Recently an online discussion about film vs. digital photography got me thinking. I absolutely love digital photography, and would never consider going back to film. Sure, it’s really tough to match the richness of color of Kodachrome 64, or the detail and subtle gradation of 4×5 black and white film, but to me, those are not the most important things when creating art. Those considerations are more like a measure of craftmanship than critical elements for conveying an idea.
However, I am so grateful that I grew up in the age of film photography because of the discipline it instilled in me. Every time you pressed the shutter button, you were spending money. Period. Contrast that to today, where images cost nothing: take a bunch of bad shots, who cares? Click the little trash can icon, and they’re gone. Doesn’t cost a cent.
If you were a poor, struggling student, as I was at the time, buying film was a good chunk of what was left of your money after paying for rent, food, and other essentials. So if I saw something interesting to photograph, I didn’t fire away, taking several exposures from a few different angles in the hope that one would be what I needed. Instead, I composed the image in the viewfinder, looking at it from various angles, and through this process learned to recognize what was important for the final image. Most of the time I walked away without taking the shot, because on further reflection, it didn’t seem worth it.
What if I had had lots of money to spend? I believe that I would not have developed the visual discipline that I have today, as there would never have been a need to limit what I shot. Without that discipline, I don’t believe that I would have become as good a photographer. Even today, with all my digital equipment, I still shoot as though every exposure means something.
In general, scarcity forces one to become disciplined. For example, when you grow up in an environment where food is in short supply, you learn not to waste anything, and to only eat enough to keep going. Back in the early days of computing, when both disk storage and RAM were expensive, you coded in a way to ensure that your program would fit into memory, and would require as little space as possible when written to disk. That parsimonious approach resulted in the “640K Ought to be Enough for Anyone” quote that Bill Gates never said, but keeps getting repeated anyway.
There’s something to be said for learning how to get through tough times. It’s a delicate balance, though – too much scarcity can damage you physically and/or psychologically. My mom grew up as one of six kids in a family during the Great Depression, and it definitely left its mark on her. She wasn’t a full-blown hoarder, but she definitely had a hard time throwing things away – “you never know when you might need it!” was her refrain. And we were not allowed to be fussy about the food we were served at mealtimes: you had to eat every bit on your plate before you could leave the table. That experience has had an effect on me, as I really hate to throw food out. Maybe it’s my mom’s voice still echoing in my mind.