In 2023 cameras seem to be everywhere in the surrounding social landscape and nearly everyone seems to have a way to record still photos and often short videos, too. The devices are found in dashcams, drones, security poles, doorbells, cellphones, not to forget the camera-camera (stand-alone, purpose-built devices to capture visual images). There are even a few vintage film cameras in use among enthusiasts and people clinging to the non-digital way of making photographs. By some estimates the number of images filling one person’s environment on a given day amounts of tens of thousands. Before digital recording, reproduction and distribution in myriad forms and contexts, there was also a lot of visual information bombarding potential consumers of products or services. But before widely available cameras and (print) distribution the average person saw pictures only intermittently as framed painting or a print at pub or in one’s own dwelling, possibly mounted on walls and signboards in urban centers, and for those with books or for library users, there were visual representations there after Gutenberg’s printing press made mass publication practical. All this leads back to the subject of cameras and what a marvel they really are.
Before a method of recording an image focused and inverted by a ground glass lens, most people encountered optical technology in the form of spyglass (sea captains), eyeglasses or monocle, (magnifying) hand glass, or loupe (geologists, jewellers). Later came microscopes and telescopes. Artists could use the camera obscura (“dim room”) to trace their composition with precision before attending to texture, color, and shadow effects by hand and eye. But when a chemical means of recording and preserving an image on metal, glass, and eventually paper started in the 1830s, then visual literacy took a great leap forward. And when consumer-level film magazine cameras (e.g. 100 shots to send for processing) became affordable, then the number of images taken per day increased rapidly.
Cameras grew more diverse and smaller. In the mid-1900s there were amateurs and professionals using half-frame 35mm film (2-shots per normal frame) to 6x9cm to 4x5” to 8x10” sheet film. Some of these are still in use in 2023 as hobby pursuits. But after the wave of SLR (single-lens reflex: focus through the lens, click to lift mirror and expose the film) cameras sold and resold from 1975 to 2005, it was digital photography and particularly camera apps bundled into cellphones that produced the greatest number of amateur and professional images recorded and often also shared, sometimes in printout or (printed and electronic) publication, but mainly “as is” in native digital form — very often never to take tangible, physical form.
Getting back to the marvel of images as miniature representations of reality, there is an optical wonder and a psychological wonder involved. The idea of portable miniatures long has appealed to lovers of pictures: cameos, lockets, tiny paintings and (souvenir) prints — later also picture postcards. Collectors of baseball cards and other image-based trading pictures also know this love of holding and owning a small version of a beloved subject. In some societies, such as Japan, for example, there is a delight in things either shrunk or made in gigantic scale. That may be one reason that optics in Japan became such a big investment and later a huge market share of popular and professional recording technology. So the ability to capture a piece of a place and time is a powerful psychological part of the urge to snap pictures for business or pleasure.
Observing a notable natural or cultural attraction, many visitors will stop to take selfie or standard composition of the subject — with or without imagination, possibly to share with others or to chronicle one’s itinerary, or maybe also as a confirmation of having arrived at the appointed goal: seeing the destination in the viewfinder but not stopping to take in the context and the moment with fellow visitors or all on one’s own. In other words, cellphone users of camera apps (but also camera-camera users) may be so conditioned to respond first by reaching for their digital device that they fail to see the subject in some other experiential way: its history, its neighboring setting, its emotional response for self or among local people, and so on. Such things are the psychology of wondrous cameras within easy reach.
As for the optical wonder of cameras, this too often is overlooked. Because cameras are present from waking to going to bed at night, seeing others snap pictures or doing so oneself attracts little concern or interest unless it is an old-style (bellows) camera or a high-end professional sized digital SLR. However, certain locations are becoming more clearly defined in what may and may not be permitted: some religious organizations post “no cameras” and hot springs resorts post “no recording devices,” for example. Even some libraries around Japan put posted warnings not to take pictures of materials or interior spaces. What you photograph after checking out the book is out of their control, of course. So freely do ordinary people snap pictures, that to encounter a spoken or written warning that restricts (digital) recording seems somehow feels as if one’s liberties are infringed upon; as if anything a person sees or hears should be allowed to photograph or video record.
Court cases arise to refine the rules about what constitutes “public space” and “free speech” that is allowed in one’s exercise of taking pictures. And the time frame for copyright protection is periodically reviewed to know how old a publication and its images must be before entering the free-use, public domain. When business and profit is part of the picture-taking then court cases touch upon signed rights and contracts versus implied (tacit) ones. Some city locations in USA, for example, have posted notices to people using a famous skyline or recognizable location as background to an advertisement or film production, for instance: permission must be applied for and fees paid for anything beyond personal use. In museums and galleries, too, there are rules about type of camera, use of flash (lighting) and tripod, intended purpose of pictures, and so on. Normally, personal use with no light damage to exhibits, no inconvenience to fellow visitors and no risk of tripping on tripod or monopod determines what is allowed.
Given the evolving photographic environment of permissions, uses, ownership and so on, the ever present camera in many people’s lives at work, school, or at home, along with the flood of images bombarding a person’s screens and surroundings, it is easy to take for granted the optical wonder of image-making. Leaving aside the pure delight of precise and miniaturized visual stimulation and the accompanying psychology of capturing, collecting, or owning an image (likeness) of the subject, there is the brute fact of engineering. To a person before 1850 or 1860 there was some experience of portraits and art galleries public and private, but as more photographically made pictures were produced and displayed, more and more people could gawk at the lifelike frozen image in all its detail and its ability to defy time’s passage. Exotic places and even ones closer to home but beyond one’s ability to see in person now could be communicated visually, almost like being there in person. Since people in 2023 now see oceans of imagery every day, it is worth stopping just for a moment — a frozen moment, perhaps — to give thanks for the way that light is bent by curved glass surface to focus on a plane where the film or electronic light sensor records the image.
It is miraculous how light waves and photons can enter a set of lenses corrected for color aberration, corner distortion, and so on and the photographer arrive at the best exposure for the framed composition to record what the camera (and by extension the mind’s eye of the photographer) sees. A person seeing a photograph (or maybe a camera, instant-camera or otherwise) for the first time must be stunned at the lifelike look; as if a copy of the subjects now existed in small size, something like a death-mask except for the living, something like an icon or idol, or something like a voodu figure reproduced, perhaps, and thereby a source of anxiety.
When the per image cost of recording pictures (and video) is negligible, the question arises of what to do with all those pictures on the old cellphone when upgrading to a new model. In the long history of families and whole societies, perhaps all sorts of visual treasures will remain buried in the silicon memories of old cellphones, never to be viewed or searched again; tantalyzingly existing (somewhere) but no longer viewable (now and in future years). Some images may end up in social media and captured there by webcrawlers that record the Internet at various intervals. And other images may have been voluntarily uploaded to Archive.org or Wikimedia.org and tagged for others to discover. But for every one of these long-lasting, searchable pictures, there are maybe 10,000 or more that can only be seen by the person holding the cellphone or camera.
All in all, the abundance of images, the ubiquity of cameras and camera apps, and the culture of freely snapping and sharing images has visually enriched and expanded the quality of life and awareness for many people in 2023. Even in this surfeit of visual information it is still possible to encounter images that cause one to stop and stare, scrutinize, or feel wonder about. But beneath that daily reality of an overstimulated visual cortex, the essential wondrous optical and psychological qualities of cameras gets overlooked. So now let us stop and give thanks for the miniature frozen moments we can make with deliberateness or take spontaneously, either for future use or merely to make the occasion seem more significant and therefore real.