Photography “now and then”

A recent graphic parodies photography “now” versus “then.” The graphic jokes that digital cameras (i.e. the smart phones we all have in our back pockets) allow us to take thousands of photos, but that we never actually look at any of them.


Regarding the graphic, Michael Zhang, founder and editor of the photo blog PetaPixel quips, “Instead of snapping and cherishing a precious handful of photos, people are now amassing troves of digital images that they may never lay eyes on ever again.”

There is certainly some truth to this.

On my own iPhone I currently have 2,905 images that were taken in the past two months alone. And of those images, many of them are slight variations of essentially the same event or scene: 50 photos of my kids at the pool, 20 photos of the dinner I made last night, 30 photos of a sunset, 400 photos from our trip to the coast. I am certainly not going to be able to process and remember all of the nearly 3,000 images on my phone, not to mention the millions more images stored on terabyte hard drives.

But I do actually look at my digital photos. In fact, I spend hours pouring over the photos on my phone and the photo galleries I have on Google’s Picasa. I consider the aesthetic value of my images and the images trigger the emotion of the captured scene. They document my life. And my images bring me great joy. And even though they are all backed up on my iCloud and MacBook and external hard drives, it sill pains me to delete them from my phone.

So while I may not lay eyes on every image again, they are very much an integral part of my daily activity.

Granted, I study images for a living, so I am perhaps more inclined than most to look at and value the thousands of digital images on my iPhone at any given time.

However, and this is the key point of the graphic, digital imagery has led to significant changes for both the individual and the collective in regard to how we define and experience photography.

Digital images come with many modern conveniences. They are easy to look at and store. At any moment I can pull out my phone to look at an image. And in a digital environment I can easily organize and archive and search images. They take up virtually no physical space, and I do not have to worry about them being damaged or lost in a physical sense.

In addition to being convenient to look at, they are easier to take. I used to worry about film and only having 24 exposures available. “Is this moment important enough to use for one of my 24 precious exposures?” On a digital camera, I can take as many images as I want, which allows for a freedom of experience and aesthetic.

Digital has altered our conception of a “photo.” A few days ago, my 5-year-old daughter and I were looking through a photo album (yes, I still have those, too), and she was referring to the physical pictures as “cards,” rather than “photos.” To her, a “photo” is this fleeting item on the screen of an iPhone or iPad. A “card” is something she can touch and hold. Our conceptualization of imagery is changing.

Digital photos have greatly altered the individual experience regarding the documentation of our lives.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents took a handful of photos at my birthday or at Christmas. And the entirety of that physical photo collection is now in a box at the top of my closet. My childhood is a collection of 500 dusty, wrinkled, and disorganized photos in a box. I take 500 photos of my own two children in an average month. And if the month happens to be Christmas or their birthday, that number is more like 1,000. In a digital age, we now have the liberty of a volume of images to document our lives.

But while I may have 1,000 digital images of my son’s most recent birthday, for example, I understand the value in a select few prized images that summarize that event for a larger audience. And these are the handful of images that find their way to my circle of family and friends via social media. And certainly this handful of images is more impactful for a larger audience than a collection of 1,000 photos could ever be. Indeed, I may be the only one who will ever look at those 1,000 birthday images again. But I will look at them. And for me, that volume of images holds profound value. I want to be able to look back six months from now, a year from now, five years from now, and 20 years from now and see and, thus, preserve the great detail of those fleeting, treasured moments.

Digital photography allows for a volume of images to be taken, looked at, and experienced. Although digital photography has been commonplace for nearly 20 years (and I certainly don’t claim that the points I’m making here are entirely new or original), we are still grappling with the changes brought about in the shift from film to digital. And these changes have significant effects for both the individual and the collective, in regard to how we define and experience photography.

Image credit: and


2 responses to “Photography “now and then”

  1. Thanks v. much for this essay, Nicole. It helps me think through what the heck I am doing carting three quart baggies of Tri X across Europe this summer. And this footnote: I decided to get one roll (36 precious exposures) developed in Vienna because my iPhone-attention-span did not want to wait until I returned to Oregon to see the images. The Austrian lab lost the roll. Saludos desde Segovia, PDL

  2. Pingback: Images of resilience: The case for visual restorative narrative | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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