The Ubiquitous Camera

Technology has transformed photos from treasured keepsakes to personal propaganda

2 min read
The Ubiquitous Camera
Illustration: Greg Mably

For much of the last century, cameras remained fundamentally the same. A good camera was a lifetime investment. Who would have guessed that in the space of a few years Kodak would go into bankruptcy and that the most frequently used camera in the world would be manufactured by a company that makes phones?

Now camera technology is in the midst of dramatic change. There is continuous improvement in sensors and in the capabilities of software algorithms for computational photography. We even have the first light-field cameras, which allow post-capture changes in focus and in point of view. However, it is still the little smartphone camera, when combined with the sharing power of the Internet, that’s driving the big changes in how we use and regard photography today.

This is all exciting stuff, and as I walk about, I’m constantly looking for things to photograph. But I’m not sure why I’m doing this. I already have about 25,000 photos on my computer, and I almost never look at any of them. There are just too many. Moreover, every city and vacation spot on Earth has been photographed to death: You can even virtually walk down the streets and look around using Google Street View. And if the current camera ubiquity isn’t enough, wait until everyone decides that they want their own camera-carrying drones. I hold my camera at the ready and feel an irresistible urge to click, but I wonder: What am I adding to this sea of images?

In the past, the rarity of pictures gave them value. For centuries we were constrained to view the world through the eyes of painters and sketchers. The purpose of image creation was mostly artistic expression, though this was often influenced through the patrimony of religious institutions or wealthy nobility. I see the pompous portraits that line the halls of castles and manor houses, and now I think of them as the selfies of another day. I am amused, for example, by Hans Holbein’s iconic 1536 portrait of King Henry VIII, which was apparently “photoshopped” to make him look more kingly—taller, younger, fitter. I suppose it wasn’t enough to be ruler of all the land—Henry felt he had to look the part. Today we have our own carefully curated self-images, peeping out from social media profiles or Web pages.

When cameras were first put in the hands of ordinary people, perhaps the main purpose became the creation of what I think of as “mantel photos.” These are the pictures I so often see in people’s homes lining the mantelpiece or piano, telling the family history in a handful of images. I know when I took photos in the past I was looking either for particularly artistic shots or ones that might become fossilized memories adorning a mantel. Film was limited and expensive, and I chose carefully.

Now that rarity is long gone, lost in an ocean of mostly forgettable images. With all this great image technology, I’m wondering: What new purposes for photography are being created? Beyond the selfie, for some people there are opportunities for lifelogging. There is also a new habit in taking snaps, say of documents or possessions, as an aid to memory. But the big new purpose is using photos as an enabler and conduit for attracting social interaction online.

So now when I walk about with my ever-ready camera, I’m not looking so much for pretty sunsets or tourist attractions. I’m thinking, how will this look on Facebook?

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