What we can learn from the history of tech in photography [Episode 2]
Digital photos, smartphones, photo manipulation, AI… These are just some of the tech breakthroughs that have turned the world of photography on its head. Meero stands at the intersection between technology and photography. We often reflect on the history of these tech revolutions and how they were first perceived. As tech enthusiasts, we see these innovations as great opportunities. But we also know that big changes often come with their share of fears. Our teams wonder about the impact that these changes can have on professionals and the general public alike and strive to understand them from a historical perspective.
In this series of four episodes, we’re revisiting the big revolutions that changed the history of photography… and the many controversies they brought about. You can head here to read the first episode.
Episode 2: Digital Photography
121 million: that’s the number of point-and-shoot cameras shipped worldwide in 2011. That’s the year when sales numbers for compact digital cameras reached its peak.
Many of us fondly remember these small cameras and their sleek rectangular shape. Thin enough to fit in a pocket and be carried everywhere! The 2000s indisputably were a golden age for point-and-shoots… that’s of course before the rise of the smartphone in the early 2010s.
A mere decade was enough for digital cameras to turn the market of photography upside down, disturbing dynamics that had remained relatively stable for over a century. The first half of the 19th century was spent worrying about the effect photography might have on visual arts, but starting in 1880, companies started exploring the business potential of photography... A business potential that Kodak was the first to harness. The American company put the first consumer cameras on the market, effectively starting the era of amateur photography: an era where anyone can capture precious moments on film.
At the turn of the millennium, however, a new technological innovation pulled the breaks on their flourishing business.
The first episode of this series was dedicated to art. Let’s now take a closer look at the business side of photography...
The very first prototype
The year is 1975. Steve Sasson, a 23-year-old engineer, has just invented the camera that will ultimately disrupt the business model of his employer, Kodak. The giant of analog photography had hired him two years prior and commissioned him to explore the possibility of a new kind of computerized photography.
It’s an often-overlooked fact that Kodak invented the very first digital camera. Sure, Sasson’s prototype couldn’t be commercialized as-is: it was the size of a toaster and took more than 30 seconds to record an image on tape. But its technology heralded a major revolution: soon,amateur photographers wouldn’t need to buy film tape in order to take pictures.
And that was a cause for concern. Analog photography was known to be profitable. The cameras were a huge hit, and anyone who wanted to use them needed to buy film and then develop their photos in a patented studio… each and every one of these steps was a source of revenue.
There’s no such cycle for digital photography: except the price of the camera itself, the other sources of revenue are uncertain at best. The decision to keep Steve Sasson’s invention off the market was an easy one to take. This moment in the history of photography is a famous case study in the business world. New contenders soon appear, seducing the public with their new digital cameras. In 1999, a competitor launched the first point-and-shoot digital camera on the market.
All you can snap
But when it comes to digital photography, economics wasn’t the only cause for concern. Barely 150 years after the general outcry over the effect of the first camera on art, some proponents of art photography seem to see this innovation as a threat. If anyone is granted the possibility to easily snap pictures of everything they see, then artistic genius might soon be buried in a mass of mundane images.
Andrew Keen was among the thinkers who spoke out against what he called the cult of the amateur. His book was published in 2007, the golden age of Youtube, MySpace, and User Generated Content. All across the world, amateur photographers, musicians, and writers were sharing their work online. For Andrew Keen, these rookies threatened our culture by lowering the barrier to entry. Millions of wannabe photographers were snapping worthless pictures and spreading them online. And digital photography is to blame. It was suddenly possible to take hundreds of photos without thinking anything of it. No need to be sparing. Before that, each picture had a cost: the price of the film.
Others argue that this newfound abundance was a catalyst for artistic creativity. Beginners can train and become better photographers, revealing their hidden talents. Exercising their skills to make them accomplished artists.
Digital photography opened a new age for photojournalism too: reporters could do their job more freely. A BBC article mentions a reporter who went on a mission to Berlin in 1939 to cover nazi rallies with only eight plates allowing him to take eight photos… the kind of constraint that would be absolutely unfathomable for the modern journalist.
What about the rest of consumers? Those who don’t have any specific artistic aspirations or journalistic ambitions? Well, digital cameras gave them the possibility to capture life’s most precious moments.
The market of photo-sharing
Capturing life’s most precious moments: it’s on this simple premise that the market of photography was able to grow and prosper. Kodak is the company that embodied it best, popularizing the expression ‘Kodak Moments:’ moments to be cherished, remembered, and shared with loved ones.
The businessman Scott D. Anthony considers that giving more importance to the product (analog cameras) than to this original mission was the company’s biggest mistake.
He draws from his analysis a universal rule of business: companies should remain focused on their customers’ needs rather than on the products they know how to manufacture. Rather than promoting print photos against digital trends, the company should have realized that digital sharing was the new market it should be paying attention to.
Harvard professor Clayton Christensen describes a similar dynamic in his book The Innovator’s dilemma: successful companies are not likely to willingly disrupt the markets they are the leaders of, even though they have the means to forecast and develop new disruptive technologies.
That’s a lesson Kodak’s contenders should’ve been better at remembering. Their new digital point-and-shoot cameras won them market shares because they allowed users to quickly upload their photos to the internet, and share them. This was the root of their success… and it was also the reason why smartphones were able to triumph over them by concentrating all those features in the same device. Instead of trying to master this technology themselves, the creators of digital point-and-shoot cameras chose to resist it, notably by launching smear campaigns that aim at ridiculing smartphone photos. This resistance has proven to be in vain: digital-point-and-shoots were eclipsed by the promise of connected photography...
And if you want to learn about it, head to the third episode:
Claudia H. Deutsch, At Kodad, Some Old Things are New Again, The New York Times, 2008
James Estrin, Kodak’s First Digital Moment, The New York Times, Lens, 2015
Scott D. Anthony, Kodak’s Downfall Wasn’t About Technology, Harvard Business Review, 2015
Tom de Castella, Five Ways The Digital Camera Changed Us, BBC News Magazine, 2012
Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Harvard Business Review Press, 1997