Photography is at a Low Point in its History

Photography is at a low point in its history. And it makes me sad. But first a little photography history lesson to see how we got here. (And hope for how we change it for the better.)

We’ve been at this photography thing for just about 193 years–the first photograph was made in 1826.  And while it had a slow start, it grew rapidly when Kodak introduced the pocket camera and the Brownie 75 years in around 1900.

And then it had tremendous growth in the first part of the 20th century.  Films got more sensitive to light, cameras got more portable and we were happily shooting holidays and vacations, often on the same roll of film.

You can see some of these photographs gathered.  They get published regularly on Old School Cool and The Way We Were.  Photos like this.


Time marched on.  We got through the 1950s with the great rangefinder cameras like the Leicas and Yashicas. The 60s with the 126 Instamatics and 110 pocket cameras.

Then came the SLR, with the big Nikons and Canons among other interchangeable film cameras taking the family photos.  The amazing Canon AE-1 in the 1970s, advertised as the simplest camera you can own.  You or your parents may have had one.  They sold in the millions.

All along photographs were printed, dropped into photo albums or left in the envelope they came to us from the processor.  Stored in shoe boxes,  some hung on the walls of our homes along the staircase, each of our siblings taking a place in frames in a diagonal orientation.

Then the 80s and the point and shoots, the disc camera, the APS cameras and finally around 2000 the advent of digital cameras.

And then digital was in full swing, with the small point and shoots, 1.3 megapixel to start.  Gradually, they’ve grown to 50mp as DSLRS and APS-C bodies, then mirrorless and there’s nothing we can’t shoot with them. Some of the latest bodies even shoot over 60 photo frames per second.

And that’s precisely the problem.  We can do too much.  We can shoot too much.  And we do.  Then there’s the phone where we snap away at everything in front of us all day long because we can.

The quantity is the problem.  The quantity of photographs is the problem.  We’ve never been inundated with so many pictures like we are today.  It’s constant, it’s everywhere we go, at all times–concerts, theater shows, parties, dinners.  We can’t put the phone down.  The pictures just keep coming.

And then what?  Nothing.  No one goes back to them to look at them.  Sure, maybe we show one photo to someone, but what about the 60 per second, the dozens we shot today on the phone?  No one sees them

No one will ever see them.  Because no one cares.  Even we don’t care.  We shoot them because we can.  Because we think that’s what we do now.  We’ve been told that’s the way it is.

And that photo of our family like the one above from 70 years ago?  Never gets made, because who goes to a photographer anymore for a family photograph?  No one.  We have our phones.  We can shoot selfies.

That photo above doesn’t get made, period.  We will have made millions and billions of pictures, and none of that quality will last.  Because no one cares.

The young generation, they don’t care.  They don’t have photo albums.  They don’t care about photos for the future.

They have their phone now.  That’s it.

When it gets replaced, the photos are gone.  So what.

When it gets lost, the photos are gone.  So what.

When we take them, we don’t even care about them.  Nowhere is there a family sitting around their phones or computers looking at photos of Grandma.  There’s no one doing that.

Photographs don’t exist in present day.  Pictures depicting people and things exist temporarily until we forget and can’t be bothered to offload them and edit them down.  “What?  10,000 photos–I’ll just save them all.  Who has time to look through them all?”

We are in a dark time photographically.  We don’t value photography.  We don’t hire portrait photographers to document our families.  We don’t have photographs of our families and friends in our home.  We don’t live with photographs.

We live with our phone. The phone with thousands of photos we have no interest in sorting through, or looking at.


How did we get here?  We were doing so well.

We got here because quantity is a good thing and a curse.  The fact that you can make thousands of photos a week doesn’t mean it’s best to make them.

We are in a photographic dark age.  The photos we are making now mean less than ever.  We will never see them, our children and grandchildren will never see them.

We may as well stop making them–it’s all pointless.  Unless we print a book of photos or make up an album of snaps at the end of the year, the photos are like vapor–here now and good for nothing tomorrow.  Because they’re gone.

No one cares. Too busy snapping.

