The first digital camera, courtesy of Kodak’s PluggedIn blog
It took 23 seconds to record the digitized image to the cassette. The image was viewed by removing the cassette from the camera and placing it in a custom playback device. This playback device incorporated a cassette reader and a specially built frame store. This custom frame store received the data from the tape, interpolated the 100 captured lines to 400 lines, and generated a standard NTSC video signal, which was then sent to a television set.
The irony, of course, is that the company that first developed this technology has been almost entirely unable to capitalize on it. Steve Sasson, the engineer who helped develop the camera, apparently titled the internal demonstration “Film-less Photography,” which seems apt, but probably didn’t go a long way to convincing managers at Kodak to push forward with the ideas. The patent is publicly viewable, btw: U.S. patent #4,131,919.
What seems at first to be an interesting side note, but what is in fact quite central, is that upon completion of the camera, the engineering team snapped a picture of a female lab assistant who, the story goes, did not like the picture at all. And so, the first digital picture ever was promptly deleted, becoming the precursor to the trillions of images that now follow it into the digital ether, making room on cassettes, cards, whatever for the trillions more that followed.
Still, though, digital photography is not so very distant to film – to quote a recent interview with Paul Graham, who explains it quite nicely:
I find this a tedious issue. People make way too much out of the digital versus film. The challenges in photography—focus, crop, shutter, aperture, and of course the biggest ones of all, the ones that really matter: what you actually point the camera at, and with what intelligence you use it… are all still there, completely unchanged. So quite whether that camera records the information with a piece of celluloid or a piece of silicon is of little significance. Get over it. I doubt anyone can go to the MoMA exhibition and tell me 100 percent correctly which images are digital and which are film.
The inherent elements haven’t changed at all, but more importantly the way that the are distributed and our way of experiencing them is completely different (see here for an overview): A change that we as artists, are only now starting to take advantage of. There have been some examples – End Commercial, for one, which sought to theorize the urban environment visually, a process only possible with the billions of images digitally produced. Interestingly, Photosynth is constructing worlds the same way that end commercial was trying to deconstruct them and reveal their underlying architecture.
As deeply unserious as they may initially seem, street style sites like The Sartorialist or its more youthful counterpart Face Hunter are almost ideal examples of the type of photography unleashed by digital. Why try and sum something up in as few pictures as possible when there is an endless exhibition space online, with almost no cost associated with it whatsoever? They are online indices, each of a certain style, more complete than any book on the topic could ever be.
And yes, I suppose photo-a-day blogs are another example of what digital distribution has rendered not only possible but almost imperative. However, in their very attempts at artfullness, they present a contradiction – traditionally photography is as much about what you take out (editing, framing, etc) than it is what you leave in a picture – why limit yourself to one photo a day when you could post a billion that describe every detail that passes in front of you; or, conversely, why describe every day of your existence when you could pick 10 that sum up everything essential about it?
These are two reactions to the digital world; a grand picture or pictures which sums up something essential, like a Gursky or a Wall, or an avalanche of images shot quickly and with apparent lack of artfulness, like the prolific outputs of Terry Richardson and the contemporary snapshot aesthetic, and the billion kids with cameras taking ‘party photos.’ There is, too, an interesting techno-spirituality showing up in art online, but that I’ll save for another post.
Oh, and I will just say that this post and others like it are an attempt to formulate some kind of an understanding of how, exactly, photography is changed by its place online. I highly encourage you to argue with me, vehemently, if you so desire.