Photographs and Memories

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 6 April 2004

The cameraphone represents the latest step in a long evolution away from elevating and preserving moments, to capturing and disposing of them.

Like everyone else on this side of the financially solvent and technology proficient divide, I’m pleased as punch to have a digital camera on my new Sony Ericsson cell phone. Not that I’ve even got a working access contract for it, but I’m already looking forward to the way it will replace the Canon Digital Elph that I once considered so very portable.

Of course, it was still the multi-megapixel Elph I ran outside with this morning when I heard the bang. Our otherwise quiet Brooklyn street was the scene of a major car accident, in which a top-heavy pickup truck did a flip onto a parked sedan. Everyone else there was using their little cell phone cameras, which made me feel almost like a professional photographer by comparison. Sure, they were capturing the gist of the scene, but I was documenting the event. For posterity. That is, if anyone cared.

Our evolution from digital cameras to camera phones, as underscored last week by Sony Ericsson president Katsumi Ihara’s admission that Sony has already ceded the low-end digital camera market to camera phones, marks just the latest in a series of steps that threaten not only the photography industry, but the way in which we relate to images, the memories they evoke, and perhaps even history itself.

I’m old enough to have evolved, myself, from the Twin Lens Reflex camera, through the 35mm SLR era, and onto progressively lower resolution digital photography tools. At each step along the way, the amount of time, energy, and money required to make a photo went down. And with it, so did the quality of my photographs, and the value I associated with each one.

My old Yashica-A (that I just handed off to the repair shop in a fit of nostalgia provoked by this piece) required me to open its top and look down into it. It was a big square bulky thing, and it took a bit of time to compose, focus, and then set f-stops and exposure time for its shots. But the portraits and landscapes it managed to capture on that fat, hand-rolled spool of 120mm film were brilliant. What I lost in time and money was more than compensated by depth of field. Each photo I took on that old camera had memory and meaning invested in it. Each print had object value. As Kodak understood so well, these pictures were “moments.” Events that might otherwise pass us by were captured forever on emulsion.

And as I went from the Yashica into the world of 35mm cartridges and autofocus lenses, and eventually to the digital universe of the Elph, the time-shifting power of photography seemed to diminish.

So when aficionados of the cameraphone equate its new popularity with the pop cultural status of the Kodak Brownie in the 1960’s, I have to pause. While the Brownie did bring inexpensive photography to the masses, it brought it as a hobby - as something to do intentionally. Kids would go out with the Brownie and take pictures, for their own sake.

The cameraphone is terrific in that it gives us the ability to snag a photo whenever we want, even if we never carried a camera around, before. They certainly don’t cost us anything in weight, and given how we already keep our phones in the most accessible pockets we’ve got, it costs us almost nothing in time to click off a few shots. And here we are passing digital photos around to one another like they were email signatures - moblogging them onto our websites or just passing our phones physically around our classrooms and workplaces to share the accident or sexy person we happened to capture.

But that’s just the point: it’s the photo we happened to capture. Instead of elevating the events in our lives to “memories,” as we did in the Kodak era, we are simply grabbing some visual data points or a momentary sensation. The intentionality is gone. And unless the image is spectacular (not in execution, but in its content) we’ll trash it without printing. Who can be bothered filing all those little jpegs?

As if to prove the tidal shift away from photographing memories, Dow Jones last week booted Kodak from its Industrial Average (along with AT&T and International Paper). And before Kodak can even catch its breath and go digital, the company will have to contend with the fact that 84 million cameraphones were sold in 2003, close to double the sales of standalone digital cameras. While Kodak can certainly work to break into the cameraphone market, too, they’re working against their core brand proposition in the process.

As photography becomes less time-consuming, less crafted, less intentional, and less expressed through physically realized artifacts, it will lose its ability to elevate the moments and subjects its captures. Just as monarchs established their nobility through time-consuming portraiture (for which they, themselves, were required to sit), people with film cameras could sanctify their loved ones, and - perhaps more importantly - measure and even control the passage of time by subjecting the moment to a carefully organized and meticulously processed exposure.

The immense popularity of the cameraphone may ultimately signal - like the ascendance of reality TV - a victory of content over art, or message over medium. Sure, we’ll get a whole lot more well-documented car crashes. But our experience of photography may be reduced from moments of inspired awe to ephemeral voyeuristic gaping.