National Park Service & the ‘Ansel Adams’ Job. Was Film Killed off too Early?

On Tuesday we published an article describing a lucrative photography position available at the US National Park Service with the tag line Skills Required: Large Format Photography. Garnering significant interest from the analog community and poking the never ending coals of the film vs digital debate the post went viral through re-blogs, retellings of the story and different spins to receive worldwide attention. The term “Ansel Adams” an inevitable connection to be made began trending on Twitter and continues to do as of writing this article.

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Jack Boucher, former HABS (c) Photographer.

The story essentially highlighted exciting proof that film was not dead – despite the phrase having being uttered in both positive and negative forms for the past three decades. This, coupled with a salaried figure of $100,000 being lauded (we take full responsibility) for what appears to be a dream job for any photographer we felt compelled to investigate further to answer some of the many questions posed by our community.

We reached out to National Park Service’s Chief of Heritage Documentation Program Richard O’Connor to discuss the impact the media coverage has had, reasons behind the decision to champion a film photographer and how he sees the future of photography.

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Richard O’Connor (2015) | via Youtube.

The original article according to O’Connor did not go unnoticed, with a number of phone calls and requests regarding the available position. This he added, due to the audience that was reading it, has likely helped with finding a suitable candidate.

That is the crux of the excitement. The fact an organisation as large as National Park Service has surprised everyone with the request that any applicant be skilled in large format photography; an art many naively thought had died along with Ansel Adams. Addressing this O’Connor described flying in the face of “great criticism” by some parties that want “a quick digital solution to everything” to not risk yielding on trialled and tested techniques that achieve a quality, longevity and availability expected of the work. Only very recently he adds that born-digital data has met a standard required. Large format photography simply consistently exceeds those requirements.

Behind all the glamour of a dedicated photographer breathing the fresh air of America’s national parks and composing beautiful architectural and landscape imagery is a further and slightly bitter truth. The work is a two pronged process that deals with both sides of the photography dichotomy. There will no doubt be considerable digital work which will increase over time as technology and standards are met. However O’Connor believes it will be some time before the traditional method is replaced. Certainly, one only needs to visit a photography trade show like Photokina to realise the huge gulf of quality between the latest DSLRs and large format film manufacturers.

A further revelation by O’Connor is that the position being sought is to fill a void left by photographer John “Jet” Lowe who left the service in 2013 and Jack Boucher who retired in 2008. The first time in fifty years the organisation has been without a photographer on staff. The daunting task in following the likes of Lowe and Boucher, stiffened by the reputation of Ansel Adams, will determine how close the new staff member comes to reaching those standards. This O’Connor says can only be judged by history.

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Brookyln Breck by John Lowe – (c) Library of Congress.

Our conversation was initially intended to earth the huge lightning bolt to many photographers that came with the original article. Instead we may have ended up exacerbating the discussion. Despite our suspicions, the world’s most important archival standards still don’t fully trust the sole digital capture of light and that in high end production large format film is still preferred on a totally objective basis. Revelations like these could usher in a further revival of traditional photographic teachings or have institutions rethinking their archival processes. The significance of this we believe is profound.

Here is our question an answer session with Richard O’Connor in full:

