...And by that I mean, are we in the middle of a Camera Craze?
I think maybe we are. George Eastman's invention of the reloadable Kodak and factory processing kicked off a distinct and extended hand-camera craze that lasted through the 1890s and well into the early 1900s. It may well be that the advent of affordable, good-quality digital cameras in the early 2000s and beyond, and then the mass migration to smartphone and tablet photography on the part of the public at large, starting just a few years ago, might amount to the same thing.
Hindsight is the only thing that's going to be 20/20, of course, and we're not in a position to see with hindsight yet. But I think it's very possible that photography is somewhere near the crest of a huge wave of mass popularity right now. We think this is the new permanent reality, but that's only because we're in the middle of it—like a pop culture watcher in 1896 might have thought that the public's appetite for hand cameras and bicycles (a parallel craze back then) would never wane.
Whether this is right depends on what happens next. Crazes, by definition*, end**.
We'll see, I guess.
*"A short-lived popular fashion; a fad." American Heritage English Dictionary
**Well, actually they don't end—they peak, and then decline, and then reach an ongoing steady-state of reasonable fluctuation. It's not like people no longer ride bicycles. But the "craze" part ends. Jazz was a craze in the 1920s; it's not now, but neither has it gone away entirely.
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Featured Comments from:
Dave: "I don't think there is a historical parallel for the rise of social media. This new mode of sharing is making photography a viable form of communication. Right now, people are haphazardly learning a visual vocabulary and they get instant feedback via the Facebook 'like' button. Give it a couple years and see how much everyone improves."
Mark kinsman (partial comment): "I think you are spot on regarding current conditions. I think that as we hit critical mass, sales start declining after the peak (which may have already occurred, hence the flat sales of DSLRs). With cameras in most cellphones, more cameras are carried by more people every day then any time in the past.
"Is the camera phone functionally any different than the brownie was, in terms general usage? I think not. It is today's Brownie, with built in processing to boot. Getty just introduced The Moment app for iPhones which fits right into this mindset."