In 2014, an average of 1.8 billion digital images were uploaded to the internet every single day.
That’s 660 billion photos every year, and given the growth in the use of smart-phones and social media sites, the number has likely grown to well over a trillion. It is impossible to estimate how many are actually taken and not shared, but we could speculate that it would be a great deal more.
By comparison, Kodak estimated that in 1999, the height of film sales, around 80 billion photos were taken each year, of which only a tiny fraction were ever seen by anyone else.
A common complaint is that the ease of use of digital cameras and smart phones, combined with the proliferation of uploads on social media, has actually devalued photography by making it trivial and thoughtless. Good photojournalism is being replaced by wobbly eyewitness videos taken with smart phones, and married couples are asking friends to take their wedding photographs because ‘they have a good camera’.
Being a professional is becoming increasingly tough in some fields, but perhaps the verdict depends on which side of the fence you happen to be on. Let me present some counter arguments.
Firstly, I’m not sure that anyone has concluded that Tweets or Facebook posts are diluting literature, so why should photos posted on social media sites matter? The intended audience is friends and followers, not the world, and no one included family albums in the photographic world-view.
Of course, there has also been a massive increase in the use of online galleries like Flickr, which are accessible to a wider audience, but surely being able to share images with the world is a major positive? The problem is merely the sheer number of sites and images we may have to trawl through to find anything exceptional. It may not be close to a trillion images a year, but search-bots don’t curate the results they return to us, nor should they. We may actually be looking for poodle pictures, or Auntie Edith’s birthday party.
In the film era, such images were never considered because they were stored away in shoeboxes, so our exposure to ‘serious photography’ was carefully curated by agencies, galleries and publishers. That channel is still open to us. We can simply choose websites like Magnum Photos or National Geographic, or curated websites like 1X.com, or we can continue to go to galleries and museums, or buy photo books.
It’s true that digital cameras have lowered the bar to achieving technical proficiency. Getting a live preview as you shoot, along with high levels of automation, image processing software and online print services, have made sharp, well exposed photographs and prints far more accessible to millions of new enthusiasts.
As a beneficiary, it’s hard for me to argue that this is not an altogether wonderful thing. After all, if an image is good, does it matter how technically demanding it was to make? There may be a few grumblings of dissent from the odd darkroom, but on the whole, I doubt most people care.
So perhaps one possible conclusion is that the standard of images has not dropped at all. We are simply inundated with images, and many of them are technically good. If ‘good’ is the new ‘average’, it takes an exceptionally creative eye and a penchant for self-promotion to get noticed.
All of which begs an interesting question. If there are far more images visible to the public, and far more photographers making good images, wouldn’t the law of averages imply that there are also many more potential Vivian Maiers buried in the search engines, waiting to be discovered?
Playing with the numbers a bit, let’s say there is one image posted to a public online gallery for every thousand posted to a social media site. That’s still a billion images a year, and even if only one in a thousand stands out, we are still left with a million good images. If each photographer posts an average of 10 new images to their gallery a year, that’s 100,000 good photographers. How good would the best 1% of those be?
It’s pure speculation, but an intriguing thought. The problem is that most of us simply don’t have time to sift through a lot of technically acceptable but unremarkable images to find those hidden gems. Some notable blogs have done their best to perform a semi-curatorial role, exposing new photographers and works. These include (among others) Mike Johnston’s excellent blog at The Online Photographer.
Even so, it is barely possible to scratch the surface. I plan to join the fray and hope that unseenery.com can add its own microscopic contribution, not because I am any more qualified to judge than anyone else, but because it doesn’t matter. It seems like ‘a good thing’ to give even a few undiscovered photographic heroes their day in the sun. If that get’s them noticed, even better.
So, tell me what you think. Am I on to something, or am I just a hopeless optimist? Do you know of any budding geniuses you have recently stumbled across online that you think more people should see? Leave a comment and let me know.
If you unearth a real talent I may do some background research and feature them on the spotlight page. I reserve the right to be the final arbiter, unless I can figure out how to get the voting plug-in working properly.