This article is part two of Surabhi Joshi’s featured series on the history of photography. Check out Part 1: The Early Days.
By the early 1900s, color had been captured in images. Soon, smiles started appearing in pictures, an emotion which used to require too much effort back in the days of long exposures. However, with improved exposure times of just a few seconds, we were able to soften our expressions, facial and verbal (‘say prunes’ transformed into ‘say cheese’). Motion was shortly incorporated into images. Devices such as polaroids and film cameras (both point-and-shoot and single-lens reflex types) became popular.
In 1957, for the first time, an image was scanned using a digital computer. In the 1960s, NASA started to map the moon’s surface using digital imaging. In 1986, Kodak invented the first megapixel camera (its first professional camera was released five years later). In 1994, the first digital camera for consumers was released; two more models were produced in 1995. Recent years have witnessed a production of more than 20 models of digital cameras per month! And now, we have smartphones and other multifunctional devices, many of which can produce high quality images.
The drive behind both the old and new technology remains the same. Whether it is a small opening in a camera obscura or an iPhone, the functions they provide appeal to the human tendency of recording observations.
A wide variety of subjects within the field of photography have emerged. For example, photographers can specialize in portraits, sports, nature, and so on. All you need is a tool such as a camera, and a set of skills to communicate with the light, the photo part of photography. The fancier the camera, the higher price you pay. The greater your skills, the more you get paid (The value of black and white images of a door, broken chair, teardrop, eye with teardrop, glass of wine, etc, has yet to be figured out. An animated character makes an attempt here). A picture taken with such dexterity and care is no longer just a snapshot and is categorized as an art form. Some of these artists include Alfred Steiglitz, Dorothea Lange, Fred Stein, Henri Cartier Bresson, Yousuf Karsh, and many more.
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For the rest of us, photos are typically only used for hoarding memories. We actively generate images of ourselves, and are constantly exposed to photographs produced by others. We used to store pictures in albums, shoeboxes, and drawers; and revisit them, solo, or with friends and family. Now, we share them through email, websites, and other digital gadgets.
These revisits are our attempts at recollecting a piece from our past, which now only exists in a piece of a snapshot or a digital image. Coming back to it is like returning to a different land in a different era. And yet, this very image does not capture everything about that age. There is so much left out because it only represents a few thousandths of a second that belonged to that time and place. And yet, this condensation of a memory into a four-sided rectangle is capable of bringing such emotion and nostalgia; it is a truly astounding experience.
However, these emotions might be experienced fewer now with the practically unlimited number of pictures one can take with the latest gadgets and their enhanced storage. Back in the days of roll films, only a finite number of images could be taken. There was also additional money required for developing these images. Therefore, every picture would typically involve a level of thought, creating a deeper attachment to each of the images. The moments were considered and analyzed and it was decided whether they were photograph worthy or not. Then, the anticipation of the pictures while they were being developed would add more excitement to these moments. This bundle of sentiment and thought was probably invoked during the revisits to these pictures, similar to the seven volumes of memories that gushed out of Proust’s madeleine.
Now, since taking pictures is so easy, it has become an obsession. Every outing, hairstyle, and purchase seems to be documented. Eating food at restaurants, traveling to new places has become more about taking the maximum amount of pictures than experiencing the place or dish. There is a noticeable attitude of emphasizing more on the information that ‘I was there’. Images are no longer just recording instruments; they have become a setting in which everyone has started to live.
This is not to regard the ability to take pictures effortlessly as a distasteful luxury but only to mildly reflect on how as always, some cherished aspect of the old is lost while something new and valuable is gained. For example, the easy access to cameras has certainly created a platform for personal journalism. Any incident or crisis can be captured visually and reported locally and worldwide to ensure immediate help and solution, or at least some hopeful and healthy uproar.
All things considered, a picture, physical or virtual, is a very interesting entity. It entails the presence of an absent moment, place, or person; it has a tangible presence and yet invokes intangible feelings, the contents of which vary for different beholders; returning to it could be due to an unexplainable pain at the passage of time or a nod to the past. Comic moments of the past might tear us up in the present, and what felt like tragedies in a lost time might seem less traumatic now. Pictures assist us in remembering some memories and perhaps even forgetting others that do not exist in these miniscule portions of the past; some memories are kept intact while others are remolded after our each visit to the family albums. This psychological activity occurs very frequently because these modest and innocuous pictures are powerful memory altering devices, using which we add or subtract meanings from a lot of our relations and recollections that are now solely in a print or JPEG format.
Kundera had aptly said that ‘the past is colored in a multicolored taffeta, and every time we look at it, we see a different hue.’ The same can perhaps be said of pictures, the colorful agents of our past.
As a final reflection on pictures and the technology behind it, it is astonishing to think that we no longer live in a world where to be a photographer, you had to be a scientist. We have reduced the scientific process developed by masters, who were artists, chemists, physicists, and inventors, down to a single click.
The technology of cameras, and the concept of taking pictures to document our stories, and mark occasions such as birthdays; to describe food, places, and people through photojournalism; to conduct diagnosis by taking pictures of our insides through medical imaging; or to share with our virtual friends what we partake in during our lunch hour is now used everywhere. The imaging technology is indeed ubiquitous; it can be used to shed light on a patient’s insides or the contents of one’s beverages. And judging by how much it is being used for the latter, at times it almost makes you wish it were still restricted to the masters.
This article is part two of Surabhi Joshi’s featured series on the history of photography. Check out Part 1: The Early Years.