The case for “Hybrid” photography | Brian Richman

After an email exchange with Ruby Berry of the Film Shooters Collective (FSC) it turns out she was already in discussion with the founder of the FSC, Cameron Kline, about the use of “Hybrid” photographic techniques. I have a personal interest in hybrid photography myself, as I consider I am a practitioner myself, as I combine two very different types of photography methodology; digital and analog.

Quite apart from anything else, the worry everyone seems to have when it comes to writing about this subject is that any article or comments made about the article will degenerate into a “digital vs film” argument.  So let me “nail my flag to the mast” in no uncertain terms; I want this to come as no surprise to anyone, there should be no shadow of a doubt, this needs to be crystal clear, not only do I have a decent grasp of a use for metaphors, but I also like film photography.  I also like digital photography. 

Actually, I’ll drop the qualifier of “digital” or “film” from here on when it comes to describing me as all that does is encourage the Digital vs Film arguments, so… As a photographer (see? No qualifier), I count my inspiration for this like of both as having its roots in two things. 

The first is my initial career. I started out working on mainframe computers in the 1970’s. This was after leaving Art School and realizing nobody wanted someone with the skills I wanted to use. I was a half decent freehand copyist, painter (my end of course work was a life size Cubist oil painting), and so on. 

I was also a reasonable electronics hobbyist, so knowing the resister color code led me to work on computers in an era when they were only rows of closet size cabinets with the amount of computing power and storage ability well outpaced by even the most rudimentary digital wrist watch of today. 

They were operated and programmed mostly by men (the ratio was about 1 woman to every 10 men, even if marketing people populated pictures of them with women) in white lab coats carrying clip boards and yes, one of those was me. All the girls swooned at parties when I said I was a “Computer Programmer”. Ah yes - this was in an age of innocence that is truly now long gone. 

So to my second main inspiration. While at art school, I had furthered my photographic skills and knowledge, but it took more than a decade before this particular influence was made known to me. It comes from what is considered as perhaps the quintessential source of 20th century American landscape photography, Ansel Adams. Yes indeed. In 1983 when he was 81 years old, he was looking forward to the age of (as he called it) “Electronic photography”. 
You may ask “Not true… how could this be?” Ansel Adams who was perhaps the master of perhaps the most complicated film and darkroom techniques actually was looking forward to a new and more digital era? Don’t believe me? Take a look at this (you’ll only need to watch for about a minute) and then return to carry on reading:

There we have it, with his usual smile and in terms that are as plain as can be. Now then, after all this I will not even entertain a response to anyone who tries to turn this into an argument about which is “better” or “why” or “Digital vs analog”. From here on, you will simply be ignored.

So what is the “Hybrid” in all this? The definition of the word “Hybrid” all comes down to combining two or even potentially more things to make something else, something new. I won’t bore anyone with the actual dictionary texts, but you can look them up if you wish. Google is your friend in this.

As an artist this combining of different things is certainly not new at all. Did you ever hear of any work that was made from “Mixed Media?” At art school in the early 1970’s we all produced some work using this technique. Put some kind of base image down onto a canvas or board using paint, add some “found objects”, perhaps a photograph cut from a newspaper and then use pen and ink to draw outlines onto the work to distort or emphasize one aspect or other and there you have it.

Artists such as Pablo Picasso during the early 20th century are renowned for images made like this. Whatever you may think of the images themselves, I bet you didn’t expect me to be citing 1960’s designed computers, Pablo Picasso and Ansel Adams in the same article as sources of influence to validate the use of hybrid techniques in photography? In the early 21st century, rather than producing images on canvas or wood as art work crafted by hand much like was done over a hundred years ago, many of us who consider ourselves as photographers seem to be using a mix of mid to late 20th century analog techniques and more modern (mostly) 21st century digital processing techniques. This for me at least is the hybrid in the process. 

For most of us, whenever we touch a computer to process an image, however much it was produced using film (or glass or metal) as the support medium and processed in a chemical darkroom to deliver a negative or even positive “inter-image” as they were called, if the image as displayed or viewed in its final form is via some type of electronic medium (not media, medium – there is a huge difference) it becomes a hybrid. 

This as a definition is probably far too general, as there are artists today that use a photographs as part of their work, and might call it by a different name, but for us and this article, it will do.

Well over 800 words to define what this subject is all about. I could go on even more about definitions, but won’t. In an age of attention spans that are no longer than 7 seconds, if you are actually still reading this, then well done. Long form writing really does demand this kind of set up and delivery, so if you are falling asleep, go get a “caramel decaf macchiato with soy milk” or whatever you use to keep awake and skip to the last few paragraphs. The rest of you will get even more congratulations from me and more words and a few pictures too. 

