movement in a form, which in that case are photographs with a tiny depth of field because I’m so close, so I’m using tonal values to show depth and form.”
The photography he practices now is “dry.” Compared with traditional film photography, the digital processes are much less physical: there is no carrying all the rolls of film, no winding and unwinding film onto reels for development, no mixing (and smelling) chemicals, and no moving the print from tray to tray during development, fixing, and washing.
With film photography, the photographer has a physical relationship to each print. Does Witherill miss it, or does he think it was valuable in terms of the end result? “I don’t,” he responded. “I think it was as valuable as having to crank a car to start it. I don’t really care what it takes to get the image. One of the reasons I love digital is that there’s so much more control over what I call orchestrating the light and over image management, to where I really can get the image to what I see in my mind. There is that argument about the reality of it and that digital images can be far more manipulated than they could with film, but my argument is that photography has never been without manipulation.”
Photography has always possessed elements of magic. With the right kind of camera, lighting, and film, you could stop action — as in Harold Edgerton’s famous close-up of a milk drop — and you could “erase” all of the moving people and cars from a busy city scene by using a time exposure.
The Polaroid “instant print” process once seemed miraculous, although digital cameras virtually match that feat by allowing you to see the picture you just took on the camera’s screen. “That’s the key: being able to edit in the field,” Witherill said. “Yes, the production rate of images is tenfold what it was with film. However, I’m still getting the same percentage that I used to get, about 1 percent to 2 percent of what I shoot. Most of it gets thankfully put in the trash, or as Brett Weston used to say, put up on a high shelf where it won’t hurt anybody.
“I’ve seen maybe 2,000 prints by Ansel Adams, but he had over 100,000 negatives. What happened to the rest of them? It’s like baseball: if you can hit a home run one out of 10 times, you’re batting pretty well.”