The More Things Change: Update on Photography and the Pencil

Eric Cheng photo of cats with the new Lytro camera

Lytro-fied cats (photo by Eric Cheng)

I began this blog with an entry about how Kodak founder George Eastman wanted to bring photography to the masses, striving to “make the camera as convenient as the pencil.” I was therefore intrigued when, while leafing through a recent copy of Entrepreneur Magazine, I came across the pencil once again invoked to convey how “easy” photography has become. The article was on the Lytro camera, a new approach to photography in which the camera captures, as the company’sĀ website explains, “the entire light field, which is all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space.” That means a photo can be focused after the fact ā€“ that is, any part of the image can be brought into focus. In addition, they “allow both the picture taker and the viewer to … shift their perspective of the scene, and even switch seamlessly between 2D and 3D views. With these amazing capabilities, pictures become immersive, interactive visual stories that were never before possible ā€“ they become living pictures.”

Personally I am not terribly convinced (though I can see some of the advantages; a CNET review points out that “Lytro believes the cameras will be be handy for focusing an image after it was taken; you can whip the camera out, turn it on, and snap the shot rapidly without worrying about waiting for an autofocus system to hunt around while the baby’s first smile fades away”), but that isn’t the point. I was mainly struck by the final paragraph of the article, and the fact that the pencil can still be the favored point of reference for illustrating how far photography has come:

“Within the ranks of career photographers, Lytro is not exactly greeted with cheer. Rob Haggart, former photo director at Men’s Journal and founder of the blog, sees Lytro as another step in photography’s trajectory away from professional camera-wielders toward computer-using amateurs who can fiddle with imperfect images. ‘From autofocus to digital images to the Lytro–operating a camera today is like operating a pencil,’ he says. ‘How can you make people pay you to operate a pencil?'”

I don’t think professional photographers actually have that much to worry about, and to the extent that the Lytro has been described as a “no frills, socially-oriented, easy-to-use camera,” it seems to be intended to fill a different niche, at least for now. (Besides, to pursue the simile, “operating a pencil” (in the broad sense) is of course precisely something people often do pay for ā€“ when the result is, say, a great piece of writing.)

That brings up something about the way popular photography has changed in recent years, however, as the writer of the article, Jennifer Wang, notes:

“With the photo-sharing app Instagram, tens of millions of people have adopted a new concept of what a snapshot means. Facebook noticed and snapped up the 13-person operation for a cool $1 billion. Contrast that with Kodak, the bankrupt company that invented the snapshot more than 100 years ago: Its market valuation on the day of Instagram’s purchase was less than $80 million.”

Personally, whatever the latest developments in the concept of the snapshot, I think I will always be partial to the less-controllable, simpler charm of the Kodak version.

Vintage 1940s photo of a horse, dog and farmhouse

Circa 1940s Kodak snapshot (collection of the author)