To better predict the future of both commercial and fine art photography, in the face of the recent major changes to capture and display, one must understand the past.

camera history-collection

Many professional photographers have been predicting the death of all the kinds of photography as a career ever since affordable digital cameras achieved both higher quality and lower price tags and thus began to replace film models in the mid 2000’s. Amateurs could learn by trial and error and never have to buy film again. Now that camera phones are in almost everyone’s pockets they will say that it is even worse. That is certainly true of the fine art market, especially in tourist destinations. Now a visitor can shoot an image of a landmark, upload a file, and have a print on paper, panel, or canvas waiting for them when they get home, if they even want to go that far. It is more likely that the image will be shared on social media and never get printed at all. These images may not be as good as what a trained artist with professional equipment might produce, but they will be good enough to convey the amateur’s experience. Why buy a print or a postcard at all?

Of course, what people forget is that all of this has happened before digital photography or even phone cameras ever came on the scene. During the latter half of the 19th century photography was generally accomplished with big, heavy, and expensive cameras using large and fragile glass plates for negatives. Exposure times were also fairly long and models had to pose as if for a sketch. It took until the late 1800’s for printing presses to be able to use the halftone process that would allow photos to sit next to text in a magazine, newspaper, catalog, etc. Kodak began using celluloid film in 1889 and introduced the Brownie in 1900. Leica created its first 35 mm camera in 1913 but an inconvenient world war got in the way of its production.

By 1925 the Leica 1 was on the market and became immediately popular. By 1934 Kodak had introduced the Retina I and the modern 35 mm film cartridge that is still in use today. The size, weight, and ease of use of early 20th century cameras undoubtedly did great damage to the portrait industry that had invested and relied on the earlier, larger cameras. Still, portrait artists did not vanish. They adapted to film, usually at larger format sizes, and had the darkroom experience to produce higher quality images than the average person would get from dropping pictures off to be developed and printed at some shop or trying to do it themselves.

The proliferation of higher quality film, better reproduction, and the realization within the advertising sector that photos were highly effective tools in the art of persuasion ensured that by the 1930’s photography would be the dominant form of advertising and editorial imagery in print. It was also in the 1930’s that Professor Harold Edgerton began his pioneering work in flash photography. Eventually his xenon filled strobe bulbs would completely replace disposable flash bulbs, as they had replaced flash powder. In many important ways, Edgerton is the father of all modern studio photography, especially when motion capture is involved. From a societal point of view, the camera changed the nature of our perception of our own reality. News photography boomed. There are books filled with vivid combat photography from World War II. Older technology prevented this in the Civil War and World War I.

Small 35 mm cameras also changed the nature of the subject matter that was captured by those outside of strictly commercial circles and thus their own visual vocabulary. Cameras could be brought on vacations and casual family pictures could be shot around the home instead of in the formal setting of a studio. Amateurs shot landscape images on a regular basis that had never been captured before. Fine Art photographers could try things that a big camera would never allow for, in terms of positioning. Rolleiflex’s innovation of the SLR, which allowed a view directly through the lens made accurate composition, especially at close distances, even easier. Companies like Contax and Exacta followed suit, but it was really Japanese Asahi, who later became Pentax, that popularized more affordable SLR’s in the 1950’s.

Later on, Canon, Nikon, and Yashica introduced their own models and the modern SLR became even more mass produced and affordable. Commercial photographers continued to use larger film sizes like 8x10, 5x7 and 4x5 in advertising work. Some of these bigger cameras had the ability to tilt and shift both the lens and receiver to eliminate distortion when shooting architectual photography or a subject in front of architectual and other difficult backgrounds. However it would mostly be the different widths of 120 size medium format film that would dominate in commercial work. Medium format was big enough compared to 35mm to create much richer and sharper images when enlarged to bigger sizes, like posters or oversized magazines. It was also just as easy to use as 35 mm film. The Germans made medium format cameras like the Hasselblad and Rolliflex models had great lenses. However the Japanese were soon nipping at their heels, again.

By the 1950’s improvements in printing had made color photography dominant, although it had made occasional appearances previously. After all, Kodachrome had been around since 1935 when it was created by two musicians named Leopold Godowsky, Jr., and Leopold Mannes, who worked with Kodak to perfect it. Kodachrome used three colors to reproduce the color spectrum; cyan, magenta, and yellow. Since the Eagle Printing Company had introduced the first CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) printing system in 1906 the two technologies were a great fit. It took a little work to create the black plate from the three film colors, but generally color fidelity was massively improved.

Mention should be made about the importance of the Polaroid company, instant photography, and how that allowed amateurs to get instant gratification. Pros could put a Polaroid back on their cameras and get a preview of how film would perform. However, I think you get my point. We have been here before with technology upsetting the status quo. Now when it comes to current commercial photography displayed on tiny phone screens and tablets does it matter anymore whether the image is shot with an iPhone or a high end digital SLR? I believe that the answer is yes and the history that I laid out defends my position. The more that people are bombarded with images, the tougher it is to stand out from the crowd. That is where professional lighting techniques, a controlled environment, sharp glass, a good camera sensor, and a good eye come into play.