Photography is embedded in our lives, from birth to death, and at every stage in between. Even those of us with little interest in photography have most probably carried photographs in our wallets, and hung them on our walls or placed them on a work desk, and personally snapped a few shots. Since the advent of digital photography, we have been taking more photos, and using them for an increased range of activities, especially the wider sharing of images with others. Today, photographs are so common that they can almost escape our notice.
Photography first entered the lives of the general public in 1888, when George Eastman invented and marketed his original Kodak camera. It was a very simple box that came pre-loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. Once used, the whole camera was sent back to Kodak, where it was reloaded and returned to the customer, while the first roll of film underwent processing.
The simplicity of the camera and film processing made photography accessible to millions of casual amateurs who had no professional training, technical expertise, or aesthetic ability. Eastman’s marketing campaign deliberately featured women and children operating his camera, along with the slogan, “you press the button; we do the rest.”
Snapshot photography became a national craze within a few years, and by 1898, it is estimated that more than 1.5 million roll-film cameras had passed through the hands of amateur users.
Early snapshots were made for purely personal reasons. Typical subjects included important events such as weddings and other less formal family gatherings, holidays and leisure activities, and to capture the transitory appearance of children, pets, and prized possessions such as cars and houses. Images were reproduced as small prints, and a member of the family often arranged the photographs as narrative sequences in albums.
In the early part of the twentieth century, serious amateur photographers started to promote photography as a fine art where – unlike snapshot photography – the photographer demonstrated aesthetic sensibility and technical expertise. This goal was successfully attained, and photography became elevated to an art form.
It didn’t take long for the tide to turn (as it always does), and certainly by the 1950s, the qualities of the snapshot started to become adopted by professional photographers for their honesty, energy, and spontaneity. Grainy, blurred, tilted horizons, erratic framing, and black and white all became an acceptable route to capturing the moment. By the late 1990s, the snapshot finally achieved the status of modern folk art.
These two broad schools of photography produce a dichotomy in camera design and development. For the snap-shooters, cameras remained little changed (technically) from the original, while serious photographers opted for more complex tools that offered far greater precision.
From the mid 1970s, electronics started to take a grip on camera design, and this made improved photographic performance available to the casual photographer, without the need for technical knowledge. However, the biggest step-change emerged and began to dominate around the millennium: the digital camera.
Digital photography was revolutionary because it eliminated the costs and delays inherent with film cameras. It also expanded the options for viewing, editing and sharing pictures, and accordingly the range of uses to which they could be put. Other developments such as the increased ownership of personal computers, and growth of the Internet both supported the benefits and expansion of digital photography.
Today, camera phones are the major photographic device, and social media the foremost manner in which our snap-shots are put to use. While most photography, as in its early days, is largely a point-and-shoot capture of our daily lives, the underlying social behaviours have altered significantly.
For at least the first hundred years of photography, the family was at the heart of our activities. Cameras were usually owned by families, and used to the benefit of that family. While all members may have been participants in the capture of a photograph, one particular person was usually the custodian of the family album. The cost of photography made every shot valuable, and the duds that never made the pages of the family album were still retained.
By contrast, today individuals own cameras, and almost everyone under a certain age has one. Our social circles have changed: we tend to have a far larger pool of more casual acquaintances, and fragmented families. The zero cost of photography means high numbers of shot are taken, but the ease of deletion makes the permanence of images more ethereal.
It is these changes that bring me to the point of this article; to voice the concern that we are creating a historical void where information and details about an era risk being lost. I personally have gaps in the pictorial record of my life that start from the time I too turned to digital photography. Of course I could print my photos, to make them more tangible, and put them in an album, but I don’t: it’s not part of the digital ethos to recreate the limitations that contributed to the demise of film.
Equally, the increased automation of camera technology and accessibility of image manipulation conspire to erode the need for technical expertise, and aesthetic sensibility (at the moment of exposure) that underpinned photography as an art form. Indeed, the only significant recent resurgence in aesthetic film photography – Lomography – champions the abandonment of forethought, rules and knowledge.
I am not advocating that film photography should be fine art: the snap shot is as worthy an approach as it ever was. Neither am I trying to assert that digital photography does not demand skill, nor its images qualify as an art form. My concerned is that yet another skill – photography using unforgiving film – will become lost in a world where we increasingly rely on technology to do our thinking for us. The situation is little different to saying that just because we have calculators, we should forget how to do mental arithmetic. Equally, the craft of compiling a narrative photo album is at risk of loss, in favour of viewing a jumble of images on the tiny screen of a mobile phone, which travels with us in a world where it is continually exposed to the hazards of damage and theft.