It all started with a painter and a copper plate. His name was Louis Daguerre, and he worked as a print maker and painter in early 1800’s France. As an artist, Daguerre’s interest in the versatility of light led him to create the Diorama, a small scene told through various lighting effects - much like the one we know today. While the Diorama allowed him to play with the dynamic nature of light, one important question was still present at the back of his mind: could one ever capture light?
The answer, he soon found, was yes- through a long process of mixing chemicals and light exposure, Louis Daguerre had gained the ability to record life. His canvas? A copper plate. He hadn’t been the first to invent the photograph. That honor is given to a close friend and colleague of his, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who first discovered the fundamental process behind replicating an image onto copper. While Niépce should be credited for his accomplishment, his process had a major flaw- resulting in photographs that began quickly fading to black. However, through his improved method, aptly named daguerreotype, Louis Daguerre was not only able to create photographs of better quality, but ones that could withstand the tests of time and continued light exposure. And thus, the first successful photograph was born.
Two years later, 1839. The daguerreotype has been announced to the world and one very curious Robert Cornelius, a man with a passion for chemistry, is eager to try it out. He sets up the camera and chooses his subject carefully, standing perfectly still as the photo develops. What is sure is that Robert Cornelius walked away with a developed photograph, a perfect daguerreotype. What is unsure is whether or not he is aware that his image is the first to have the same developer and subject - in modern terms, he has produced the first selfie.
As the years went by, newer and better techniques arose, each improving on the one before and leaving their own mark on both the worlds of science and art. While there was no doubt about the process being a revolutionary breakthrough in chemistry, photography faced much backlash in the art community. Some criticized photographers, claiming that their career didn’t require as much skill or talent as traditional art. For others, however, the invention of permanent photography signified the beginning of a new era of art, one which would require artists to have a new set of skills altogether. But to all, photography was recognized as a novel method to record history in an accurate and preserving way.
Daguerre’s invention has impacted the world in a way no other has. Photography has allowed for the transmission of history, ideas, even propaganda, to spread through countries and through the world. It has been as influential as to change the perspective of entire nations and as trivial as to capture a scene of pure ridiculousness between friends. From the Civil War to 9/11, photographs have continually been used as a vehicle by the journalism world to connect the American public to world events- one which has grown exponentially. Photography has and will continue to be used as such, from the first successfully permanent picture to the millions that are now taken per day.
The year is 2020, 183 years after Daguerre’s world-altering invention. However, photography is no longer only the product of a chemical process, nor is it seen solely as a vehicle for art. Instead, it has become a method for keeping records- snapping pictures of physical documents or books, and, of course, taking selfies. The accessible nature of photography in the present day, especially through smartphones, has allowed the number of photos to skyrocket. According to the Pew Research Center, 96% of Americans own some sort of cell phone and 81% own a smartphone as of February 2019. These numbers are incredibly high, especially when compared to the original data, which records the amount of Americans who owned cell phones in October of 2002 as 62% and smartphones in May of 2011 as 35%. The last census recorded around 330 million Americans, meaning that if every American took one photograph a year, the number would be close to 300 million. However, this number is but a fraction of the world’s population, most of which has also experienced a boom in the sales of technological devices. Data from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report of 2014 stated that, “...people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion digital images every single day. That’s 657 billion photos per year. Another way to think about it: Every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago.” Smartphones like iPhones have made photography ubiquitous, and as the population of smartphone users grows, so will the amount of photographs taken. Much more recently, digital media analyst Benedict Evans wrote in a tweet in 2018, “In 1999, the peak of the film-camera industry, consumers took around 80billion photos (according to Kodak). Apple now says 1trillion are taken each year on iPhones. So, probably 2-3trillion taken across all smartphones.” The sheer enormity of that number is staggering. However, with the UN’s population projections up to 11.2 billion in 2100, as well as the constant creation of new and accessible technology, it is more than probable that the number of photographs will continue to rise at an unparalleled rate.
Daguerre’s invention has been utilized by many to capture historic events, beautiful landscapes and the world’s societal problems. However, the increase in smartphones has led to growth in another type of photography as well, pioneered by Robert Cornelius- selfies. While Cornelius was willing to stand in front of a camera for more than a few minutes, smartphones have rendered the wait obsolete. Instead, the nature of the smartphone has cut the amount of time it takes to that of seconds and giving the user complete autonomy in both position of the photo and number of photos taken. This, understandably enough, has led to a sharp increase in the number of selfies taken at the time when smartphones were introduced. In fact, Google announced in 2014 that 93 million selfies were taken per day- which, again, is astronomical. What must be mentioned as well is that this data was taken solely from Android users- meaning that the number could be more than twice as high. The number of selfies taken will undoubtedly grow with the population and technology boom of the future as well.
What’s to come? As technology continues to evolve, there is no doubt that the photography we know today will morph with new demands. It is impossible to correctly predict the future, but it is possible to preserve the past as a reminder to learn from it- one of the best methods being through photography. While Daguerre himself has faded into obscurity, his invention never will, and the world will continue to feel the impact of his permanent photograph.