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Will today’s photos someday become only so much noise?


Richard Shaw


At one time photography, or the ability to have the equipment and means to do it, was a luxury. Not many people had cameras. Sometimes a photo of someone was a once in a lifetime thing, one of the reasons why when we see a photo of someone from the late 1800s or even the early 1900s they are all dressed up. They usually went to a studio. The average person did not have a camera.
That makes photos of all kinds from that period of time treasures. They are really scarce.
Then came the Brownie camera and others. Soon common, average people could afford a camera and could take snap shots. But when one could afford a camera, they also had to be able to afford to develop that film they shot, whether it be an image they accidentally took of their foot or a family member standing in front of the family home. But even from that time those photos are treasured. People might have had dozens of photos taken of themselves in a lifetime. But they are still pretty special when you see them.

Cameras are ubiquitous

Today everyone has a camera. It is right there in a cell phone or some other kind of personal device. In 2015 it was estimated that there were over a trillion photos taken. And it is now in the trillions each year and growing quickly. These photos reside on computers, on the web and on phones everywhere. Photos have become ubiquitous. We no longer pull out our wallets and purses to show friends the latest school photos of our kids or grandchildren, now we just pull out our phone and ask ourselves which of the 1,000 shots I have of little Johnny do I want this person I am talking to see. In turn they will do the same thing. We also do it with our cars, our pets, our houses, our hobbies and any one of a thousand other things in our world. To be able to do what we do today in terms of choice 40 years ago we would have had to have a wheel barrel to cart around albums everywhere we went.
That good, right. More is better?
Well I think it is a two edged sword and in fact it may be bad in the long run.
The other day my wife mentioned that she had not seen any photos of a friend’s birthday party we had gone to a few weeks ago, except for one I posted on Facebook. There are about 50 total photos of that event laying around on the computer in my office. They have already been filed in a folder called “personal photos” dwelling as a file there with hundreds of others that also hold dozens or even over a hundred digital photos I have taken since I began shooting with electronic cameras in the early 2000s. On top of that I have digitized every paper photo in my possession which includes thousands from my mother’s extensive picture taking of her flowers and other things in the 1960s and 70s. Anyway I told my wife I could send her the file and she said okay, but in the run of things I will probably forget.
It is wonderful to be able to take dozens of photos of something and not have to worry about paying to develop them. Remember that process? First you had to put the rolls of film in and out of your camera being careful not to expose them to light. Then there was the seeming hassle of going to a photo shop or a store with in it and then filling our one of those envelopes we used to put information on with each roll of film. When I first started doing that it sometimes took two weeks to get the film developed. Then came the time to remember to pick them up after a friendly phone call from the photo shop at the store. It certainly is easier and quicker now.

Maybe it’s too easy

But somewhere in the back of that process, and in the back of our minds, there was something valuable about the whole thing. It took real effort and the results, while not always totally satisfying, were plain to us as we pulled them excitedly from the developers envelope. It was valuable because it took effort. I learned long ago that when things get to be too easy or you give someone something for free, they don’t value it. It just seems to be human nature that if there is not an investment, then there is no worth.
But more than that, how many of those trillions of photos that are taken each year will be around in 50 years? Some techie people say they will remain on servers and “in the cloud” forever. That may be, but if there are 10 billion photos of what the Eiffel Tower looked like in 2017 when viewing them in 2067, will any of them be interesting?

Something profound

There is something profound about holding an old photo in your hand, particularly if it is an original. Maybe I am strange, but I always think about who else held it before me, particularly right after it came from a photographer or a photo shop. A family photo from 1935 might have been handled and seen by my grandpa or even a great-grandparent who I never knew. And longing for more is part of it as well. I often wish that I had more photos of the farm I grew up on where my grandpa presided until my dad and his brothers took over in the early 1940s. The few photos I have are valuable to me. I even have wished I could travel back in time with my digital technology and take photos of that place through its length and its breadth. But if I could do that, would they be the same as the treasures that I hold in my hand when I go through that old box of photos in my filing cabinet? Probably not.
I actually still have some rolls of film that I took 30 years ago that have never been developed. I am not even sure what images are captured on them. I recently learned that that kind of film can often still be developed despite the warnings during the time I used them you should develop them right away. They are kind of a mystery, maybe one I will have solved one day. Or maybe one my kids or grand kids will solve it instead. Maybe I will leave it to them, just so they have that thrill of seeing photos their father or grandfather took that no one else has seen before.
While the proliferation of photography has reached new heights, I ask myself time and time again, will any of it, taken by the common person, ever really be meaningful again, or will it be like the static on a the radio band where no station broadcasts?
A lot of noise to be heard, but with no meaningful perspective?

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