Photography changes and democratizes visual expression

Steve Hoffenberg

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Steve Hoffenberg [ BIO ]

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Steve Hoffenberg

Steve Hoffenberg, director of consumer imaging research at Lyra Research Inc., is one of the world’s leading analysts covering digital imaging products and markets and has authored more than three hundred market research reports and articles. Lyra Research Inc. is a market research firm and trade publisher specializing in imaging industries.

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Steve Hoffenberg, director of consumer imaging research for Lyra Research Inc., tracks the startling growth in the number of images and image makers, worldwide.

For most of human existence, methods of visually representing the world were the province of a select few individuals. From cavemen in what is now southern France to the Dutch Old Masters, the creation of visual images was typically practiced only by those who possessed an acute eye for observation, in addition to refined manual dexterity and sufficient time on their hands to put charcoal and ochre to rock or oil paint to canvas. We’ll never know how many latent visual images—be they masterpieces or daubs—lay unmanifested in centuries of would-be creators’ minds for lack of physical skill or adequate spare time to record them. Compared to other forms of visual expression, the overarching way in which photography changes the world is that it dramatically simplifies and expands the creation and reproduction of images.

Mass market film photography, initiated by George Eastman in the late 1880s, enabled visual representation of the material world for nearly anyone with the modest means to afford camera and film. Thus began the first wave of the democratization of visual expression.

As camera and film technologies improved over the ensuing decades, film photography stripped away the need for dexterity much beyond the ability to push a button, and it pared down the creator’s time requirements to minutes or seconds, rather than the days, weeks, or months necessitated to produce traditional works of visual art. Soon, hundreds of millions of everyday people around the world were creating billions of visual images, peaking for film photography at about eighty billion consumer pictures being captured worldwide per year in the late 1990s.

The rise of consumer digital cameras, starting in the mid-1990s, further increased the numbers of images being captured. The increase was primarily due to the nature of the storage media—erasable and reusable digital memory cards—which freed consumers from worrying about “wasting” film. Although film and film processing were reasonably priced, consumers who used film cameras always felt the need to conserve their picture taking because every click of the shutter had an associated cost. In the digital environment, people could snap away to their heart’s content, consuming little more than rechargeable battery power, then just the delete the photos they didn’t want to keep. And with the advent of online photo sharing services and social networking web sites, people had more things to do with their pictures than just print them.

As digital cameras kept dropping in price, their penetration rapidly spread such that today, over two-thirds of the households in the major industrialized nations own at least one digital camera. And by Lyra Research’s estimates, the number of images captured by consumer digital cameras rose to approximately 200 billion worldwide in 2008.

As much as digital cameras dramatically changed photography from its film era, they have had little impact on who creates photographic images. On a global basis, people who purchase digital cameras are largely those who already owned film cameras, or in the case of younger owners, would have owned film cameras had not digital cameras come around.

The next level in the expansion of imaging, and the second wave in the democratization of visual expression, is due to camera phones, i.e. mobile phones with built-in digital camera modules.

Mobile phones leapfrogged over wired telephone infrastructure in emerging market countries, and embedded camera technology piggybacked onto the greater mobile phone phenomenon worldwide as people from all walks of life sought to enhance when, where, and how they communicate. In less than a decade since their widespread availability, the number of camera phones that have been produced now exceeds the total number of film cameras and digital cameras ever made in the entire history of photography.

In 2008, more than one and a half billion people worldwide used camera phones, and collectively, they took over 260 billion pictures, already exceeding the number of images captured by digital cameras that year. By the end of the next decade, about three billion people worldwide will have camera phones, and they will capture about one trillion images per year, truly staggering numbers that were unimaginable in the film photography era.

With the advent of film cameras, digital cameras, and now camera phones, photography has taken visual expression out of the exclusive realm of artists, and literally put it into the hands of the masses. That changes everything.

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Looking, by Karthick Ramalingam,  © Karthick Ramalingam
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Prehistoric paintings, Lascaux caves, France. Photo courtesy of Prof saxx, Wikimedia Commons.
  • Prehistoric paintings, Lascaux caves, France. Photo courtesy of Prof saxx, Wikimedia Commons.

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