Q. Have you had a spike in enquiries about the job. Do you think the promoting of the position has improved the possibility of hiring the perfect person for the job?
Our office has received a number of phone calls and requests for information through the NPS Communications Office regarding the photographer position.  We hope this indicates that more qualified candidates are considering applying for the position.  We do our best to recruit in those venues where we believe we are likely to find the best qualified person for the job; your attention has helped in this respect.
Q. Why are you looking for someone who can work with film (LF) and manage a darkroom? Isn’t this counter productive in the digital age?  
As you probably know, that is a far more complicated question than it seems on its face, but I will try to be brief.  Photographic documentation from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Architecture, Engineering, and Landscape Documentation, established in 1983.  While very general, the Secretary’s Standards ensure the quality, longevity and availability of our data.  In short, they require that all documentation:  adequately convey the significance or value of the resource; be accurately prepared from reliable sources; be durable long-term, easily reproducible, and standard in size and format; and be clear and concise.  Traditional large-format photography exceeds these standards, but it has been only in the last few years that born-digital data has approached and, in some cases, met them.  Consequently, we have been steadfast, often in the face of great criticism from those who want a quick digital solution to everything, in our reliance on the traditional technology until we could be assured the new technology could do the job as well.  It is likely that the new photography staff member will be working in both the traditional and digital media for years to come.  Our long-term partner, the Library of Congress – is fully-capable of archiving and curating both media.
Q. What advantages do you believe large format film and darkroom development have over digital? 
The answer to this question is embedded in my response to the last, and hinges on the issues of quality, longevity and verifiability.  Traditional 5×7 and 4×6 large-format photographs contain far more data than the viewer sees in a normal size photo, an amount that born digital photographs have only begun to achieve with cameras that are within the price range of working photographers. Since we cannot predict future uses for our photos, we have consistently practiced capturing as much data as possible in any given photo; the many exhibitions of our high-quality oversize prints over the years have demonstrated the value in that approach.  Longevity is a two-pronged issue.  The initial mission of the HABS program, founded in 1933, was to create a permanent archive documenting our built environment.  At that time, film came as close as possible to meeting that “permanent” standard – and still does today.  The Library of Congress recently moved the HABS/HAER/HALS Collection to state-of-the-art facilities where its preservation will be assured.  The long-term maintenance and preservation of digital files is both expensive and evolving – some estimates put the cost of preserving digital data at ten times that of preserving the physical artifact.  Finally, as anyone with a photo-manipulation program knows, born-digital photos are much more easily altered than traditional photos – the emphasis is on “more easily” since skilled dark room technicians can manipulate traditional photos as well.  For these reasons, we have stuck with traditional large-format process while the born-digital industry has “developed” and begun to settle on some standards.  We look forward to being part of that process once we get the new person on board.
Q. The salary on offer is $66,722 – $99,296 per year. How likely is the top end “$100k” figure likely to be achieved by applicants and how typical is this wage for the area?
The high end of the salary figure is what is the highest step at the full performance level of the position.  Depending on the entry grade level for the selectee, it can take up to 20 years to reach the GS-12, step 10 level.  For the Washington, DC area, it is considered an above average salary.
Q. Is the cost of supplies and equipment covered by National Park Service or by the photographer?
Yes, all equipment and consumables are provided.
Q. Ansel Adams is arguably America’s, if not the world’s most famous landscape photographer. He has been mentioned many times in relation to this story. How similar will the position be to that of Ansel Adams’ role in documenting the American landscape?
We greatly value composition and quality, two characteristics of Adams’ photographs.  Moreover, as a program in the National Park Service, we work closely with all of our parks, affording the photographer the opportunity over his/her career, to shoot some of our iconic architectural, engineering and landscape sites.  History will judge how close the new staff member comes to the Adams standard.
Q. Ansel Adams was an expert in dodging and burning. A master of the darkroom. Is this a skill you are looking for in your candidate?
That is a hotly debated topic among professionals within photography and within the documentation community.  Essentially, the debate centers around the integrity of the image versus the quality of the photograph.  While we want the image to represent the subject as closely as possible, the photographer is not working in a studio in which the environment can be controlled, but is out in the resource’s natural setting, where factors beyond her/his control may influence the image in unplanned ways.  However, this is documentary photography where the high standard is “shoot to print,” minimizing if not excluding manipulation of the negative.  At the Library of Congress, the negative is scanned to appear on the website.
Q. How do you expect the photographer’s workload to be split between digital and film photography? Has the ‘large format film’ section been blown out of proportion?
As I suggested above, born-digital is likely to increase over time, but I suspect the tried-and-true large-format film technology will be with us for quite some time.
Q. Is this a brand new role within the National Park Service or has the position until now been filled? Do you have other film photographers on staff?
HABS employed photographers in the 1930s and again beginning in the 1950s.  Jack Boucher, the venerable  photographer who retired in 2008, shot for HABS for nearly 50 years, and John T “Jet” Lowe shot for HAER for approximately 35 years before retiring in 2013. I should note that both shot landscapes throughout their careers, especially after the formation of HALS in 2000. We are only just now able to begin to fill these positions.  Currently, we have no professional photographer on staff – the first time that has happened in a half century.
Q. Does the declining number of darkrooms in American colleges concern you or your colleagues for the future of photography?
Yes – but we are encouraged by the large community of traditional large-format enthusiasts and the number of community colleges that still teach photography courses using traditional technology.
Q. Do you believe you are going against the mould by employing a film photographer in such a prestigious position? 
To some extent, we had a part in making the mold, at least insofar as architectural, engineering and landscape photography is concerned.  You referenced Ansel Adams above – I would note that we are well within the mold he shaped with his work.  Perhaps you meant something like “bucking a trend” to employ only born-digital photographers.  In that sense, yes, we are going against the mold, but we are also confident that we are not yielding on any of the Secretary’s Standards of quality, longevity and availability in doing so.

We thank Richard O’Connor for his candour and depth in answering of our questions. We hope the increased attention helps attract the perfect photographer for the job. The deadline for those that need reminding is the 15th December 2015. This, despite increased interest is not being extended to allow for extra applications.

Comments are welcomed below that discuss the implications this position may have in the short and long term for the photography industry. Do you think it may usher in a new line of thinking or perhaps just one last organisation loyally holding on until the end?


 

All words and images have been used with explicit permission. Original Article: National Park Service $100,000 Job Opening. Skills Required: Large Format Photography

 

 

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12 thoughts on “National Park Service & the ‘Ansel Adams’ Job. Was Film Killed off too Early?

