It seems like a different age. Only twenty years ago, the process of taking, processing, printing and sharing a photograph would take weeks. Even longer if you wanted the sharing to be long term – ‘Can you send away for copies of that?’ You were sharing a final, physical version. Digital was a world away.
Now, it takes seconds, and you’re liable to be sharing your photos not just with friends, but with complete strangers. And you won’t just be taking photographs, you’ll be editing, altering, cropping and adding filters. You’re not just taking pictures to record a moment, you’re creating something new.
The digitisation of photography became possible in the 1980s with the creation of CDs, primarily as a way of storing photographs, but also as a way of handing them over, and emails, as a simple way of sharing with friends and colleagues. The sharing of photos and videos and other content to strangers came with the emergence of blogs. With the launch of Blogger (now owned by Google) in 1999, we all became publishers, creating our own words, pictures and videos for complete strangers to watch and read. That was the point at which the notion of sharing changed, when you didn’t need any kind of relationship with someone in order to show them what you’ve thought, done, or seen.
But the mechanics taking photos and videos changed everything. Once we all had access to the means of publishing content, all that was needed were imple ways of creating that content. You can traced that shift to 1997, when Phillipe Kahn sent the first picture via a mobile phone. Three years later, the first commercially available camera phone hit the market. By 1998, Nokia were the biggest producers of cameras in the world, as the cameraphone overtook the simple camera. Now, there’s well over a billion camera phones in the world – and the availability of 3G networks to over 3 billion people makes the connectivity ever greater.
More photos fed better sharing systems – the photo sharing site Snapfish launched in 2000 – and, of course, broader social media was not far behind: Flickr (which now houses over 6 billion images) and Facebook (where there’s now over 100 million photo uploads a day), both launched in 2004. Twitter (and Twitpic) were not far behind.
Those breakthroughs in social media, and the normalisation of the sharing process transformed the numbers of pictures uploaded to the web, and then started to alter the context in which that happened. Tagging (to explain content); geo-location (to explain geography) and meta-data (to expose the pictures to search engines) have made the pictures more accessible to wider and wider numbers of people. And that perhaps shifts the motivation of sharers. Whereas, in the days of printed photographs you might share only to close friends and family, with email you would share with work colleagues and with Facebook you’ll share with friends. But on Twitter, Foursquare, Flickr and the like, you’re sharing with complete strangers, often in different countries – and their interest is in the picture, not the photographer. The content is free form its creator, with only loosely agreed copyrights tying one to the other..
The separation of the photograph from any personal connection changes the motivation to share. It’s become less, perhaps, to show what events you bear witness to and begins to be one of impressing with creativity. That creativity can come with the quality of the photo (and so, the quality of the camera/phone) or the imagination can be layered on afterwards – with editing programs like Nokia’s PureView, or editing and retro-styling from the likes of Instagram and RetroCamera. The impact that can be made can be seen by anything from the high kitsch of the likes of Annie Ray to the lo-fi tech of the Photo Boof application.
And the recreation of the photo booth in programs like that takes us almost full circle, back to old school. The circle is completed with the journey back to photographs as physical, not digital, objects. Companies like Photobox offer cheap prints and calendars. Others, like Blurb and UbyU offer more stylised books and albums – the sort of photo albums we wish we’d had (but produced in vastly shorter timeframes), along with the canvases and wall prints – all of which allow us to share back where we were 20 years ago – with family and friends, in our own home.