The King is Dead. Long Live the King

Particularly with the proliferation of camera phones, there is a growing belief that we are inundated with images and, in particular, that the “soft”, that is, electronic, nature of these images is creating fundamental changes in how we view photography, and perhaps to the culture in general.  Whatever the actual extent of these changes, they are deeply rooted in human nature.

The belief that the world is saturated with images did not begin with electronic cameras. In The Story of Kodak, published in 1990, author Douglas Collins writes “By the late 1980s pictures had become a common coin, bright, plentiful, almost too ubiquitous even to notice.”[1] In her 1973 essay In Plato’s Cave Susan Sontag seems to lament

“… there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems.”[2]

When Sontag wrote her essay, it is estimated that around 10 billion photographs were taken each year. Today that number is closer to 400 billion.[3]

But there is no reason to start with the invention of photography. Creating representational images may be the defining trait of human beings. More common definitions – tool-making, verbal language – have been found in “lower” animals, but image use seems uniquely human.

One particularly fine example of image creation by the earliest humans is “Wounded Bison”, a Paleolithic cave painting in Altamira, Spain. In the classic History of Art, H.W. Jason describes it thus:

“We are amazed not only by the keen observation, the assured, vigorous outlines, the subtly controlled shading that lends bulk and roundness to the forms, but even more perhaps by the power and dignity of this creature in its final agony.”[4]

Left: Wounded Bison, unknown, ~15,000 BCE. Right: Bull -Plate 1, Pablo Picasso, 1945.

Figure 1. Left: Wounded Bison, unknown, ~15,000 BCE. Right: Bull -Plate 1, Pablo Picasso, 1945.

Perhaps the earliest examples of human image making are the paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, some dated to over 30,000 BCE. One thing of note: there is no evidence of human habitation in this cave: no fire pits, no bone scraps, no tool chips.[5] The site was used solely for the purpose of displaying images. It may be the earliest example of an art gallery.

Sontag claims “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” But this explains neither Paleolithic art, nor the meteoric rise in the number of images created in the 21st century. If one considered the image a way of capturing the object imaged, one would keep it near hearth and home, not in a cave, nor in the cloud.

A more likely explanation of the desire to photograph, or more generally, to create images, is our need to be part of a community created by shared experiences. For a species so visually oriented, photography satisfies that need to share.

That photography was a way of sharing was a belief within the Eastman Kodak Company, at least towards the end of the 20th century. Several executives became convinced that the “new” way of sharing images was to view them on your television.[6] This belief led to the 1992 introduction of the PhotoCD system. The concept was that customers would receive a CD containing scanned versions of their photos in addition to their processed negatives and prints. A special player would display these on their TV while the entire family gathered around to watch. However, at that time people were conditioned to watching video on their TVs so the general reaction of people to the displayed images was “what, they don’t move?” It would take people becoming conditioned to seeing still images on their computers screens before seeing them on their TV could become popular.

Photo CD Player

Figure 2. Photo CD player and disc

PhotoCD could have played a role in the digital sharing of images; Kodak convinced all manufacturers of CD drives to make them PhotoCD compatible. However, a fundamental objective of the PhotoCD system was to protect Kodak’s film business from encroachment by electronic image capture. This resulted in complex ‘protections’ being built into the system that often made it difficult or impossible for consumers to use the product as they desired, for example, to make a copy of the disc.[7] More importantly, with the 1990 introduction of the first commercially available digital camera, the Logitech Fotoman,[8] to share images the consumer no longer needed Kodak to “do the rest” after they “pushed the button”.

So identified is photography with sharing that the first camera phone is generally attributed to Philippe Kahn, best known as the founder of Borland Software. However, what Kahn actually did was to be the first person to share an image over the Internet using a cellular phone. He accomplished this in 1997 by taking a picture of his newborn daughter with a Casio QV-10 digital camera, transferring the image to a Toshiba laptop, and then hot wiring the laptop to his Motorola Startac cellular phone. His personal experience, as well as the reaction of the people with whom he shared the image, prompted Kahn to start a company that worked with Japanese cell phones makers to create the camera phone. [9]

First photo by cell phone

Figure 3. First photo shared by cell phone

The first commercial camera phone, the Sharp J-SH04, was introduced about three years later, in November 2000.[10] This segment of photography grew rapidly, and in 2008 Nokia became the largest camera manufacturer, selling more camera phones than Kodak sold film cameras.[11]

Photographs taken with cell phones are seldom printed, they are shared with family and friends by text message, Instagram or other electronic means. The website with the most photos stored is Facebook, with over 90 billion images in January 2011.[12]  On Facebook, storage of images is essentially an unintended consequence of sharing them. But is this really any different than the way people treated ‘traditional’ photographs? There was a flurry of excitement when the pictures came back from the photofinisher, but once shared they were put in a shoebox to gather dust.

In the early 1980’s, Leo ‘Jack’ Thomas, Senior Vice President of Research for Eastman Kodak from 1977 – 1985, reflecting on the growing excitement around electronic imaging, commented that if chemical-based photography were being invented today, it would be considered a marvel.[13]  His statement continues to be true today. The amount of scientific knowledge and technology condensed into a few microns of emulsion, and the image quality that results, verges on the magical. It’s just that, compared to digital imaging, it didn’t deliver what people want: any easy way to share their experiences.


[1] Douglas Collins, The Story of Kodak, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1990) p368

[2] New York Review of Books, October 18, 1973. Available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1973/oct/18/photography

[4] H.W. Janson, History of Art, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1963) p19

[5] Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary film by Werner Herzog.

[6] One might conclude that these same executives also believed that sharing convenience trumped image quality. If so, they were adept at keeping that belief under wraps. Kodak executives almost universally expressed the opinion that film’s “inherently” superior image quality would keep electronic image capture at bay.

[7] The discussion of PhotoCD is based on the author’s personal experience while employed by Eastman Kodak Company

[12] Justin Mitchell, self identified ‘Facebook Photos engineer’, in http://www.quora.com/How-many-photos-are-uploaded-to-Facebook-each-day/all_comments/Justin-Mitchell. Accessed 2/24/2013

[13] Personal recollection of the author

About dougstinson

Doug Stinson enjoys pondering unexpected connections and sharing his discoveries. He is also a physicist, a photographer, a new product realization executive, and a student of history, the environment and religion.
This entry was posted in History, Photography, Sociology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The King is Dead. Long Live the King

  1. Tina Schell says:

    Well done Doug – thoroughly enjoyed the walk thru history and your commentary

  2. 2e0mca says:

    Fascinating Doug – a great walk through history 🙂 I think the ability to share with just about anyone in the world brought about by the internet has changed the nature of photography considerably. In the past most people took photos to share with family and friends or purely to record places or things that interested them. Only artists who chose photographic images as a medium and those serious photographers for whom it was their living, sought to present images in an artistic manner. I think the digital revolution and the immediacy of the internet has transformed that situation to the point where a significant number of ordinary people using any form of camera will chose to create artistic images alongside their record shots. Digital photography has opened the way for many more people to explore their creative abilities – which I think is a good thing. A quick look around Flickr or through the Weekly Photo Challenges on WordPress will demonstrate the truth of this (at least I hope it will) 😉

    • dougstinson says:

      I agree. I hope this will lead to more people becoming “literate” about images.
      Another thing I have noticed is that digital imaging has lead to an increase in interest in B&W photography! Unexpected, perhaps, but in retrospect it makes sense that removing the practical difficulties of the darkroom would have this effect.

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