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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, all equipment and consumables are provided.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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