A Roadmap Of Sorts

Monday, April 13th, 2009 - Nicholas Calcott

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.

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  • Ian Aleksander Adams
  • In regards to photo-a-day blogs, most of which don’t interest me as an observer, I’ve always thought that they served to create a practice space – a place where a photographer can keep track of their aesthetic leanings over time, force themselves to keep shooting (I don’t work this way, shooting in large bursts and then editing and writing for much longer periods), and later have a large database of imagery online to edit from.

    The editing, as you mentioned, is the most important part to me, but since the images are public it is no longer the domain of the original poster alone. The most wonderful thing about all of this is that you find new edits of people’s work relatively often now, even if it’s just in the form of a blog feature, a tumblr feed, or a myspace wall plastered with pictures someone liked.

    It’s always extremely interesting to me to see what edit someone comes up with from my archives, and likewise, I really enjoy going through someone’s website to make a concise body that I can then share with others.

    It’s great to have you back and blogging again!

  • peter
  • For a non-photographer who surfs the net, I really enjoyed the “essay” – “note” on the first digital camera. Having worked in Industry my professional life, I can picture the Board room when this scientist came in and the expressions on the Board members’ faces. Some were obviously worried for their future, others looked at the clunky camera and shook their heads that this was no competition.

  • Nicholas Calcott
  • Ian,

    Thanks for the warm regards – I’m glad to be back as well.

    As far as the photo-a-day blogs, yes, I think they can serve as a practice space – but frequently they are the end product. And I’m speaking here as a viewer of this kind of work. Yes, you do get some occasionally stunning photos, but I’d say that even on the best ones, the vast majority of the work presented is simply mediocre.

    I guess that’s really the problem – They aren’t edited stringently enough, though some editing clearly does occur.

  • Roman Babjak
  • hi,

    would be great to have you on twitter

    i like your blog


  • Ian Aleksander Adams
  • It would be great to have you not on twitter. hah. Not many things benefit from such short form writing, and no reason you can’t do it at a normal blog.

    You’re right about most photo a day feeds being mediocre. I guess I just encourage them in the hope that some evolve into more sophisticated usage of the medium.

  • Nicholas Calcott
  • Actually, twitter intrigues me… I’ll be writing on that later, though.

    I’m curious though, Ian – How do you see photo a day blogs evolving? I’m drawing a bit of a blank as to how they could change without becoming fundamentally different…

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