Wouldn’t that time be better spent experiencing the thing we act like we’re photographing, since really we are doing nothing? While we are always on the phone and making the constant snaps, how much do we miss out on?

Technology has advanced so quickly, that we are at a low point in history photographically. And we need to change our culture and get to a place where we value photography again. And document who we are. And photograph our families and have professional photographs made. Value what we once had and now is lost.

We do it by printing one photo. Or having one professional family portrait made and putting it in a frame in our house.

We do it by putting a picture of grandma in a frame on our dresser. Portraits of the kids back in frames on the wall.

Print anything you want to last. It’s the only reason we can see those marvelous faces in the old photos–because they exist as photographs.

Not as digital files. Not buried in heaps of data and information, but a real photograph that we see as we cross the room–they’re here with us.

It’s what a photograph is. A printed picture.

If I get just one person to print a photograph by discussing this, that’s one great-grandchild that will get to see a photo from today that wouldn’t otherwise exist for them.

That’s why I press this issue. That’s who I’m writing this for, on their behalf.

I want us to change the culture to value photographs again. To preserve our family history in pictures. Real pictures. Real photographs.

As Seth Godin says, “People like us do things like this.” We value photography and family portraits as an important part of our history.

If you’re a person like me who values family history, join me and print a photograph. Print ten this year. Print a photo book of favorite snapshots. Just make something that will last for generations.

The great-grandchildren will be glad we did.

[As always, if you need help printing photographs, I am a professional who can help with prints and books. And I make family portraits–it’s the most important work I do. ~Kenneth]

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4 thoughts on “Photography is at a Low Point in its History

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  1. But, Merlin, we don’t get to experience our family in photos in a cloud storage. And prints may get lost and discarded, but they’ll never be lost in a place we don’t even understand where it is or an obsolete or broken computer. That shoe box under the bed is pretty easy to keep track of, or that book that we keep on our bookshelf.

    Also, I know many people who don’t backup to cloud storage and have no idea where they’re photos go. And I have a brother who triple-backs up everything onto drives stored in multiple locations–it just seems like a tedious task and he doesn’t even have a photograph anywhere in sight in his home. Why make photographs if you’re never going to make an actual photograph–that’s just note-taking.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hello Kenneth! Just discovered your blog. I love your viewpoint on all of this, and I think the article and photo set that stole my heart was your “Rolleiflex” article on June of 2018.

    I have fully transitioned to film, having grown up remembering my mom shooting film but shortly after seeing it swept away by the digital tide (I’m 25 now). What I love most about film is the intention with which it is shot, and the pure honesty of it. I LOVE not only not having to edit a photo afterwards, but not being able to, what you see is purely what was captured at the time.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever read this book, but I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”. She, like you, approaches the philosophical place of photography in our life, and how it’s changed (and it was written WAY before the digital revolution, yet her comments are so sharply accurate) society and how we interact with the world. I think you’d love it.

    And the power of prints is beginning to settle in for me. As a child of the digital revolution, but also a child of a mom who was a photographer, I have grown up with pictures of the family all around the house, and now have lived to see them slowly disappear as they are being substituted with facebook “albums” with increasing frequency. I miss seeing them as “talismans” or little reminders of the beauty of life. They transcend the mere image, in this way; the photo itself becomes an object which holds a sort of sacredness of memory. You can see the same photo online and not get that misty feeling, but having it framed, enshrined on a desk or table or shelf, makes it sacred and special.

    Your Rolleiflex portraits are so, so beautiful. Something about them captured the light radiating from within your Father and mother. I was moved seeing them, and am doubly inspired now to use my rolleiflex to create something with which I can cherish my family. I have no desire for commercial photography, merely the aim to get good enough to do justice to the subjects which I shoot. I admire the way you captured your parents’ joy and strength and character all from simple shots. Definitely something I hope to be able to do one day!


    1. Very cool, Niko. Yes, document your family. There is power in photography, photographic prints and family portraits.

      People say the waiting for film is the part they don’t like, but that’s the part that makes it special–you get to go back in time to see those moments you captured.

      And yes, I’ve read Sontag’s On Photography! Very good read.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!


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