In New York City, fear grew of a rising epidemic: a stalker who wandered the streets invading the privacy of upstanding citizens, scrutinizing their ordinary steps, and creating a scandalizing record of everyday life. It was 1884 and George Eastman, of eventual Kodak fame, had invented a process to mass-produce dry plates for photographs; the day was arriving when any aspiring shutterbug could take a picture.
The "camera lunatics," as their unwitting subjects dubbed them in panicked letters to the editor, were endangering the public sphere. A New York Times story declared them responsible for the overcrowding of "lunatic asylums." The article's advice for repelling them is not unlike a Hollywood celebrity's tactic in 2012: Take a brick and smash the camera.
These days, that would require a lot of bricks. Last year, one billion mobile phones with cameras were sold around the world; it's estimated that more than one-third of the earth's population owns a digital camera. Every two minutes, they snap as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800s, according to calculations by the photo storing site 1000memories. All the pictures ever taken add up to about 3.5 trillion shots, endless digital slideshows of cooing babies and fluffy kittens, to say nothing of the cute top someone saw at Forever 21 and wanted to get their Facebook friends' opinions about.
And that math was done way back in September, 2011, which might as well be 1884 in internet years. Facebook's own most recent stats say that 300 million photos were uploaded per day to the social-media site in the three months ending on March 31, even before June's prime picture season of proms, dance recitals, graduation ceremonies (kindergarten to university), post-exam parties and weddings. (Also, the tech analyst company, Infotrends, estimates that the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations would produce an additional 1.3 billion photos.)
That's not counting the many billions of images hosted by Flickr or tweeted on Twitter, with the unspoken understanding that a picture of three human beings in stock pose (heads together, arms looped, smiles synchronized) will bounce from one digital space to another, until its context fades like an old print in a shoebox. But not for long: Facebook this week announced the purchase of facial-recognition software. Soon no goofy grin shall go unnamed.
So if the good people of 1884 New York thought they had a camera epidemic on their hands, the modern world has shown them – and ourselves, in pixelized glory – a billion times over. Even the concerns about how shutterbugging affects mental health persist: These days we fret particularly about anxiety – produced from not being in enough pictures or being in the wrong ones – and narcissism, the inevitable byproduct of a culture that insatiably records every moment as if it's Oscar-worthy.
Of course, it's a vice of necessity in a way: To participate in Facebook you have to show your face, the more often the better. But whether one is a grudging participant or a vain poseur, the deeper risk may be that the medium eclipses the moment.
While David McCullough, Jr. – the Massachusetts English teacher who has lit up the Internet with his "You're Not Special" commencement speech – doesn't explicitly chide his audience for its picture-taking obsession, he does say: "Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you."
This month, the paparazzi parents will be out in droves, jockeying for the best shot of the family rock star, angling their video cameras above rows of heads and cursing waning battery lights. (The truly invested mother and fathers arrive hunchbacked with SLR cameras and tripods and lenses; anyone, in 2012, can pull her iPhone from her pocket.)
Taking pictures at an event has become the event. If you are not snapping shots, you are probably worrying about what you are missing, and missing what you're supposed to be watching.
The technology that's utterly altered the way people deal with pictures, of course, is the digital camera, with its ever-multiplying capacity. There's no need to economize when your memory card can handle 2,000 shots in one go. And there's no need to wait: Digital images are now more about what happened two seconds ago than they are a record of life a decade past.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what are a hundred thousand pictures worth? It seems like a calculus of diminishing returns.
"We are living in a time of unprecedented visuality," says Martin Hand, a sociologist at Queen's University, and the author of the new book, Ubiquitous Photography. "The irony is that having a photo doesn't mean you are going to remember. It feels like you have a vast repository of memories. But the number of photographs prompts a certain kind of forgetting."
