A lot people all over the place keep talking about the digital photography revolution and the fact that we are in the middle of a major shift, at the beginning of something grand and new. I have been thinking long and hard and I have come to a different conclusion. I have a number of friends who are professional musicians, mostly classical. And when looking at their art and their way of working, I find a lot of parallels to photography. First and foremost, there are instruments and there are ways to record, store and reproduce music.
In this post by Digital Photography I am mainly referring to digital cameras, mostly because digital photography in the sense of digitally manipulating images has been around for a quite long time (Adobe Photoshop was first released in 1990).
Most importantly, with the advent of digital cameras there is no new instrument producing images. There is just a new way of recording images using a light-sensitive sensor and magnetic storage media instead of film. However if you think about it a little more, the way of recording something has limited impact on the end product, the photograph.
If you compare the rise of 35mm photography about 70-80 years ago, enabling handheld picture taking, or the emergence of colour photography to the change to digital you will find that those were truly new instruments and enabled a new visual language that simply was not available before. Digital photography does not have that property at all. We are still photographing the way we did before, we are just recording, storing and reproducing differently. Like variable contrast paper in the darkroom (as opposed to graded paper) or the use of film instead of glass plates, this new tool facilitates producing the result and does this in a very versatile manner, but fundamentally does not go beyond what was achievable before, even though it took more effort to achieve it.
Thinking about it more the actual revolutionary aspect of digital photography lies predominantly in the network. The emergence of the Internet coincided with development of digital cameras and for me is the real catalyst behind digital photography. However, the network is the result of the “internet revolution”, and not due to the emergence of digital photography. This timing is coincidental and an enormous promoter of digital photography. Digital photography exploits the network, and does so very well, which is justified and an exciting step forward. The network is to photography (and naturally the written word) a repeat of the invention of the printing press, which -to go back to the initial thought of the instrument vs. the recorder- did not produce better literature. Record, store and reproduce.
Which leads to another interesting observation: the benefits of digital photography without the network are surprisingly few. On a high level they are instant review, ease of editing/manipulation and perhaps selective printing. All of these aspects were already available, albeit requiring more effort and included limitations. The major change lies in distribution and communication which are all owed to the network and the overall “digital revolution”, which as we said above occurred independently. At the moment I do not believe that digital photography has ground-breakingly changed photography, even though many seem to think differently. It is mainly make believe. There is no reason to feel that one is missing out on opportunities to create images when not using a digital camera. All that’s different is how the image is created in the box.