  1. max davis December 10, 2015 / 9:40 pm

    Large Format Photography is much sharper retains much more detail, than digital. Digital is for get it done quickly as posible. and move on. Medium and 35mm is much better then digital.

    Like

    • None December 11, 2015 / 3:33 am

      yes, true …

      but editing films using digital technology is way more ideal than relying on traditional and slow darkroom techniques alone!

      besides, some high quality MF and FF digital sensors are doing a great job already! for me, coming from an extensive film photography background staring in the 1970s, a mixture of both is the most ideal way to go … 🙂

      Like

    • MarkT December 11, 2015 / 6:45 pm

      In the time period of ’02-’05, as the transition of photography into digital was widespread, we pre shot tests of projects on both 4×5 film and digitally. We scanned the film via a drum scanner, and then output proofs of both formats for the clients to chose. EVERY single time the clients chose the digital proof as the better one, in terms of sharpness, tonal range, and overall quality. Every time they were sure they were chosing film, and the label on the back surprised them. Digital in 2002 surpassed the quality of film, we are light years ahead of that era. The best thing about film was the markup on the expenses, absent of that there is no reason to go back.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Phogotraphy December 11, 2015 / 6:47 pm

        Excellent example Mark. Would the same be true now as scanning tech has improved?

        Like

    • satrain18 July 21, 2016 / 3:13 pm

      Are you serious? APC, 35mm full frame, and medium format digital had long been caught up to film.

      Like

  2. Amy Johnston December 10, 2015 / 11:00 pm

    It would be refreshing to see a woman procure the job. However, may the most suitable candidate win!

    Like

    • Phogotraphy December 10, 2015 / 11:02 pm

      We whole heartedly agree Amy. Are you up to the challenge?

      Like

      • Kent Wood December 15, 2015 / 12:00 pm

        Hi,

        I am Kent Wood.

        Yes I applied. I have the qualifications and experience from 40 years as a working professional.

        I was trained as a Scientific Photographer at Rochester Institute of Tecmology. I graduated in 1973. I became a Registered Biological Photographer.

        I have a LIFE cover to my credit.

        My commercial and stock website is http://kentwoodphotography.photoshelter.com

        The fine art photography website address is below that displays large format B/W landscapes.

        I am also a illustrator, professional model builder and painter – oil on canvas.

        Currently I am documenting New Mexico petroglyphs that transcend the ordinary graphic image narrative with my 8×10 Eastman 2D. The Petroglyph Portraits are sized in camera to fit a Saunders 8×10 salon easel.

        A second series revolving around petroglyphs in platinum / palladium will begin to be printed in January and displayed initially on my website while seeking gallery representation.

        I would be happy to discuss my background or anything related to photography or the arts.

        Liked by 1 person

    • None December 11, 2015 / 3:31 am

      yes, great idea …

      and why not a ‘team of photographers’ doing both digital as well as film, male and female do this together? (low budget doesn’t let it? government is not low budget when it comes to wars, is it?)

      anyway, rest assured though: the job has already been given to someone close to the board of directors in NPS and if they advertise it publicly is because it’s a government job and federal law requires it so …

      besides the pay is too low and the responsibilities so high already! and it will be so even after 20 years when it’s going to raise to $100K, which by then will be below minimum wage considering the inflation!

      this kind of ‘creative & fun’ job cannot be done as creatively and fun when it’s a 9>5 employment!

      Like

  3. Silver Gelly December 11, 2015 / 4:39 am

    Excellent follow up! It is rather tempting but I am really already quite happy with my career in being a photographer who shoots and prints medium and large format film. Good luck to the new candidate, this is truly once and a lifetime.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. JC Jones December 11, 2015 / 6:47 pm

    I worked in photography/imaging at the Smithsonian Institution for nearly 20 years. This included the period the period in the late nineties to early 2000’s as they made the transition form film to digital. During that time I managed film collections that ranged from early glass plates to modern film and sizes from 35mm to 11×14. I can tell you that nothing matches the tonal range and detail of a contact print made from an 11×14 piece of nitrate film!

    Moving to digital was inevitable, largely for economic reasons, but that did not advance the level of imaging. While I was part of the team that developed the early digital standards, it was clear that we were compromising some of the long held standards that guaranteed the quality and longevity of the images. The plain truth is that we have a very deep understanding of how to preserve film, the procedures for preserving digital images, as sound as they may seem now, have not met the test of time that will ultimately validate them.

    Having worked with many historic image collections, numbering in the millions of images, I can attest to the immense historical, cultural, and scientific value those documents provide to contemporary researchers. I applaud the National Park Service for maintaining the high standards of image production for these valuable collections.

    Liked by 1 person

    • satrain18 July 21, 2016 / 3:19 pm

      Well you do know that the best way to preserve film is humidity-controlled cold storage.

      Like

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