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Life through a Digital Lens: The Evolution of Photography

Camera Selfie

Recent developments in digital technology have rapidly and unalterably changed the course of photography. With huge numbers of the world’s population now possessing smart phones, we constantly carry around a tool that allows us to both take and consume photographs 24/7. This has in turn shaped the way that we see and understand the role of photography in the age of digital technology. It also shapes our tastes and preferences for the pictures we take, and the ones we look at.

A brief history

George Orwell once wrote that ‘who controls the past controls the present, and who controls the present controls the future’. This is a good quote to think about when you want to try and predict where an idea or artistic medium might be heading. In order to make informed observations about the future of photography, it is important to understand both its past and present conditions.

The first recognizable type of camera as we know it produced the Daguerreotype. This came from a productive collaboration between Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre in the 17th century. Each picture had to be exposed to the light for 15 minutes, so the subject would pose for this amount of time. This was the forerunner to traditional film. The development of emulsion plates brought the exposure times down to around 2 or 3 seconds, before being superseded by Dry Plates in the 1870s. These allowed cameras to become hand held, and the first camera with a mechanical shutter was born.

Vintage Kodak

In the 1800s George Eastman developed a flexible roll film and founded his iconic company Kodak. Small cameras were created that were relatively inexpensive and able to hold the rolls, which needed to be sent back to his factory to be developed into photos. In the 1930s, 35mm film cameras were widespread, and photography shifted from staged portraits to action shots and scenes of the world as it was happening. Polaroid also released cameras that produced instant images. Digital cameras emerged in the 1980s and 1990s and the rest, as they say, is history.

Photography has surged in popularity and accessibility

With the proliferation of the smartphone and photography based social media channels such as instagram, the audience and demand for photography has risen to massive proportions. This is a trend that will only continue to grow as we move into the future.

Andy Warhol was fascinated with photography, celebrity and image. His prints repeat simple images and mirror the widespread methods of reproduction that go into magazines and advertising. He understood all these processes very well, having begun his career as a fashion illustrator and rising to become a huge celebrity artist. He used photographs to produce many of his artworks and famously talked about everyone in the future having their own personal 15 minutes of fame. Looking back in hindsight, through the filters of Instagram and flickr, he wasn’t that far off the mark.

The pace of life has increased, and photography can keep up

Photographs are now part of everyday life, and photography itself has managed to progess technically to keep up with the accelerating pace of modern life. We couldn’t possibly imagine having to hold a pose for 15 minutes, as was the practice for taking a Daguerreotype, when most people take a selfie in less than a second. Photographs are taken and posted online instantly, and the whole process is reduced to minimal time scale.

Instagram

How has this has affected our tastes

This massive shift in the way that photographs are taken, and photography is consumed and understood, has deep implications on our tastes and preferences. Fine Art Photography has never had a bigger audience, and it a relevant and appropriate medium for the contemporary world. This makes it a great time to invest in both photography and painting, as the two are inextricably linked and their value will increase over time.

There are many artists exploring this rapid change in the way photography affects our lives. Richard Prince, an American Artist, recently exhibited a controversial gallery show that consisted entirely of Instagram pictures taken from other people’s accounts without their permission. He wrote a few comments to each person then printed out each photo on a large scale, complete with his dialogue with each Instagram user, and hung the photo in his gallery show. Many sold for $100,000, and the show caused a huge outrage in the press. Prince did nothing illegal, his work examines the way we look at privacy and ownership, as it has done his entire career, but instead of raising issues around these topics, the majority of journalists chose to steer the debate toward the outrage that an instagram photograph could possibly sell for $100,000.

Photographs edit and manipulate life

When we look at a painting, we understand the artwork as an impression of something else. A painted figure is merely a collection of coloured materials arranged in a certain way on a canvas. It is the talent of the Artist that can transform this arrangement of brushstrokes and marks into a scene that captures our attention and transports us into another time, place and world. As Picasso said ‘There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun’.

Photography operates in much the same way. Against our better judgment, we often take photographs as literal representations of the word around us, they aren’t. They are impressions the same way that paintings are. Most digital photography is manipulated and edited. Filters, specific lighting, careful digital retouching and a whole host of other techniques prepare photographs for the wider world.

This gives artists working with photography, such as Matthew Carden, Paul Coghlin and Harry Benson, huge creative scope for capturing and producing breathtaking artworks that record the world around us in their own distinctive style. The future of digital photography is unclear, but undoubtedly exciting.

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