The romance of photographs once involved discovering them tucked in a dusty album in your mom's closet: The sudsy, bathtub baby picture you didn't know existed. The yellowed family photo of a great uncle you can't name, but whose nose looked just like yours. Shutterbugs of a certain age will even recall the surprise inherent in the trip to pick up the pictures from a roll of film and finding the solitary magical shot in a stack of red-eyes and blurry exposures.
But today, when a hundred pictures require little more storage space than does one, we can skip the painful process of deciding what to keep and what to toss.
"I have a hard time deleting anything," confesses Susan Murray, an associate professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, who has lost count of the number of photos of her young son she has stored on her devices. "Even the ones that aren't quite perfect I can't seem to delete. … I keep buying more and more external hard drives." Someday, her son will have a library-sized visual archive of his childhood.
Are thousands of pictures amassed on iPhoto, however, really the same as a few dozen carefully chosen and pressed into an album?
Perhaps some day, suggests Columbia Law professor Tim Wu, a Canadian-born Internet analyst and occasional fashion photographer, "we'll ask: 'What happened to that whole decade? We didn't take any great pictures.'"
Stop – don't shoot
A few years ago, Michael Cooper gave up his camera. For 12 months, the professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, stopped taking pictures. An avid traveller, he had begun to notice a worrying trend: He was spending more time staring at his camera than the scene around him.
"You can't do both things at once," he says, "there is way of looking without the camera, of understand the ambiance of a place."
He came to appreciate the freedom of moving without cumbersome camera gear or sightseeing without the pressure to snap a shot. "The pleasure it gave me to sit on some stone wall and look out at a field, and not have something in my hand," he says. "It was very liberating."
When he returned to picture taking, he found that something else had changed: His subjects shifted to the people he saw on his travels, not the buildings. It was as if his camera-free year had awakened him to the faces of a place rather than its bricks and mortar.
'Slow photography' on the rise
Prof. Wu has noticed a similar pattern while visiting the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. People would step up, snap a shot and walk away, as mindlessly "as dogs marking their territory," as he later described it in the online magazine Slate.
He is among a small but growing group of bloggers and photographers who are making the case for a "slow photography movement" – a reaction, like that of foodies before them, to the gluttonous habits of a camera-captured culture. It advocates taking fewer pictures, more carefully posed and with reflection on the process of photography as much as the result.
Prof. Wu has also become more deliberate about when he brings out his camera and rarely uses the camera feature on his iPhone. "We can't all be watching," he says. "If everybody is the photographer, who is the doer?" (Although he admits his wife recently chided him for not taking enough photos on their vacation.)
Prof. Cooper even cynically suggests that people brandish smart phones habitually now because no one smokes any more and they aren't sure want to do with their hands.
Is it true that we have lost the ability to savour a moment for its own sake? The idea that taking a picture in itself distances you from the scene is a debatable one: Sometimes, as Prof. Murray points out, it requires a concentration on details you might have overlooked otherwise.
But the research of Dr. Hand, the Queens sociologist, suggests that at least among 20-somethings there is a growing awareness that even as the public replication of digital images makes them powerful, it weakens the value of the photograph itself. In his interviews he found that university students were diligent about managing their visual presences online, especially images of compromising scenarios.
They argued that younger teens, who are new to the technology, and their parents' generation, who are confused by it, were more careless. But they know better, they said: "I don't want to be seen all the time."
Many were also sensitive to the pressure to whitewash their digital selves in hindsight, especially in case of employers' searches. On the other hand, to preserve private memories some of his interview subjects had begun keeping handwritten diaries so that they could not be edited with a mouse click: "Even if I cross a line out," one student to told him, "I can see that I once thought this thing."
In the end, our ardent picture-taking may not be (entirely) a vanity project, but rather the 2.0 version of trying to stop life and time from passing on by, if only with the power of 10 megapixels.
But before we block the seven-year-old ballerinas, the Mona Lisa or that lovely sunset with a camera, perhaps we should ask ourselves more often what we might see if we sat still, empty handed, and just watched the world happen.
Someone else, after all, is bound to take a picture.