Photographs: Are there too many?

By Edward Taylor |

The first photograph was taken in 1826, but it doesn’t look like the last one will be taken anytime soon. Originally, photography was a craft for only a few. It took an expensive, unwieldy camera, a darkroom, and a good bit of time to make even one photograph. Then, Kodak made the Brownie Camera – “You press the button. We do the rest” was their slogan – and photography became a popular pastime. When photographs of childrencameras got smaller, and we started using 35mm film in them, photography really took off. It seemed that from 1940 to 2000, everything that could be photographed was photographed on film. Then digital came along, but there was nothing left to photograph, right? Well, not exactly.

This year, it is estimated that four trillion photographs will be taken. Every few months, we take more digital photographs than were taken in the entire 150-year history of film. Why is that? Well, there are way more people in the world, and way more people with cameras. The most popular camera in the world right now is actually our phone, so we always have a camera with us. And with a phone, we just press the button; it does the rest. Individual photos are now free, whereas before film had to be bought, developed and printed at considerable cost. Now, we don’t even need prints. We can look at our photos on our phones. And at least half of all digital photos are shared on the internet. In addition to this, a roll of 35mm film only took 24 or 36 photos. Our phones and cameras can take thousands in just an afternoon.

Traditionally, photos have been used to create art, to document events and to preserve memories. But now, they are used just as a way to enhance communication. Most images that are uploaded have no real artistic value and do not preserve memories. They are transient and expected to be quickly forgotten. They are just part of a fleeting conversation – a communication aid to show what we had to eat or what our makeup looked like. A picture is, apparently, still worth a thousand words.

To put all this in perspective, if an average adult, say 35 years old, with a life expectancy of about 80 years looked at photos online for just one second each, and did this 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for the rest of his life, he would not live long enough to view all the photos that will be uploaded only to Facebook today. Yes, a single day of Facebook uploads represents 350 to 400 million photos, or 4,000 photos per second. And it gets even worse. 8,796 photos per second are uploaded to Snapchat, and Whatsapp isn’t photographs of grandchildrenfar behind with 8,102.

So, even though most photos today are relatively meaningless illustrations, that doesn’t mean that no one is creating art or preserving memories.

A quick look at Instagram or any photo site will reveal that the photos uploaded are not all just communication aids or quick snapshots. There are millions of photos that rival some of the best photographic artwork out there. Even professional photographers (a dwindling breed) must come to grips with the fact that there are thousands of amateurs with cameras who can take photos that are every bit as good as the ones the pros are capable of taking.

Since we upload trillions of pictures of just about everything imaginable, and can find a photo of virtually anything online, is there a point to taking any more? Could there be too many photographs already? Well, maybe. But we do like to take our own photos. It’s fun, and now it’s essentially free.

I suspect we will continue to use photos to communicate better and we will take even more photos of things that have been photographed billions of times before, such as the Eiffel Tower or The Washington Monument; but it turns out that the photos that we end up cherishing most are the ones that include the people we value most – our friends and families. In other words, the best photos, whether on film or digital, are the ones that fill our family album – and there can never be too many of those.

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Photos courtesy of Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor has been an avid photographer since age 11. He worked as a writer and photojournalist for several Philadelphia area newspaper and did public relations and commercial photography in NYC. He was widely published. Despite switching careers, his interest in all things photographic has never diminished. He now does portraiture and scenic photography in North Carolina, is actively entrenched in both the technical and aesthetic aspects of digital photography, and runs Yellow Fin Films, a film/video production company in Wilmington, NC.

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