Think of photographs and you think of images: photographs in newspapers, magazines and books; photographs on billboards; photographs in your family album, desk drawer or shoe-box; photographs on your parents’ piano; photographs on your driver’s license and passport; photographs as framed posters; photographs as expensive, handmade limited-edition signed original prints in galleries and museums, or perhaps even in your own personal art collection. Which is to say that when you think of photographs you also think of things. That makes sense, because until now photographers of all sorts-amateurs, professionals, applied, fine-art-have been object-makers as well as image-makers.
As a result, we’ve become accustomed to touching, holding, carrying and passing around various forms of actual photographs. Yet, as a result of digital evolution, we now face the imminent diminution of the presence of the photograph-as-object in our lives.
I do not see this as a crisis, but rather as a sea change. It will not happen overnight, but incrementally; it will not require an either/or choice, but will offer us a both/and option. What I’ll call “physical photographs” won’t disappear; they’ll gradually become scarcer, and their production will be increasingly restricted to specific purposes and occasions. As Marshall McLuhan proposed in regard to all supplanted media, their obsolescence will both archaize and estheticize them.
After all, the rendering of photographic images for more than a century and a half in the form of paper sheets coated with a semi-precious metal was not a master plan, simply the result of the fortuitous discovery that silver tarnishes. The reproduction of those images in ink on paper, and the manifold repercussions thereof (ecological, archival, industrial, economic, to name a few), similarly followed no map, just the path of least resistance. Perhaps 95 percent of the photographs with which we’ve engaged since 1839-news photos, recording photos (like the ones the insurance company takes of your jewels), studio portraits, family snapshots, advertising pix-took the form of physical objects not because that physicality was essential to their content or function but because we simply didn’t know how to encode, store, retrieve or transmit them otherwise.
Now we do, and many of those operations will be replaced by intangible, digital alternatives in the next few decades. Which is to say that in our lifetimes we will most likely cease to think automatically of photographs as things, and engage with more and more-perhaps most-of them as disembodied images and ideas.
What can we foresee in the immediate future? Photojournalism-where the rapidity of image transmission is a crucial factor-has already begun to go digital. So has much advertising, product, and editorial photography. Post-production uses of applied photography-periodical and book layout, the printing and publishing industries-rely increasingly on digital technologies, and our latest publishing medium, the World Wide Web, is entirely electronic. Digital cameras at consumerfriendly prices have begun to compete with analog cameras for the amateur market, and analog photographers who want to explore digital uses can either buy inexpensive scanners to hook up to their home computers or else use a service such as the one provided by Seattle Filmworks, which, in addition to developing your negatives or slides, will transfer them to a computer disk or CD (24-bit color, 768 x 512 resolution) for a mere $5.95 for 36 exposures.