We find ourselves, still early in the 21st century, in an unprecedented era in the history of photography. The consumers of the developed world have, of course, had access to cameras of their own for decades and decades, but now almost each and every one of us walks around with a camera in our pocket. When a particular landscape, building, animal, human being, or other sight strikes our fancy, we capture it without a moment’s hesitation — and, often, without having given a moment’s thought to the technological and artistic history of the discipline we are, if for little more than an instant, practicing.
Most of us, knowing ourselves to be no Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Diane Arbus, would hesitate to describe the snaps with which we document and share our daily lives as “photography.” But in taking any picture, no matter how mundane or even silly, we place ourselves in the stream of a tradition. But we can gain an understanding of that tradition, at least in broad strokes, from “The History of Photography in Five Minutes,” the Cooperative of Photography video above which, in the words of its narrator, offers an insight into — brace yourself for this and other puns — “how photography has developed.”
Beginning with the camera obscura, the reflection and tracing devices that date back to antiquity (later described and used by Leonardo da Vinci), the video moves swiftly from milestone to photographic milestone, including the first photograph, a “heliograph” taken in 1826; Louis Daguerre’s invention of “the first practical photographic process” in 1833; the first selfie, taken in 1839; the emergence of mobile photo studios in the 1850s; Eadweard Muybridge’s motion-photography studies of the 1870s; Kodak’s production of the first roll-film consumer camera in 1888; the game-changing Leica I hitting the market in 1925; the first single-lens reflex in 1949; the first digital camera in 1975; and, opening our own era, the first camera phone in 2000.
And now our smartphones and their “insanely powerful cameras” onboard have turned photography into a “global passion” that “has truly brought the world closer together.” The proliferation of hastily taken, essentially uncomposed shots of our purchases, our food, and ourselves have given old-school photography enthusiasts plenty to complain about, but the era of accessible photography has only just begun. Most of us are still, in some sense, taking heliographs and daguerreotypes; just imagine how the next fifteen years will, er, expose our true photographic capabilities.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.