The Digital Age- The End of Photography or a New Beginning?

A camera in every hand

In the recent past, just as long as twenty years ago, film was the primary medium for photography. Most photographers had only one roll of 35 mm film at a time, allowing them to take a maximum of just twenty-four pictures for any event. Almost every photo was carefully taken, each of them capturing a significant moment, each of them a gateway to this rush of memories and emotions that were felt during that time. Albums were culminations of these photos, defining an era of history and its legacies, from the marriage of a couple, to a movement that began the elimination of racial segregation in a nation. This was the magic of photography. My father’s first film roll of eighteen photos were taken during a trip with his closest friends, using a hefty Nikon SLR shaped like a cube, perhaps 30 years old at this point. Yet to this day, a look at the pictures and he falls back in time as he looks through the lens, quite literally, of his 23 year old self. I even felt this magic when looking through the album of my photos as a child with my family, as my parents were taken back to the past, and started to endlessly talk about seemingly every detail of the moments in an entranced state.

Today, the amount of pictures taken and shared daily has increased nearly hundred-fold from that time period, currently sitting at a whopping 1.6 trillion photos taken in the history of the art form. However, it is difficult to then understand why the number of albums created have actually been on the decline, as it seems that there are actually fewer truly significant photos to create albums with, and instead an increase in the litter of photos on our phone that we call a “camera roll”. This phenomenon begs the question, has the digital age belittled photography into a state of insignificance? Or is it actually just a shaky start to a new age of more accessible and widespread artistic photography?

The largest negative impact of the digital age, specifically social media, on photography is how photos have degraded from a medium of art to a medium of basic communication itself. The ease of sharing photography, with a couple of clicks and absolutely no cost, creates the feeling of needing to document every moment of life with photos. The lack of restriction on photography, both time and money-wise, discourages the nearly 2 billion photographers in the world to make each photo as significant and encompassing as possible. Other art forms such as music or prose, take significant amounts of time and thought to create, and each song or story is usually meaningful. Compared with the 1.6 trillion photos taken, only a total of 93 million songs have been sung, or a total of 130 million books have been written, and you can understand why people think photography is declining into a state of insignificance.

However, it is important to understand the difference between artistic photography and basic photography. Critics of the digital age’s impact on photography never distinguish between these two categories, unlike in other forms of art. When separating the photography that is used for basic communication and artistic photography, is this medium actually all that different from others? Unless that e-mail to a teacher for an extension on that overdue assignment, or that annoying jingle in every Hyundai commercial is considered to be artistic, then every medium can be separated into these two categories. The amount of photography for basic communication may have increased exponentially, but instead of being brought down, the artistic form of photography has actually been pushed to greater heights as a result of the new digital age.

The digital age has not made every person into an Ansel Adams or an Annie Leibovitz, and it never will, as natural talent is always somewhat necessary for an artist to be successful. However, what social media has done for artistic photography, and for art in general, is create a large democratized platform for all of our art. Photography is rooted in its amateurism, in fresh ideas and emotions to represent our ever shifting world, and platforms such as instagram are allowing amateurs to present unique photography. Now, with photography opened up to the general public, everyone with a smartphone has the potential to become an artist. As annoying as the constant pictures of sunsets or random dinners popping up are, it shows that people have started to realize everyday art in their everyday lives through photography, and maybe even become somewhat passionate about the art.

Art has been with us since the beginning of civilization and has always evolved along with time, persevering through even the toughest and most destructive times of our past. It has and always will be the way we express our thoughts and emotions, all of which contribute to the definition of each era. In this huge timeline of tens of thousands of years, photography is merely in its stages of infancy, barely more than one hundred years old, and has not established a permanent foothold in society yet, but is still significant to the representation our time. The art form has been extremely reliant on new advancements in technology that define our time, integrating art and technology in our society. It is also one of the first mediums that represents the increasing democracy in our society today, as the accessibility of the art form allows the general public to contribute to and create art, which was previously locked to only dedicated scholars. With the ease of photography compared to other mediums, the saturation of the frankly horrible photos will remain as incompetent people continue to “abuse” the ability to take a nearly unlimited amount of photos. But from this mess of photos we are seeing the rise of a new and much larger community than any other that is able to appreciate the art that comes from photography.