Bank holiday! A trip to Chessington World of Adventures with my school-chums beckons! We ride the Black Buccaneer, Rameses Revenge, Vampire! Maybe we'll talk to some girls! Obviously I want to capture our escapades on the twenty quid compact camera I got for Christmas, so before we hit the road, I hit Woolies and picked up a roll of film (and some mostly-paid-for sweets). I'm feeling shutter-happy, so this calls for 36 exposure rather than 24. Seems excessive, but I can always take some pictures of my feet or something if I end up with any spare shots. Adventures are had, rides are ridden, girls are sheepishly mumbled at. And photos are taken. On our return, I carefully do the nerve-shredding film-rewinding and extraction process (so many times this has gone wrong and everything has been lost, it's heart-breaking). I send the film to a wizard who, in a few short days, somehow turns it into a little envelope of prints and chopped-up negatives.
That's how it used to happen. That's how we used to make our memories. And after all of that adventure, I think I ended up with fewer than ten almost nearly semi-decent pictures. And they ended up in a shoebox. Somewhere.
This was basically the order of things for over a hundred years. In the 19th century, humans started taking photographs; in the 20th century, humans continued to take photographs. From that first picture of some guy's feet to the last, the process was essentially the same. It was the push of a button. It was a process of light and chemical hidden inside the shadows of a box.
But then in the 1990s something changed. Our relationship with photography was forever altered by two new flavours of camera: the disposable and the digital.
Those horrid little cardboard cameras were little more than a plastic lens stuck onto a cheap roll of film, but they were massively popular. You're not a great photographer, they told you, so don't pretend to be. Don't bother shelling out on a decent camera, just point and shoot and give it here. Your memories are fuzzy and dull and throwaway. This is all you deserve.
By the time digital cameras came along, our expectations of what our photos could look like were so low that the earliest models appeared pant-wettingly futuristic. But in hindsight, they were more about potential than performance. Apple were one of the first on the scene in the mid-nineties – their QuickTake 100 could store a whopping eight 640 x 480 pictures (you could make room for more by hitting the "trash" button, which indiscriminately deleted all eight crappy pictures). Not that exciting or at all useful, when you think about it.
They got better, and they got better very quickly. In a relatively short span of time, the old familiar grain of film was cast aside in favour of crisp, neat pixels. The film-developing wizard was banished from the kingdom and replaced with the home computer and his buddy, the shiny little ink-devouring printer. Obsolescence was carefully planned in the misleading game of megapixel Top Trumps – I mean, it's a higher number, that must mean it's a better camera, right? I'll have a new camera every Christmas until the end of time please.
This is how it is: digital is here and everyone loves it. With technology having caught up with the promise of those early cameras, we're now living in a golden age of amateur photography. It's everywhere and it's all the time and it's amazing.
But as professional photojournalist Peter Parker will tell you, amazingness comes with problems. No longer restricted by how many shots we could take or how long we have to wait to see them, we take a lot of photos. Billions of them. Gone are the days of the shoebox; now we store and share our memories everywhere. On our cameras and our phones, on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Flickr. In the clouds.
It should be simple. It isn't. Instead, it's daunting and messy. The whole "it just works" simplicity has been muddied by ubiquity, and trying to stay on top of your snaps is a baffling ordeal. Is this picture duplicated? If I delete it here, will it be deleted there? Do I keep the original and the HDR version, or just one? What about the filtered versions? Should I take a week off work just to approve all of these questionably-recognised faces? And where is the switch that does that thing – iPhoto settings or iCloud settings or iPhone settings or the iCloud settings in iPhone iPhoto or … where the hell are the settings?
All of this for a thousand photos, most of which are terrible but you simply don't have the time or will to go through them all and pick out the best ones. At least in the old days, all of your terrible pictures would be identified by that faraway processing wizard, who would kindly slap a sticker on each of them – "THIS IS AN ABOMINATION OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTS. MAYBE USE A FLASH."
It's overwhelming. We're buried under a thousand shoeboxes and we're past caring. That handful of pictures from Chessington, despite their mysterious whereabouts, have more sentimental value than the hundreds upon hundreds of pictures I take nowadays. I can remember each image, and I can remember when it was taken and what it meant. There's one shot I particularly like, but it's not one that I took. Halfway around the leg-dangling, roller-coasting awesomeness that is Vampire, an automated camera takes your picture as you speed by. At the end of the ride, you collect a blurry print of your screaming, idiotic face.
A sign of things to come? Is this where we’re going? All the cameras taking all of the pictures all of the time, an algorithm somewhere deciding for us what part of our ride is worth keeping; our part in the process outsourced. No more memories. No more shoeboxes.
Written for MacUser