How everyday photography has changed

tl;dr Photography is very different from how it was 20 years ago. In an age where photography is free, accessible and unlimited, there is a looming problem — the sheer volume of our personal collection is overwhelming. In a life where photography is endless, where is the meaning amongst the digital junk?

Like many of us, I have a childhood in analogue an adulthood in digital. This means my life in pictures goes across polaroid, slides, 35mm film, jpgs, pngs and tiffs. The amazing thing about this is the vastness of where my life in pictures can be found.

I have boxes of loose old photos, paper photo albums, CDs, DVDs, hard drives, SD and Compact Flash cards, USB thumbdrives, old phones and this new amazing thing called ‘The Cloud’. That’s a lot of photos, in a lot of different places. Somehow I’m going to have to come to terms with all that and no one else but me can sort through it and make sense of those memories.

To some, it may not matter. But to most, having your life in pictures is an important right of being human. It is a record of who we are, where we have come from and, in many ways, shows us how diverse and rich our life experiences have been.

But how we used photography then — and how we use it now — has changed. ‘Taking a photo’ back in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s mostly consisted of people doing things — a way to capture moments of significance, and less about the everyday mundane. Most families had access to a camera, it was accessible enough for families to buy a roll of film here and there, but it was something of an occasional luxury. The experience of photography was no longer exclusive to professionals or the wealthy as it had been in earlier times.

The everyday person usually only had a roll of 12, 24 or 36 photos, and the act of ‘taking a photo’ was a long drawn out process. You had to plan what you would use your photos on, then take it to the chemist, wait a week or two, then get them back. When the photos were printed in 24 hours, and eventually within 1 hour — that was a big deal!

The other important thing here is the view finder vs the actual photo. There was no instant gratification (unless you were using Polaroid). No sneaky peak at what your photo would look like. No screen. No preview. People would look through the camera’s view finder to line up what they wanted to photograph, but, the magic of photography meant that you didn’t know how the photo would turn out until much later. The disappointment or joy that ensued when you got those photos back is something people don’t really experience anymore. Some photos might be really dark (underexposed film) or really light (overexposed film), people might have their eyes closed, they might have moved, or the prints were strange colours (colour cast), or they were blurry (unfocussed or wrong aperture). At the very worst, there was no picture at all because something went wrong.

When I did a big trip around Europe in the late 1990s, I’d saved up and bought a new fancy Pentax SLR duty free. I went through 11 rolls of film (for a young person who didn’t have much money, this was a massive part of my budget), when I got back to Australia, I had them developed (also very expensive). And I was crushed. All those memories were doomed to fade from my life because I had no lasting record of the places I’d been. I had no way to show people the things I’d seen, except for a few postcards or a souvenir here and there. The fault laid with the camera where the mirror inside had shifted, so the film was not being exposed the way it should. A small mechanical fault had cost me the trip of a lifetime. While the camera was fixed under warranty, there was no way to get those precious memories back. This is unlikely to happen now. With the rise of digital photography, social media and the cloud, we now have access to photo storage like never before — and in quantities like never before.

The things is, we now consume photography — it is just another commodity. In the last 10 years or so, everyday photography has become a huge part of human behaviour. Why? Because we now have cameras in our pockets 24/7. We are photographing every mundane part of our lives. I have taken photos of my soggy breakfast cereal, for no other reason that I could and I liked the lighting. On social media, people are sharing photos of skin conditions, pimples and hair regrowth. Why? Because they can. Photography is seemly unlimited. We are not restricted by storage, it is free to take photos and we are not rationed by a film roll. It costs nothing but a few seconds of people’s time. We are now documenting our lives on a scale never experienced before.

Research has shown that the average adult takes between 20–50 photos a week. But in truth, people are probably taking a lot more because ‘photography’ is no longer wed to a camera function. It also includes screen captures, pictures taken of the bus timetable, photos of notes that come home from school, photos that serve as reminders instead of writing upcoming events in your calendar. Photos are now ‘to do lists’. They are party invitations. Inspirational quotes. Graphics. Photography is now a digital file that contains any amount of information that we want to keep for either posterity or function. Our relationship with imagery has changed because of how accessible it is, and how omnipresent it is.

Sure, there are many other ways that people can experience nostalgia and memories new mediums and technologies have come along. But fundamentally, people still love images. We have been making images since the dawn of humankind and cave painting. People still record the world around them and the people in their lives in whatever medium they have access to across whatever period of time they lived in.

But in an age where photography is free, accessible and unlimited, there is another looming complication. Fast forward 20 years from now, just imagine the sheer volume of images in our personal collection. 100,000s? Probably not. More like millions. Thats a lot of images of someone’s life. A lot of digital junk, a lot of pics of breakfast cereal and skin conditions and bus timetables. So, in a life where photography is endless, where is the meaning?

I’m sure those precious and valuable photos are in there somewhere amongst those millions of digital images. The challenge will be to find them.