Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.
“Sam, in the future all photographs will be made on telephones.”
That absurd sentence was matter-of-factly spoken to me by an engineer at Kodak headquarters in 1987. He was part of the Kodak team investigating something futuristic called “digital photography.”
Naturally, I didn’t believe him. Except for a few experimental brick-sized mobile phones, all calls in 1987 were made using bulky desk or wall-mounted handsets connected to the world by cords.
Cameras, not telephones, made photographs. And cameras used film, a universal commodity that helped make Kodak the 26th largest American corporation in 1987.* Film cameras formed the foundation of many careers, including mine. They weren’t going away. They certainly weren’t going to become telephones.
Then, at the end of 1989, LIFE magazine ran a list titled Things That Will Disappear in the Next Ten Years. Startlingly, “film” was on the list. Again, I said, “No way.”
But the Kodak engineer knew what he was talking about. When the first commercial camera phone—the Kyocera Visual Phone VP-210—was released in Japan in May, 1999, photography changed forever.
“The future” that the engineer was referring to in 1987 is now. Most of the photographs made today are made on cell phones using digital technology, not film. And there are a lot of photographs being made—an estimated 1.4 trillion of them in 2020 alone. That’s 185 images made for every person on earth. Overwhelmingly, the people making these images are not professional photographers. They are attentive amateurs who easily include picture-making in the flow of their daily lives.
One of those 1.4 trillion photographs was made by Donovan Dagner at Mint Springs Valley Park in western Albemarle County. Was Donovan, a doctor of veterinary medicine, out on a dedicated photography mission? No, he was out on a run.
“I was on an early morning run and make it a habit to pay attention to what is around me. I try to take pictures whenever I run, especially if it is in the morning. I love the morning light and the quiet of no one else being around. This morning I noticed the clear water and the amazing light and just had to take a picture. I took several pictures from slightly different spots to try to get the framing right.
“But I am a rank amateur. I take pictures purely for the pleasure of sharing my experiences with my family. I started doing this about 10 years ago when I began running. I just wanted to share all the cool stuff I saw with my wife and children. I made the picture with my iPhone—no filters or adjustments.”
Donovan’s story is the essence of modern photography. How, and why, has this transformation from camera to cell phone taken place?
First of all, cell phone photography wouldn’t have taken hold if people didn’t like it. People like it a lot. The giant cell phone companies are in an intense battle to constantly improve the picture-making features of their phones because that’s where the sales are. People don’t want better phones; they want better cameras on their phones.
For consumers, the advantages are many. As Donovan’s experience proves, cell phones are small. The camera can always be with you, even if you’re running—or just running errands. Secondly, images are easily, instantly transmittable. Third, images can be quickly cropped or otherwise customized. Fourth, there is order to one’s archive. And storage is practically unlimited. Scrolling through the on-camera archive is like seeing a visual diary of one’s life.
I was not an early adopter of cell phone photography. In fact, I was late to the party. Quality was the issue. The low resolution and “digital noise” of the images was off-putting. Nothing about cell phone photography said “serious.”
But dramatic improvements in quality continue to be made. Last week I saw the latest OnePlus cell phone camera. The picture displayed on the large screen had astonishing clarity. That’s because it was made in collaboration with Hasselblad, the long-established gold standard in camera design and optics. The cost of the phone was $800. Sitting beside me was the owner of a new Hasselblad medium format digital camera that with standard lens costs $40,000. What must he have been thinking as we stared at the gleaming resolution of the cell phone image? So, add price to the advantages of using a cell phone for photography.
And of film, the foundation stone of my career? Film was at the end of its evolution; digital was at the beginning of its.
*That Kodak didn’t capitalize on their pioneering research into digital photography is a story studied in business schools. The company was unable to divorce itself from film and pivot towards the digital future. Today Kodak is number 966 in the ranking of U.S. corporations.