The new photography

Now that I’ve been participating in Flickr for a while, I’ve realized that digital technology has fundamentally changed the nature of photography. Perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right places, but I don’t recall seeing any discussion of this amidst the hype about Things Digital.

On the face of it, digital cameras shouldn’t have been that big of a disruptive factor. Film cameras were so cheap they were given away as promotional items, whereas digital cameras were hundreds of dollars. (Still are, if you want a decent one.) Minilabs had brought 1 hour processing to the world, and dropped costs to around 30¢ a picture. It’s not like there was anyone who needed to think about the expense involved in taking a particular shot.

Of course, there’s an immediacy to digital; you can print your photos in a minute or two, and you can print a single photo without waiting until you finish a roll. Yet film got there first, in the shape of Polaroid, and look what happened to them. Also, printing your own digital photos is expensive—you end up eating up any cost savings you made by shifting from film. Also, if you’re lazy or forgetful like me, you let images collect on your memory card and download them once a week.

Is it the Internet that has been the catalyst of change? Again, I’m not really convinced. People had flatbed scanners long before they had digital cameras, and plenty of people still dislike viewing photographs online, in spite of the superior image possible from a computer screen.

So it seems as though digital photography doesn’t really offer anything all that radical; just a combination of minor improvements. Yet somehow, digital photography has led to radical changes.

First off, it has changed the nature of the subjects people take photographs of. As a child, I was lucky enough to be given a camera and plenty of film. I started off taking pictures of objects that I found interesting—close up pictures of toys, the grass under my feet, and so on. It didn’t last, though. I don’t remember whether it was explicitly communicated to me, but I quickly learned that the primary purpose of photography was to record pictures of people grinning while standing in front of famous places.

Now, though, everyone seems to be reconnecting with the childish glee of being able to record any small piece of the world they see, and show it to other people. With a digital camera, people somehow feel free to photograph a discarded beer can, a rusting sign or the bruise on someone’s leg.

The second big change is commentary. Partly it’s the fact that you can access the photos immediately, but I think a lot of it is that you have a natural way to associate comments with the picture, without having to start a scrapbook. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

My mother used to write on the back of prints with a pen. This was less than ideal. With a ball-point pen the smooth front surface would often get visible markings, and the ink would generally rub off all too easily.

With digital photos online, the commentary can be more of a shared, social, collaborative experience. And you don’t need to turn the photo over to see the words.

The third change is that photography has been democratized. Yes, professionals can often do a better job, turning out photos of consistently high quality; but it seems as though with persistence and lots of experimentation, all kinds of ordinary untrained folk are capturing occasionally stunning images. Maybe they don’t know how, but that can come later.

The final change is the sheer mass of images available to everyone to look at. This is really a side effect of big change #1, that people take pictures of everything now, combined with the existence of handy Internet web sites. Want to see a picture of (say) a steam train, a glass of water, a capybara, or a sock? There are hundreds on Flickr, and if you run out there you can try any of half a dozen other photo sites, or Google image search.