The Ubiquitous Camera

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Mar 2015

For much of the last century cameras were fundamentally unchanged even as technology moved inexorably ahead.  A good camera then was a lifetime investment, but who would have guessed that in the space of a few years Kodak would go into bankruptcy and that the most used camera in the world would be manufactured by a company that makes phones?

Now camera technology is in the midst of dramatic technological 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 that allow post-capture change of focus and point-of-view.  However, it is the little smartphone camera, when combined with the power of the Internet for sharing, that has made the big difference 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 and you can even virtually walk down the streets and look around using Google Streetview.   And if the current camera ubiquity isn't enough, wait until GoogleGlass catches on and everyone decides that they want their own camera-carrying drone.  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 a unique value.  For centuries we were constrained to view the world through the eyes of artists.  The purpose of image creation was mostly as an expression of art, though this was often influenced through the patrimony of religious institutions or wealthy nobility.  I see the pompous portraits that line the halls of the castles and manor houses and now think of them as the selfies of another day.  I am amused, for example, by Holbein's iconic portrait of King Henry VIII that was apparently "photoshopped" to make him look more "kingly."  I suppose it wasn't enough to be ruler of all the land -- he had to look the part.  And today we have our own self images too.

When cameras were 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 peoples' homes on the mantel or piano, telling in a handful of images the family history.  When in the past I took photos I was looking either for artistic shots or ones might become fossilized memories adorning a mantel.  Film was limited and expensive, and I chose carefully.
Now that rarity in photos 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?  Of course, there is the selfie, for better or worse, and for some people there are opportunities for life-blogging.  There is also a new ease in taking photos, say of documents or possessions, as an aid to memory.  But the big new purpose is using photos as an enabler and conduit for social interaction through the Internet.

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?