality of the f/64 school being in their optical-image accuracy. This group used a large format camera set to its smallest diaphragm stop to produce a negative of great depth of field, and thus equally sharp from foreground to background (Wikipedia). However, at extremely small diaphragm stops, diffraction of light becomes significant, and image point size increases with consequent degradation (Williams).

Careful selection of film can also result in either sharpening or softening of the image. In addition to their novel representation of the invisible spectrum, certain infrared black-and-white films lack an antihalation backing – the result being a greater “blooming” effect. In contrast, optimum sharpening results from various contemporary thin emulsion, high resolution films, especially in conjunction with highly corrected camera lenses (Williams), and are of importance to the scientific or medical photographer.

At the same time as images on paper, positives were also produced on glass or film. If they were viewed with a projector and a screen -  “light-on” medium, they were called lantern slides. If they were viewed with back lighting - “light-through” medium, they were called transparencies, and could be examined when affixed to a window pane, lamp shade, or a light box, or with a table or hand-held viewer (Anon, Fraprie, Milner).  Sometimes these diapositives were produced on a translucent film base (Kodak Translite). Before the commercial introduction of color slides, black-and-white diapositives and motion picture prints often were tinted or toned to give a monochrome rendition, which could further affect the degree of coolness.

Early color slides, produced by the additive process (red, green and blue primaries), also exhibited a tactile component. The Autotypes of the Lumiere brothers were composed of color dots (Seurat again!), while a reseau technique involving very fine color lines, reminiscent of color TV, included Dufaycolor and Finlaycolor. Tactility was lost with the advent of subtractive color (yellow, magenta and cyan), as exemplified in the extremely fine grain and sharp detail of Kodachrome and other integral tripack films (Coote).

Stereo still photography and cinematography, which are now enjoying somewhat of a revival, present an interesting picture. The high resolution of contemporary color film points to a hot medium, but the use of polarizing glasses by the audience enhances the participatory effect. In addition, the kinesthetic effect of the third dimension can be strongly felt, especially with stereo motion pictures. Similarly, holograms, which are formed with lasers, also provide a 3-D image, but are less well defined and require a considerable viewing effort.


A question arises as to the effect of the basic viewing conditions of a specific photographic image on its degree of hotness or coolness, i.e., as a print by reflected light, or as a diapositive (transparency) by reflected light via a projector-screen combination, or in a slide viewer by transmitted light. A novel viewing effect resulted by use of a translucent film such as Kodak Translite or Du Pont Duolux, with water colors applied to the back emulsion, in conjunction with a flasher box. With the light off, viewing was of a B&W print by reflected light, while with the light on, a color transparency came into view (Trade Winds). The latter condition somewhat resembles that either on a TV screen, or on a computer screen, where McLuhan indicated that “the resulting plastic contour appears highlighted by light through , not light on, and the  image so formed has the quality of sculpture and icon, rather than of picture”. McLuhan compared light-through pictures to stained glass church windows, suggesting a space beyond, and beckoning us to investigate further. Also of relevance, on comparing viewing of slides by transmitted or by reflected light, Leslie Thomson wrote, “ For projection, a simple picture with the main object critically focused is more effective than one containing much small detail. In direct viewing, on the other hand, which is a much more individual experience, the interest is rather in 'browsing' than in the first effect. Accordingly, plenty of detail, and everything in focus is desirable”.

A significant branching-off in photography as a medium occurred with deliberate manipulations to involve the viewer more actively in an essentially enigmatic process. Illustrative of this is the technique of posterization that led to results such as are found in isohelie, or in the  Person process, (Romer). These procedures often involved registration during printing of two or more negatives. Similarly, equidensity images consisting of a partial positive – partial negative image could also be obtained: via the Sabatier effect, requiring a controlled second exposure during development of a negative or positive; by combining a negative and its positive slightly out of register (bas relief); with a special  two layer emulsion (Agfacontour); with the Waterhouse Effect, resulting from thiourea being added to a conventional developer (Yurow).

Another crossroads of significance is in the “instant” branch of photography, as exemplified by the Polaroid process. Here, all that was usually necessary was to press the shutter, and have a sharp print pop out in only about one minute. Because the image can be as detailed as that obtained with development outside of the camera, it has a comparable degree of  “hotness”, although the involved waiting period adds a degree of coolness.

This brings us to the current situation, with both analog and digital branches of photography in competition. Images formed in a digital camera are usually exhibited on TV or on computer screen, with their characteristic “line” structures, or else via an ink jet printer, which produces an image composed of dots forming very fine parallel lines. These images are more textural than those from conventional silver color prints, when both are compared on a glossy paper surface, and consequently, a tactile factor obtains. However, one can envision a time when digital and analog prints become  essentially identical  to the naked eye, “by falling below the threshold of normal vision” (McLuhan).
In this connection, current digital scanners are unable to reproduce the total scale of analog transparencies (Buffaloe).


The basic question then becomes, “Can analog photography flourish in the digital age?”. This situation becomes a replay of the possibilities of painting in the photographic age. If, as a reading of McLuhan's theory has suggested, cooler media do better in this digital era, then many of the current offerings from photographic manufacturers, e.g., high resolution films, tend towards a hot medium (Freestyle) and may be less au courant, except for scientific photography. Nevertheless, exceptions do exist, and include black-and-white infrared film, lithographic film, and non -silver print kits. Possibly aside from the Daguerrotype, there are a significant number of contemporary practitioners of all of the previous major photographic processes. This situation is due in large part to the presence of the internet, where pictures and process directions or modifications can quickly be posted. Images from Sabatier and similar equidensity techniques are  effective on the cool “net”, as are those from color slide film developed as a negative, or from currently available  high contrast cinematographic and microfile films. Perhaps here, one should be guided by McLuhan's comment on “startling changes resulting from new hybrids and crossings of media”.

One rather enigmatic equidensity phenomenon, which, although difficult to reproduce, is worth studying in this renaissance period of analog photography, is permanganate bleach rereversal, (Rahts, Verkinderen), which has occurred more often since permanganate has replaced dichromate in reversal processes (Russell). The effect appears to be due to internal image desensitization (James), and images can be as striking as those for the Sabatier effect.

Finally, one may examine hot and cool media from the opposite direction – the viewpoint of the originator. In this connection Robert Hirsch speaks of “haptic” photographers – Greek haptos, laying hold of. Haptics, a term described by Viktor Lowenfeld, are more concerned with their bodily sensations and subjective experiences. They emphasize the essential nature rather than the physical nature of the subject.  “Haptic” and “cool” seem to go together!

The author would appreciate comments on this article at hyurow@yahoo.com


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