Toronto. … I gotta wear shades is a nuclear holocaust song by Timbuk3. Apple’s recent announcement of the iPhone 8 and the anniversary model iPhone X (iPhone 10) celebrating a decade since the industry disrupting iPhone was first released, prompted me to think about photography and its future.
Since photography as we know it, first burst on the world’s stage, in January 1839, many things have happened: Wet-plate, dry-plate, albums, CDVs, Cabinet cards, instantaneous photographs, movies, stereo, flexible film, colour, digital, internet, social media.
The PHSC was formed in 1974 to promote the history of photography at a time when film was king. So why is an historical society even talking about the future? Well, everything is history, eventually. For example, when I was born, photography was nearing its first century and had already made remarkable changes. The Kodak camera was almost universal; most people used black and white film; those few who wanted colour either used painfully slow and grainy colour processes of the day or made/bought hand-coloured monochrome prints coloured with special dyes.
The earliest Daguerreotype gave us remarkable resolution but was a slow, contrasty and monochromatic one-off process. One had to be technically adroit and artistic to succeed at all in the new science. Portrait studios sprung up around the world. People self-taught, or outright charlatans became photographers. Newer technologies led to less contrasty images but still monochrome – unless hand-coloured prints were offered. Optical companies who previously made telescopes, eye-glasses, and microscopes leaped on board the photography train and began designing lenses for photography covering portraits and landscapes in particular. Lenses were scaled to cover various sizes of cameras with little or no vignetting. Prints were mostly contact so one used the correct size of camera to make the desired size of print.
It was around the early 20th century before photography could record colour in a scene. And that too was awkward. Initially colour meant glass slides, and later plastic (film) slides in pretty cardboard mounts. Prints of any size resulted from the colour negatives of the mid 20th century. Early prints were crude, poor resolution and off colour either when first processed or as they quickly aged and faded. But films and processes improved rapidly. For the amateur and professional, colour film quickly took over leaving traditional black and white film for the occasional professional and die hard amateur. Soon colour photos and slides in an hour stores sprung up at prices equal or better than home processing and much faster! (Kodachrome of course still had to go back to Kodak by mail with a two week turnaround.)
The digital era took off slowly and the new cameras were divided into two camps – cheapish amateur point and shoots imitating movie cameras or extremely expensive and heavy digital SLR cameras. Neither camp would distinguish itself with decent resolution, but the colour accuracy and speed overrode that deficiency. Resolution grew in leaps and bounds. A third camp began with the so called mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras and their adaptors which allowed many old film camera lenses to be used.
Over a decade and a half ago, cell phones with built-in cameras began to appear. Then in 2007 Apple blew away the market with their iPhone, literally a computer in a phone. Today, every cell phone is a smartphone with a built-in camera far exceeding the resolution and features of the fast disappearing point and shoot digital cameras. The most recent smartphone designs include apps that can adjust images to correct for lighting – colour, contrast, and exposure. Last year the higher end smartphones used software to take portraits and gently blur the background to make the person stand out. This year, the high end smartphones use software to change the lighting after the portrait is taken! Now anyone can change the lighting to best separate and mould the individual’s image as if you had the portrait taken by a studio professional skilled in choosing light ratios.
Over the years, each improvement in photography has meant less skill, less cost, and opened the art to more people. Today, we eschew albums and launch our best shots into the ether on social media. Everyone carries a smartphone and by its very definition, a camera. TV stations and social media sites encourage all to upload their images for free…
With a digital camera I take a hundred or more pictures in a night whereas with film I would take that many shots over a month or two. Cameras seem to be disappearing along with albums. Photography as a profession too is quickly disappearing. The world will soon be a vast army of amateurs and a tiny niche of professionals doing painstaking and specialized imaging. In a cartoon, the character Betty asks her husband what a camera looked like. “A phone”, he replies.