Tom Ross: What have you done to make history lately?

The first decade of the 21st century marks the golden age of photography

Lately, I've become increasingly aware that almost every time I go to Howelsen Hill, someone is making history. Or at least, everyone but me is making history.

On Friday, Steamboat's Lisa Perricone placed fourth in the NCAA slalom championships. Great job, Lisa -- Steamboat is proud of you. Put your name in the record books, you've earned a place in the history of skiing at Steamboat Springs. That's no small accomplishment.

Throughout the winter, past, present and future Olympic ski jumpers, snowboarders and freestyle skiers have been displaying their talent at the little ski area in downtown Steamboat Springs. When I see a Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club coach leading a pack of pint-sized athletes around Howelsen, I find myself looking at the innocent faces and wondering whether I could pick out the one who will someday challenge for an Olympic medal at the age of 17.

Watching the NCAA cross-country skiing championships Saturday morning, I began to get an inferiority complex.

"When am I going to make history?" I asked myself. "Is it too late for me?"

Then I looked down at the sleek black camera in my hands and realized that all of us who take photographs in the early part of the 21st Century also are making history. We just don't tend to be aware of "history making" as we go through our daily lives. History is only that collection of events that happened more than 25 years ago.

Or is it?

In case you haven't heard, film is dead. That means that if you still load your camera with film, you are among the last of a breed of documentary photographers who use acetate treated with light-sensitive chemicals to record the world around you. Every image you make is potentially that much more significant because it represents a soon-to-be-abandoned technology. Keep shooting film until you no longer can.

If you carry a digital camera around in your pocket, you are among the pioneers and early adopters of a new way of preserving brief moments in time.

This time that we live in is an era of transition that won't come again.

Certainly, there are many serious photographers who are reluctant to give up film. They know that once it is gone, they'll never be able to fully recapture the luster of a silver print.

But it's only a matter of time until the economics no longer support producing the materials used to make photographs the old-fashioned way. Kodak has announced it will stop making photographic papers for black and white prints. Konica-Minolta, unable to keep up with the accelerating pace of change in the industry, announced this winter that it was abandoning its photography division.

The camera I was privileged to be carrying Saturday belongs to the newspaper. It is a digital marvel with a shutter capable of capturing slices of time as fleeting as one eight-thousandth of a second. The Nikon D2Hs can fire eight times every second for as many as 50 images before it needs to take a time out. Another way of expressing the same thing is to say the camera is capable of making history 48 times in 6 seconds. Furthermore, if I'm feeling profound, I can attach 60-second voice memos to each picture.

Whew! That's a lot of history. If we aren't more careful with these digital cameras, we'll end up making so much history that people 50 years from now won't take the trouble to admire it.

Exposing film to light, then taking it into a darkened room to dunk it in smelly chemicals is an honorable way to make photographs.

But, there's nothing quite like the instant gratification of shooting digital images. And there's nothing quite like the freedom and spontaneity one experiences making photographs without having to feel guilty about "wasting" precious film.

I have this persistent feeling that today, right now, will someday be looked back upon as the golden age of still photography -- that quaint era before everyone simply grabbed their still images off their pocket video cameras and printed them off the television.

I guess we'll just have to let history be the judge of that.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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