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Monday, 16 April 2012


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That certainly makes sense to me. I suspect the miles driven in automobiles would exhibit a similar asymptotic curve, for the same reasons. Back then running a motor car meant having lots of money and either substantial mechanical skills or a mechanic on retainer, and knowing the location of all 3 vendors selling gasoline within 200 miles.

In the 19th century making a photograph meant mastering a fairly complex multi-staged process. For most of that century one had to personally coat a photographic plate with sensitizing chemicals, load said plate into a camera, make the exposure (with ISO equivalents of something like 8 or less), then handle and develop the plate in total darkness using frequently toxic chemicals. The vapors resulting from Daguerreotype processing for example are truly nasty. For some processes this was only the beginning, and making a print viewable in daylight would require another round of exposure and chemical processing in darkness, not infrequently while handling a fragile glass plate coated with an equally delicate emulsion.

Nowadays you just point your cell phone and send 473 different exposures of your cat sleeping on the couch to friends & family.

The article also notes just how ephemeral digital photos are:
"And yet, there are still more physical photos hidden in our shoeboxes, hanging on our walls or lost in an album than there are digital photos littering our hard drive. These precious photos of the past 200 years tell us who we are and where we come from. So grab hold of that photo of you as a kid or of your grandparents' wedding and realize just how special it is."

If it isn't physical, it tends to get lost. Fast. Oops, did you just delete that directory? Oops, my hard drive crashed. Oops, which SD card did I use? And so on. What does today look like without a negative or a print?

Corollary: Humanity preserves 1/1,000th as many photographs as it has in times past, notwithstanding the ease in which they may be presently preserved.

Amazing? Or just depressing?

Dear Mike,

That's a wonderful article, with great citations. Bookmarked for future reference.

I, too, am extremely dubious about that 2-minute assertion, seeing as George Eastman had sold 100,000 Kodaks by 1995. Even allowing that most folks likely never ran more than 1 load of film, I'd bet the total number of photos taken during the 1800's is closer to 10 million than 2.

Which only changes the guesstimates to say that every 15 minutes, we make as many photos as were made in all of the 19th century. Impressive.

Possibly more astonishing is that between now and the turn of the next DECADE, as many photos will be made as were made in the entire 20th century.

pax / Ctein

Even so, how may of todays digital photograph will survive a century? Probably not more than those taken in the entire 19th century?

And will we actually care to look at any of these in the next 100 years ?

Quality over quantity.

Is it really a photograph if you don't wait for it to come back from the lab or out of the printer? We may not be comparing like with like...

The abstract notion of "the image", which began to hold sway over critical analysis of photography beginning around, say 1950 has caused us to see no difference between digital pictures and physical photographs.

But I'm pretty sure that a daguerrotype portrait, or a Kodak print in the 1890s was more than an impulse image, much more a precious family heirloom or at least keepsake.

We (and I mean causal photographers in the 21st century) just don't think of our digital snaps the same way or take them for the same emotional purposes.

So, I'm naturally wary of the wow-that-just-blows-my-mind-dude numerical comparison.

From the same article:

ten percent of all the photos we have were taken in the past 12 months

So in photgraphy's greatest expansion, Kodak still managed to go bankrupt.

What I find particularly troubling is the rapidity with which photographs are currently viewed, appreciated and replaced in these digital times, like some kind of speed dating service, or wine tasting- immediately spit out once hitting the palette. Particularly ironic since we have supposedly now entered what some are calling the golden era of photography books (both commercial and privately published).

Back in the seventies, photo books were studied, treasured and revered as objects that withstood the test of time. Not just mere benchmarks of style, they were unique cultural icons of their particular era- like long playing albums, except rarer.

With today's rapid, transitory viewing of the plethora of images available online, the quality of photography books (in terms of both aesthetics and reproduction) is still quite high, and in many cases, even better. But they pass before us like flavors of the day- under appreciated, undervalued and in the case of many independent publications, often unseen by a public already looking beyond to tomorrow's menu offerings. Somehow the very essence of photography has been undermined- the fact that it is a technology raised to an art form that specializes in recording the past for our continued study and enjoyment in the present, and well into the future...

Photo forums are full of advice about backing up digital files such as: "I have three hard drives, one in my computer, one in my grandmother's freezer and one buried on the moon in a titanium box and I backup each one every three months" but the reality is that once we are gone, no one is going to be interested in our digital files. Albums of prints and sometimes negatives almost always get kept by someone when sorting out the estate of a deceased relative. I think CDs and hard drives are going to end up being discarded.

I'm not so concerned with the speed at which we go through pictures. Photography has become a language, and like spoken language a lot of it goes by very quickly, we ignore a lot of it, just as we let a lot of verbal drivel slip by unremarked. But sometimes we find something we really want to pay attention to. I think photography simply has to grow up and realize that the glory days of novelty and automatic attention are over and it has to play by the grown-up rules of human communications.

But today casualy taken images are used for day to day communication.

Should we only write books and not talk?

Many people report disposing of the vast majority of prints they find in albums or shoe boxes when clearing out the house of a deceased relative. If you have no idea who the people are, the photos are mostly of no interest (the photos of places rather than people are nearly always of no interest at that level; you need Galen Rowell to make them interesting).

There's also a question of which timescale we think in terms of. I would predict that in 1000 years, the *only* photographs we have from the 20th century are in digital form (some of them digitized from film originals).

@karamanoğlu — it is no coincidence that Kodak went bankrupt during photography's greatest expansion. Just as RIM is dying during the apotheosis of the smartphone; just as newspapers are dying even as we consume more news in more ways than ever before.

Jim- it's a two sided sword. I'm not concerned as much with novelty as with quality- which can be more easily overlooked in an environment which constantly elevates speed and turnover. These days, a lot of "human communication" involves being constantly hooked up to some manner of technology which also serves to separate us from what we see, feel and ultimately understand.

Dear Folks,

I'm seeing a lot of sample bias going on here.

Older photos are not better. You only see the better ones. As a restorer, I see a fair number of old photos. They are almost all uninteresting and uninspired, of value only for the historical record or a personal connection. Kind of a lot like today; funny about that.

Older photos do not survive better. Almost all of them are gone. Someone sees a B&W print from 1910 and thinks that means B&W photos last a century. Nope, it means that one did; the 99% (conservative estimate!) that became toast, they never saw and so they discount.

It doesn't stop. Save for the small minority who used Kodachrome, no good color survives from the end of WWII until 1960. A small fraction survives, badly stained or faded. In theory, restorable. In practice, it'll never happen. The rest, beyond any hope of recognition.

30 years from now, you'll be able to move that end date up to 1980. 20 years after that 1990. (A lot of it has already gone south; I'm talking about when that becomes almost universal.)

And, no, people don't save old photos and albums, not in any meaningful way. Oh, they may not dump them in the trash (although the majority do), they just stuff them in some attic or storage locker. They will never be looked at again. Their physical existence is irrelevant.

pax / Ctein

After screening out the wooden old portaits and the new smartphone party snapshots posted to facebook, I wonder what the ratio is between actual prints of artistic merit made in the 19th century and those made more recently.

"Albums of prints and sometimes negatives almost always get kept by someone when sorting out the estate of a deceased relative."

@Steve - and those kept were generally relegated to the basement or attic until the 'rescuer' passed on, and then those who went through *their* estate tossed them. Their fate was merely delayed - not averted. Grandma may have kept her Great Aunt Sallie's photos out of loyalty and nostalgia but to little Sarah Granddaughter they're just so much clutter.

I publish several photos every day -- not a feat possible prior to digital imaging and the Internet. So the longevity of the redundantly backed up images can be quite considerable.

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