The hybrid technique I use comes with a legacy of over half a century of chemical and darkroom experiences. It always came as a sadness to me that many photographers who are so in love with light and how to use the camera gear they had spent so much money to buy and time to master were cursing at the amount of time they had to spend to actually produce the finished print. 

Taking the photograph is merely a (small) proportion of the total time it took to do everything that was needed to deliver a finished work and until the first decade of the 21st Century, most photographers spent hour upon hour in the dark and away from the amazing outside light and taking photographs to deliver just one print. 
I don’t personally mind being in a darkroom and once the process is all set up, it can be quick but to be honest so much time is spent on the set up and so on, that it never ends up as a quick visit.

If you grew up in the British climate as I did, you were always looking to get outside the very moment the sun appeared anyway. We would peel away the many layers of winter clothes the very moment we had one sunny day, even if it was just above freezing outside. It was so liberating! 

Of course these “warm” sunny days only happened one day in about five and long evenings in the darkroom were the way to deal with the grey drizzle of a London summer. So it was a deeply engrained principle in my youth that you needed to know all about the darkroom and the intricacies of how to dodge, burn, tone, and so on just to get a single print. Just ONE finished print – not a master file to be printed as many times as you needed… just ONE sheet of paper.

By contrast, use of computers allows a single “master” image to be produced by the photographer. Not a file with notes scribbled and the need to set up a darkroom and then perhaps 15 minutes or so per print, but just select the number of copies you want and press the “Print” button on the computer. No more seemingly endless nights in the darkroom, reeking of chemicals, spent producing “almost” correct prints and then selecting the best of the bunch for retouching and eventual display. All the retouching can be done in the day time on the computer screen and the number of copies needed can be printed directly, quickly and easily.

Here is my digital darkroom. It’s in the day light at home. No more darkroom. It has three main components; Hardware, Software and (just visible off to the far right), music. Actually that’s a loudspeaker on a stand, but you get the idea. The computer is a far cry from the mainframe of the mid 1970’s and has more storage, power and display ability than anything I could have imagined way back then. The scanner is the main limiting factor in my set up. Just as with my enlarger in the closet which is not visible here, the key issue for it is the quality of the lens. The limit here is the quality of the scanner. It’s adequate, but not great. As and when I have $12,000 or so to spend, I’ll get a full drum scanner set up… Not very likely, but maybe if I win the Lottery. 

Software? Oh yes. I use several different packages including Photoshop (on the screen in the picture), an old version of Paint Shop Pro, Affinity, and the Nik collection of effects add-ons. 
All this to avoid spending hours of time in a darkroom. Well, it’s the 21st century hybrid way of doing it.

My workflow is simple. I capture everything using film (or depending on the task, my Nikon DSLR), and develop the film at home. Plenty of pictures and tutorials for developing negatives elsewhere on the FSC web site – some of which are even written by me and show my kitchen sink developing process. 

This is a rather embarrassing picture of the view under my desk. It’s my unsorted pile of negatives that need to be properly indexed and filed. They’ll all have been scanned and are kept on my collection of external USB hard drives (I have over 3Tb of space on 5 different disks), as well as the cloud. I really do need to get round to sorting these out and putting them away… Maybe next week?

So where does all this leave me? 

I count myself as primarily a film photographer. As an “artist” I work to produce negatives. Yes. Really.

These negatives are then computer processed and the end results are JPG files. Intermediate formats like TIFF are also used off the scanner and in editing, but the reality is that a JPG file is the end result as it is what gets printed at my local camera store on the Epson and HP large format printers they have. This month they are moving to a new building and are promising me that they’ll also be upgrading the printers they use to the very latest models in the range that they can get hold of. The smaller prints (well, my 16x20 and smaller prints) have historically been printed out on the regular Epson and HP printers in use there. 

No more long nights in the dark and away from family and friends. No more one-offs either. I can deliver multiple prints should someone want them really easily. 

I used to have access to the Central London School of Art darkroom way back in the 1980’s – doing short “Adult Education” courses then was a fantastic low cost way to use a professional level darkroom. So here is a tip for anyone with a decent visual arts department that includes a darkroom in their local area – Take a short course that includes darkroom access. It’ll cost the fee for a year (or maybe more). My local Community College allows me to use the darkroom there for $199 a year of course fees. Considering the quantity of gear they have and the instructors on hand most of the time to help, it’s not a bad deal. Especially as I get to take a course as well. Learning is never a bad thing.

But I return at the end of this essay to the issue of “better or not”. It’s more varied and opens new opportunities to me, and I feel like I am ore in charge of the creative process doing this in my own, personal and private space on my computer, but “better”? All I will say to that is that it’s different from how it was in the 1960’s when I learned in a darkroom.


Film photographer Brian Richman is currently based in Texas.  See more of his work on his website.