Are digital images still “Plates”?

It’s funny to hear people speak of images created digitally as “plates.” You could argue a digital reproduction from a plate or negative is still a plate, but I wonder platewhy. To me it seems like a hold over from the artistic world trying to hold of to what photography was and not embrace what photography has become.

Certainly an image being referred to as plate no. x when Carelton Watkins was going about his business with a mammoth camera and wet-plate collodion glass plates making images in harsh conditions using extreme measures to ensure the image was capture and the plate not exposed or broken before contact print was made. Certainly that was a “plate.” I don’t think it was, at least not to, nor William H Jackson, or Ansel Adams, Ferit Kuyas or Minor White. They all took images, shots, shot images, photos or something else equally as common. But they shot on glass plate or sheet film and had actual negatives? So what? I’ve found in practice, photographers are not terribly entrenched in the art-speak of the world which sometimes supports their works. Yet I hear this more and more. “Plates.”

Photography used to be a place of the single artist working alone or possibly in tandem to etch out a series of images to create an emotionally significant trend within the body of work.

Now, a photographer is anyone with a camera skilled enough to create simple and complex compositions that are pleasing to the viewer. Just look at the proliferation of wonderful imagery pouring out of sites like Instagram, Facebook and Flickr. Flickr especially has a group of wonderful photographers that routinely post to the site using nothing but the cameras on their mobile phone or smart device (even mine aren’t half bad). With 8mp resolutions and better these days why not? You can get wide angle macro and telescopic adapters for your phone that are also very high quality and come quite handy at time.

What prerequisites exist for calling an image a plate? Is there even any? As long as a photograph in printed in some fashion is it considered to be one? If that’s true why do we care “how” a photo was printed? Why do we call it out if it’s a Graded Silver Gelatin Print vs. an Archival Inkjet or even a Graded Silver Fiber Print vs. a Silver Resin Coated Print. It’s a judgement on the prints quality. A Graded Fiber Print is more valued than an RC print and an Inkjet print or Giclée. Whether there’s merit in that quality judgment is beside the point of this discussion. Calling a print a plate is that type of judgement, just a more subtle one.

Exceptions I would draw are in a scientific tome, or an art or photography history book were the plate no. is used as a reference to find more information or order a specific print from the publisher, National Archives, Museum or Photographer. In instances like those there is specific information being passed along that plate no. and historically, images are plates, and schematics are diagrams.

In the end, the photograph being discussed is no more or less “good” if you call it a plate, or shot, or image, or print. It’s all the same thing. There may be more sophistication in the usage of “plate” or possibly “print” but it doesn’t somehow make a photograph more than what it was before the discussion started, it changes the dynamic of the discussion to be more academic and in some cases less about the image itself and more about how one is talking about it.

I would assert that it doesn’t really matter how you discuss photography if you enjoy it, so use whatever you want as a descriptive for an image. Just be mindful of the terms you use and why. I’m an anomaly among my friends that I have film camera’s of grater cost and quality than my 35mm/DSLR and it’s important to note they don’t know many of the terms from traditional photography – and many don’t care what wet-plate collodion is or that mammoth camera typically refers to a 20 x 24 glass pate large format camera, so why hit them over the head with that kind of stuff or left-overs from another era if I don’t have to?

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