Photography has undergone revolution since its invention. But the rate of change has accelerated in the last few years and appears it’ll continue to do so as new tools, technology and imagination continue to mash up in new ways.
This article, a 3-part series, is a reflection on the evolution of photography and imaging, an attempt to get arms around what’s going on and where the latest (r)evolution appears to be heading with some of the challenges. It won’t be comprehensive but hopefully a decent framing of where this rocket ship is going.
The notion of whether photography is dead or dying is a rhetorical and provocative conversation starter. It likely surfaced over confusion of what photography has abruptly become and where it’s headed. Among the art community there may concern for the dilution of the craft and art form, given how everyone takes pictures with their smartphone, often very casually. In a visually saturated society, more creative and artful expressions have become harder to discover amidst the noise. The role of curator has become more important than ever.
The ease of digital distribution and publication, availability of free imagery and the decrease in the value of image licensing have led to consolidation of stock agencies. Budgets for commercial work plummeted during the recession starting 2007 and never recovered in the new, more digitally enabled environment. Additionally, many projects are now produced in studio or virtually via 3D artistry car commercials being a notable example.
In response to whether photography is dead, dying or diminished, the role of Photographer has changed dramatically. But examples below will demonstrate it’s really just entered its adolescence. Concurrently, intersections with computer vision and computational photography are driving enormous change in every aspect of imaging.
Photography — Its birth, crawling phase and childhood
It’s helpful to have some context for where photography originated, before exploring recent developments.
Photography was invented around 1826 when the first photograph was exposed over several days. Nearly 40 years of monochromatic imagery prevailed until color imagery appeared in 1861 but it wasn’t commercialized until 1907 with the autochrome process. By 1935 it was being mass-marketed as Kodak’s Kodachrome. In a step toward convenience, Polaroid released instant color film in 1963.
Photography enjoyed a special place in the US during this time with its prominence in magazines such as Life and National Geographic. The large format and stunning quality made a huge impact in the American zeitgeist of popular culture, celebrity, fashion, news, politics and science.
Though the digital revolution was still years away, the first digital camera was invented in 1975, ironically by a Kodak scientist. At the time, Kodak held an estimated 90% of the market for film, paper and cameras yet it didn’t recognize the potential of the digital medium in the mass market, one of the great case studies of business failure. Kodak ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Metamorphosis — Film to Pixels
What is arguably the first publicly available digital camera, the Dycam Model 1, appeared for sale in 1990. Sales of standalone digital cameras didn’t become significant until about 1999. In a reflection of a brand new era, sales peaked only 11 years later in 2010, declining since. The meteoric rise of the camera-equipped smartphone was well underway with the quality of output improving dramatically over early models. The first camera phone had surfaced in Japan in 2000 and two years later came to the US. Apple released the first iPhone in 2007 featuring an ease of integration into its hardware and software ecosystem.
A similarly notable development occurred in 1987 as digital cameras were about to appear. John and Thomas Knoll developed a program that would soon be named Photoshop. They licensed their software to Adobe and it was released publicly in 1990. The addition of image layer in 1994, enabled content authors to dramatically increase the level of editing and modification. Addition of the capability to adjust the RAW camera file in 2002 enabled a virtual re-exposure of the original image with little degradation. This powerful software brought about a paradigm shift in how content creators and the general public considered imaging, earning its own verb in our lexicon. Whereas imagery had been seen as an objective representation, it was increasingly viewed as mutable.
As we know, the advent of digital imagery brought about a sea change. In the analog days of film, there was an inherent limitation on the volume of imagery produced due cost and complexity — film, chemicals and paper were expensive and required varying degrees of skill to execute as did operating a camera. These factors drove some consideration of the merits of the potential photograph before exposing film. Many will recall memories of the photograph that got away…didn’t seem worth shooting at the time. With digital, virtually free cost and automatic shooting modes removes all barriers which has driven an explosion in the number and size of files everywhere including dental offices, security cameras, geological surveys, and most notably in personal expression through social networks. An estimated 1.2 trillion photos were taken in 2017. Three years prior, it was estimated that 657 billion images were uploaded to the Internet. Android owned about 80% of the smartphone market in 2014 when 93 million selfies were shot.
Improvements in both camera hardware and software have enabled a large growth in high-definition time lapse photography. Camera sensors have become so sensitive, photographers can produce beautiful shots of the Aurora Borealis and Milky Way. No longer does such work require a motor drive to compensate for the Earth’s rotation to enable long exposures.
With the much-improved tools and value for money, there’s a good deal of excitement among photographers for what they’re able to produce. The business of photography has certainly changed and in that regard it parallels what’s happened in other industries, perhaps most similarly in music. Recording an album used to require a studio equipped with a few hundred thousand dollars of equipment. Today, a couple microphones, a laptop and some software can very nearly achieve the same result though skill and talent remain key.
There’s much more interesting history in this phase of photography — it’s beyond the scope of this article but it makes for fascinating study. But this brief historical survey has set the stage for the vast amount of change and innovation we’re seeing today. We’ll have a look at some examples in part 2 of this article. In part 3, we look at some of the challenges with manipulated imagery and video and ways to address the issue, concluding with what might be on the horizon for new developments.