As the very first article for this blog about photography, a brief history of photography might be apt.
Today we have access to trillions of photos of every place on earth (and other planets) and pretty much any item or person born in the last 100 years.
Before photography we never knew what we looked like as kids. And we only had paintings or sketches to tell us what the rest of the world looked like.
So how did we get here? This article will focus on the 3 major revolutions in that journey.
The first revolution: the Box Brownie camera.
Introduced by Eastman Kodak in Feb 1900, the box brownie camera launched photography into daily life.
Before this, photography was an interesting new medium – but expensive and complicated. To be a photographer required an enormous amount of specialist equipment and knowledge in a range of fields. It was almost exclusively the domain of a few science and chemistry enthusiasts with significant time and resources to indulge in this activity.
Roger Fenton’s photographic van, 1855. This is what you needed to take a photo. Photography cameras were big and heavy. In addition, you had to carry all the chemicals required to create your own sensitized plates to insert into the camera. Once you had taken the photo, you then had to mix up the chemicals needed to process the result.
In contrast, The box brownie was inexpensive and simple to use. It opened up photography to the masses. It contained the film ready to shoot. Had minimal controls. And you sent the whole thing off to be processed into prints. Now pretty much anyone who could hold a camera – could use a camera.
The “snapshot” photo entered into the language of ordinary life. Photography was no longer just for creating Art or recording news events. It could be used for recording more commonplace events and activities.
Snapshot was originally a gun term meaning a fast reflexive shot at a target “without taking aim”. A suitable analogy to the new quick way of taking photos.
The Box Brownie Camera. Circa 1900. No experience necessary.
Photography now became commonplace in many parts of the world.
Weddings, baby photos, formal events, school photos, holiday snaps. Almost everyone now had at least one photo of themselves. (For those less well off it was often a criminal record mugshot, or perhaps a hospital photo of some medically interesting disfigurement).
35mm cartridge cameras simplified photography even further. The development of auto exposure and eventually auto focus gave more reliable, predictable results, in a wide range of lighting conditions. Processing labs sprung up to service the surge in demand.
But not everyone had a camera yet. And not everywhere, and not all the time.
The Second revolution: digital + the internet.
Digital photography, on its own, was not a revolution. It was considered by many professional photographers as somewhat of a fad. The internet, however, made digital photography useful. And photography made the internet a compelling place for people to visit.
On its own, digital photography was just the dumb cousin to film. Unlike today’s modern cameras, the original digital cameras had very poor quality. They were expensive, slow and heavy.
(It is only in the last few years that digital sensors are finally able to provide similar quality and resolution to 35mm analogue film cameras).
Intant photos.. meh. Polaroids were better.
The “instant” aspect of digital is often mistaken as the great point of difference that gave digital cameras the edge. But this feature was not new. Polaroid cameras using instant film had been around since 1950. Take a shot AND get a print instantly. Though small, the quality of polaroids was, like film, far superior to any of the first decade of digital cameras. And cheaper too.
With the rise of the internet, photos could be transmitted all around the globe. Film based images were already being digitised. The quality was superb. Digitized film gave 1000s times better quality than digital cameras. But film required processing, proof printing and scanning. A slow and labour intensive process.
Digital cameras captured photos that were woefully poor in terms of quality. But they were in a digital format: ready to upload, without the need to process, print or scan. This was unique.
One of the first consumer digital cameras: The Apple QuickTake 100 . Launched in 1994, it could store 8 photos at 640×480 pixel resolution. (0.3mp). There was no way to preview, other than to connnect to a computer and download the files.
The miserable resolution (and limited colour) of the first digital cameras was – ironically – ideal for anyone creating images for the world wide web.The first networks of the fledgling internet were very slow and computer screens were low resolution too. Low resolution photos were not only OK, they were in fact better suited to the world wide web than higher quality digital scans from film.
The quality and resolution of digital cameras grew year on year (and keeps improving). It is no coincidence that we also saw the internet growing in scale and speed. Higher quality and more users has driven development in bandwidth and connectivity everywhere.
But still: not everyone had a camera. And not everywhere. And not all the time.
The Third revolution in photography – The smartphone – a personal recording device.
The third revolution is a child of the mobile phone. (cell phone)
By the late 1990s, mobile phones had become a mass market item. Cheap and affordable. Within 5 years, the mobile phone connected almost everyone on the planet.
And a few years after that the mobile phone and the internet had a baby and the smartphone was born. It had internet. And it had a camera.
So here we are in the camera era.
Now everyone has camera. Everywhere. All the time.
And as a bonus: its connected – live – to a world wide network.
It is estimated that more than 1.2 trillion still digital photos were captured and uploaded in 2017, and the number grows every year. And video? 4 million hours of content is added just to youtube- Every day.
The rise of Social media has breached the boundary between private and public snapshots. We see photos and videos being created – and shared – from intimate social events, to every facet of public life, and right through to the far edges of our solar system.
Cameras are so commonplace, embedded in almost every new device, we barely register their presence.
As you read this sentence on this blog… is there a lens looking directly at you from your own device?
But wait, there’s more.
Depending on where you are right now, dear reader, there may be other devices with a camera. If you are sitting on a crowded bus, there are a mulitude of private smartphones around you. (With Siri and Alexa likely listening in too).
Perhaps the bus has an onboard security camera.
Maybe a google-mapping car driving by capturing your bus on street view images. Other cars are recording on dash-cams, or self driving cars using a variety of camera sensors.
Streets and shops have security cameras.
The roadway has traffic cameras.
The city sky has drones for aerial photography and police and media helicopters. And above all that are satellites with cameras and sensors.
Somewhere out in the far reaches of the solar system are cameras looking back down on everyone here on our tiny blue planet.
The Day The Earth Smiled – Taken by the Cassini-Huygens probe. NASA, July 19th 2013
At the same time, someone on your bus may be on the way back from the gastroenterologist clinic having swallowed an endoscopic pill cam. That probe is exploring the inside of their digestive tract.
Do an online image search for almost any word or topic and you will find a matching photo. From “hairy chest swimsuit” (a use of photography that no one could have predicted) down to the valves inside of a human heart, or the wreck of the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean.
Edit: As an experiment, I tried a random combination of the first two words that popped into my head. “Banana wheels”. Here’s one of the matches:
Funny photos aside, there is now an astonishing pool of images. It catalogs human history, creativity and knowledge – a unique aspect of our era.
This modern day “Library of Alexandria” could allow future generations to explore every aspect of life in the 21st century. With some thoughtful planning and a little luck perhaps we can avoid the loss suffered by the ancient Egyptian library.
We all contribute to this shared human asset through our individual recording devices and photography habits. What do you share? Do you make prints, or back up your files? How do you use your cameras?
What are you choosing to record?