One of my first careers after getting out of college was being a professional photographer in upstate New York. It didn’t last long, once I realized how competitive it was and how long I would have to work at menial tasks if I wanted to break into the big time in New York City. But for many years I had a home darkroom and could develop my own pictures. I had some adventures, such as meeting the great documentary photographer W. Eugene Smith and even had an exhibit on a city bus. But despite these excitements, the job seems like being an employee in a buggy whip factory. Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t miss the lengthy process of all that chemical preparation and expensive equipment to make a print.
I was reminded of this when I heard the news about Facebook buying Instagram for a billion bucks yesterday. I have yet to use this mobile app, preferring to keep my photos on my hard drive rather than spread them across the Interwebs. Obviously, I am not the target market.
Let’s look at what has happened to photography since I left the profession: Kodak is in shambles, after trying for years to make a go out of digital cameras. Polaroid, who arguably was the Instagram of its era, went into chapter 11 and is now owned by investors. These are companies that have been around for the better part of a century. I remember growing up with cameras from both companies: who could forget the Austin Powers-like Swinger? Or the Brownie box camera, the first camera for many of us of the post World War II era?
Now who needs cameras: we just use our phones. Polaroid even has a camera that looks like a phone, try to get your head around that for a moment. How far the once mighty have fallen.
I was at a conference last week and tried to get a photo with my phone. No focus controls, the lighting was horrible, and the built-in flash didn’t really illuminate the subject because I was too far away. So much for capturing the decisive moment. Would Cartier-Bresson, who invented the term, ever have used an iPhone to take his pictures? Doubtful. But it almost didn’t matter: I could find a replacement image by using Google. Therein lies a tale of our day.
What has happened to classic camera makers such as Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Leica? Yes, they have $2000 “pro-sumer” versions, but for the most part they are unknown to the public these days. With a 5 megapixel camera in your pocket at all times, you don’t really need a separate device. Did you even know that Leica has a gallery where professional photographers share their images? Why would you when you can just go to Facebook?
Back when my daughter was growing up, I took a lot of video tape. Luckily, I made some DVDs (using iMovie) from this source material, and now even these DVDs are becoming passe. It seems as if the photographic media is evolving so quickly that we can’t keep archival copies around for more than a few years. I know I still have a bunch of Kodachrome 35mm slides somewhere of my own youth. They have lasted a lot longer, and I can hold them up to the light and see them without any additional hardware required. Now I just have a bunch of iPhoto directories of digital photos. Doesn’t quite seem the same.
Instagram’s value (at least to Facebook) isn’t that it is a new photographic medium, but how the photos are shared with your new digital pals across the universe. That is a lesson for our times: it used to be that we cared more about the medium and what we captured on film. Now the balance of our attention has shifted to who looks at the pics and if we can garner enough traffic from these digital onlookers. It just seems odd to me. Maybe I should look around on eBay and see if anyone has a Swinger and some film that they can sell me. Of course, then I would have to scan the pictures into iPhoto once they were developed. Or find a city bus that I could show them on.