Tuesday, November 27, 2018

So. Many. Pictures!!!

It's probably been written about so many times that these articles are actually tailing off. I am pretty sure I have taken a swing at it a time or two myself, and probably said some dumb things.

As everyone knows, a billion or a trillion or a godzillion photos are uploaded to the internet every minute or day or year or something. So many photographs. It must mean something, it must have some impact! Usually people say that it's causing us to devalue photographs in some sense, because we are so very very awash in them.

Except, here is the interesting thing. We are not awash in these pictures. Depending on your habits, you might see 10, 100, maybe 1000 of these photos uploaded by the phone-waving unwashed masses. A billion photos are uploaded, but you are not looking at a billion photographs. One photograph of the Duchess of Cambridge gets viewed a billion times. Your photograph of a cat is viewed 10 times. A billion photos of cats has, from the consumption side, the same weight as 10 photographs of Kate.

My personal consumption of photographs is, like everyone else, almost entirely mainstream media: ads, entertainment, news. These are thrust at me a dozen at a time, every few seconds that I spend online. Only when I go to social media do I see anything from the much-talked-up billions, and then at a remarkably slower rate. Even a devoted instagram-scroller is consuming a 1 photo every couple of seconds. At 10 hours a day, this insane slob is consuming 18,000 photos from the billions.

Flip through a print magazine, and you'll get, I dunno, a couple hundred pictures. Flip through a news web site, at this very moment there are something like 60 photos on the front page of cnn.com. If you're like me, you're seeing a few thousand photos a day. Mostly mainstream media, a few Serious Photographs (I usually have a photo book or something lying around for a bit of a read for a few minutes here and there during the day), and a few hundred of the social-media photo storm. If you broke every phone camera on earth at this very second, my consumption of photographs tomorrow would remain numerically much the same, and probably a little bit more pleasant.

No, the substantive change is not on the consumption side. There is no "devaluing" of photographs because we're exposed to so many of them. There isn't even any substantial extra exposure to photos.

The substantive change is on the production side. It is not that we look at more pictures, but that we take more pictures. In the 1970s there were sold a few million cameras a year. There might have been in 1980, I dunno, if we're generous, 100 million people with the capacity to take a photograph, or about 1 person in 50 on earth, about 2%. Now there are something like 70% of all humans own a cell phone, which means that not only can they take a photograph, they can probably upload it to somewhere. Even if we restrict ourselves to active Facebook users, it's something like 25% of the world's population.

It feels like the change from 2% photographers to 25% photographers is a lot more significant than a change from seeing 2000 photos to seeing 2200 photos per day.

What does that mean, though? Something to ponder.


  1. Clearly you're right about the consumption side: personally, I never visit social-media sites, and spend most of my screen time making my own work, so I'm practically a photo-vegan, but I appreciate that's not typical. I think the massive shift in "production" does affect us all, however, even if the end results are ephemeral, and even if we never see more than a homeopathic sample of it, because it determines what sort of "camera device" is produced by the manufacturers to create what sort of "photographic image". The bizarre obsession with "bokeh", say, and your earlier point about AI are significant in this regard: you or I may not want either, but by god we're gonna get 'em...

    You might be just a touch too young to recall the glory days of MS-DOS, when every new application had its own UI and vocabulary. It was both fun and frustrating. The original WordPerfect, for example, was quirky but perfectly functional: you learned to use it, as you might learn to play the lute or sackbutt. Then Windows and the Mac turned everything into a (piano) keyboard: efficient, portable (the software, not the piano), platform-independent (ditto), but soullessly similar. The same has happened and will continue to happen to cameras and phones: the convergence both drives and is driven by the homogenising pressure of mass markets.

    It is often said that the heyday of "art" monochrome film, the medium of choice of a tiny minority, was only made possible by the mass market for colour snaps. Without film, without bottled chemistry, you can at least fall back on "alt processes" and mixing your own. AFAIK, there's no equivalent for digital, so I guess we'll just have to learn to like and use whatever the gazillion selfie-snappers want, or are presumed to want. I'm OK with that -- it's been pretty good so far -- so long as AI *doesn't* continually turn my pictures into heaps of kittehs with bokeh!


  2. That is very ponderable...

    Is there a parallel to writing? There's more being written today too than ever before in human history, but the amount any one person can read in a day is not going up significantly.

    I see some parallels to photography. Other things being equal, the chance that your new book will be the one that someone reads today is low because there are so many books that person could be reading. Similarly, the chance that your photograph is seen today is microscopically small because of the billions of others ones that were made today.

    But is this really so different from the pre-digital era? I actually thought there was a difference in kind, but maybe it's just a difference in degree. Fifty years ago, the number of prints made was tiny compared to today, but the chance of any one person seeing a new photograph was still very small because most of those prints were physically inaccessible. It's not that different from photography today in that respect. As you correctly point out, most of the billions of photos that are uploaded to the Internet today are effectively inaccessible to me (e.g., on Facebook pages and I don't use Facebook, or on some random web site I'll never visit).

  3. If you segmented the different markets for photography it might make more sense. Commercial photography will only grow with the economy. Art photography will only grow as the consumer base for it grows, which is linked to the economy as the consumers need the disposable income to consume it. What will grow unchecked is photos of nothing much in particular. This where the value shifts from the photographer to the ISPs providing the bandwidth to punt the data around the globe. To them more users means more ads means more photography means more photographers means more jobs means more disposal income to perhaps spend on more art photography?

  4. It might be interesting to find out if the online photo galleries of photography museums are being viewed more now than in the past.