It’s interesting to me to see how things change. When I was in school we had text books and notebooks. Students today have Macbooks and iPads. We learned penmanship and how to write and diagram sentences. Do they even learn that now? When was the last time anyone had to write a letter by hand to someone?
When I started working as a photographer professionally, in 1986, I already had about a dozen years or so under my belt as a shooter, if I am correct in my estimation that I started when I was 10. So add those 12 years to the 35 years I’ve been a working pro, and you’d get 47 years. That’s quite a while.
Except, the first 31 years were quite different from the last 16. Because the medium changed as the world changed.
In 2005, I’d say that was the turning year. Funny, you don’t realize it while you’re in it. 2005 was the year that Kodak found itself in a serious financial decline. Digital technology was out before 2005, but it didn’t take hold until then. Add a couple more years, 2007 saw the release of the first iPhone, a mobile phone with a camera built in. That’s when the camera manufacturers started feeling the squeeze.
But interestingly, something else was happening. Sure, Apple was cleaning up in sales and taking their profits to new heights, at the expense of the film and camera companies, but I’m thinking more about the way the culture changed.
What used to be a way to save something to relive the memory at a later time, to stop time on the face of a parent or child, to hold onto and share the experience with others at a later time, now has became note-taking.
Before photography began in 1839 (not that long ago in the grand scheme of things) people dreamed about saving a likeness of a person or place that they found significant, but technology didn’t allow it. You could have a sketch or painting made of someone or some location, but you couldn’t save them exactly as they were. Once photography arrived, imagine how important it was for a soldier, headed off to war, to have a way to leave a portrait with his wife and family. How special it was to save the likeness of a loved one, like a parent or child, to have for keeping them in the room after they had either passed away or moved on.
From 1839-2004, photography was a past tense medium. If we went on a trip, we saved some moments to bring back, to relive ourselves when we were back home, had the film processed, and the photos placed in a photo album to share with friends. Forgetting what we photographed was a component of the medium. There was no way to remember every frame on a roll of 12, 24, or 36-exposure film.
In 2005, photography became a present tense medium. Now, the purpose of a photograph was a note. “Hey, look where I’m at, what I’m eating, who I’m with.” There is no film to process when we get home. There is no photo album to assemble. And what would be the point? Everyone already saw the photos, no one would want to sit through them again.
We don’t even want to see them again. They’re buried down hundreds of rows on our phones. If we want to show one one to someone, we do the endless-scroll-while-you-wait (ESWYW) move, then say forget it because we can’t find it, there are too many. It doesn’t matter.
Photography changed 16 years ago to a “glance at me” medium instead of a way to “save memories and I’ll share them with you” one. Photography became less about the snapshot and more about the immediate look. A snapshot is something that I can use to tell you a story when I see you sometime later. An immediate look tells you all you need to know right now, and there are no further stories unless you want to deal with another ESWYW.
Is one better than the other? Not necessarily. Different, yes. I think photography as it once was had more longevity and storytelling aspects to it. People would make up albums of photographs and friends and family would thumb through them looking at the photos and listening to stories during a visit.
Now, friends and family get to know where we are at any given moment, as we can easily place a picture in their pocket.
I wonder how young people who’ve only grown up with digital photography, if they would feel like they missed anything if they had the chance to experience the wait–the removal from the immediate–that comes from film developing and picking up photographic prints.
Neither of the two in this photo had never had a film photograph made of them before. I made this photo on a Rolleiflex film camera. They saw the photograph for the first time two weeks after the photo was made when I delivered it to their home in a frame which now sits on their mantle. What a different way for them to experience a photograph.
When eventually cell phones fall out of fashion to whatever comes next, I wonder what direction photography will then take. Will there be a new use for the ability to save an image?
It seems to me that the immediacy of photography holds value, it’s good for showing something now (I do it when I check on a friend’s house while he’s out of town and send him pics of his plants), but it also feels short-lived as no one is saving the pics we text them.
No one nowadays is gathering around a slide show on a screen in a dimmed room (they were glorious, if you’ve never seen one, you’ve so missed out they were so bright and colorful, a digital projector doesn’t even compare). I just saw one of the top-of-the-line slide projectors at a local thrift store, a Kodak 4600 which must have sold for $400 or more when new, but now was priced at $7.95.
No one is sitting on our couch perusing a photo album of snapshots of fun and silly pictures, of friends, family and places we’ve been.
And no one is sitting around a computer firing up a hard drive of travel and family photos.
I miss the way we used to use photography only because it seemed like the act of making a physical print meant we were giving some importance to our work. We printed a photograph to frame and hang or place on our bureau. Photographs lined the staircase with the family members’ portraits–it’s how we knew we belonged in the family, were a special part of it.
If we could go 50 years into the future, I wonder what we would wish photography was today, whether we will be glad for what it was or miss what it wasn’t. In 50 years time, will we have any photos left if our hard drives stop working, our computers conk out? Or won’t we even care because whatever came in to replace what was new will now take over and we will simply give all our attention to that?
To be continued…in 2061.