No one is really sure on the numbers, but it was recently estimated that of all the pictures ever taken around the world over the last 200 years, fifty percent of them were shot last year. This is not so surprising when you consider that there are 1.5 billion smart phones in use today each with a digital camera built in. Over 200,000 pictures are uploaded to face book every minute of every day.
Standing on my desk is a silver frame that houses a small black and white grainy photograph that I took of my long departed mother on the beach in Tramore, Ireland nearly 50 years ago. Every day that I look at it the more distant, the more faded it looks. I took the picture and presumably 11 others on a cheap box brownie camera, although what they were of and where those others are is lost to history.
I have less than half a dozen pictures of my older family, whereas I have countless hundreds of my new family whom I see every day. We used to keep our pictures in albums – like stamp collections. Today, we keep our pictures on memory sticks. Perhaps they should be called History sticks. A vast proportion of photographs taken today are hardly looked at.
This is of course a result of the digital camera where it costs nothing to press the button and take yet one more image. This trend actually started before digital when people were still using rolls of film. I would have taken that roll of 120 film with the picture of my mother on it, into the local chemist shop and I would collect the results a week later, often accompanied by some thwarted expectations as to the results. The domestic camera, ever evolving, ended its days as the “disposable camera” After firing off 36 pictures one would take the whole camera to any shop on any street that might have a minilab out the back and collect the prints in the time it takes a Starbucks Barista to make a latte.
I have been to weddings where at each place setting was a disposable camera so that everyone could do their own versions of the wedding pictures to be gathered up by the family to go into the wedding album. In Japan I saw the pinnacle of the throw away image. You cannot go out eating and drinking in that country without the whole occasion being documented with countless group photographs in which everyone is making the two fingered peace signs at the camera. At one such gathering someone put a disposable camera in the middle of the table. When anyone proposed a toast with a lofty glass of beer or Saki, everyone else would shout Kampai!! (Cheers in Japanese) and the camera would swivel on a little turntable towards the loudest noise and take a picture. On rowdy nights the film didn’t last very long. This devise was known as the Kampai Kamera.
When historians look back on this digital generation they will remark on the phenomenon called the “Selfie”. David Bailey thought that he probably took the first “Selfie” of him and Andy Warhol lying in a bed in the 1970’s. But the “Selfie” really predates that picture. Here we can see some old gentlemen on the roof of the Marconi Building in New York in 1921 using a full plate camera that would have demanded a half second expose doing a “selfie”
The modern “selfie” is meant to be seen, mainly by those in it and then by whomever they tweet it to or Facebook it. In this year two “Selfies” became see by most of the world’s population within minutes of them being taken. The first was Obama with David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt, which drew criticism partly for it being done at Mandela’s memorial service but mostly because they were politicians and everybody hates them at the moment.
This global viewing was soon dwarfed at the Oscars when Ellen DeGeneares wrangled a bunch of “A” list stars and did the famous “Selfie” that had circled the globe before breakfast, being re-tweeted over 3 million within a day.
When I was on holiday in Ireland all those years ago I had to wait a lifetime to see my pictures. It was like that for generations, although the waiting period was reducing all the time; so that by the demise of roll film, you could get your prints in under an hour. During my life time there was brief period when instant photography became available in the form of the Polaroid instant camera. Press the shutter and immediately a sheet of film would roll out of the camera and we could watch the blank page slowly reveal the image. Often you would just hand the subject the picture to keep.
Today we have Instagram – an electronic polaroid camera on your phone. Instead of handing a print to your subject, by means of the elelctronics, you can hand that picture to the world.
If, between the early 1930s and the late 1980s, you happened to be on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin you might have had your picture taken by Arthur Fields a seasoned Street Photographer who would snap anyone within earshot. When they wandered back curious, he would then take their real picture. He would hand them a ticket, and if they wanted to, they could collect a print from the office where his wife would process the films. After she died he got a Polaroid camera, the Instagram of its day. Walking across the bridge one afternoon with a friend Arthur Field took our picture. We stood with him as he watched the agonisingly slow image appear. As the colours filled out he beamed a huge toothy smile and shouted “Ah – will ya look at that – it’s a Topper!”
Probably no man in history has stood so long on that bridge as did Arthur Fields, and during that five decades when he was there 365 days a year he took over 182,000 photographs of strangers who he would never meet again. Perhaps for a brief time the pictures were souvenirs of a well loved holiday or a snatched day out, and then became lost in a draw somewhere, having faded in the memory until one day a grandchild might uncover them in a box and staring into those bright happy faces wondering where they were snapped. They might remark that Grandma looks so young not realising that’s because it’s an old photograph.
Passing by Arthur Fields on the bridge the next day, he was holding a freshly taken Polaroid print with two young female back packers. Each side of him they stood excited and delighted at their images slowly cooking up before their eyes. “Ah will ya look at that!” Arthur said as though for the first time, “It’s a topper!”