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Digital Photography - Photographic Processes Series - Chapter 12 of 12

Digital photography has revolutionized how we capture and store memories. From Steve Sasson's first digital camera in 1975 to today's smartphones, the technology keeps evolving. However, this shift from physical to digital images changes our relationship with memory, raising questions about the future of photography.

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Video transcript

The technology has been shifting constantly since 1839. We can only expect that it will continue to shift. Everyone is a photographer now. Everyone carries a camera in their purse or pocket. We make photographs in a different way from the way we use to. But we make them for the same reasons. I would argue that a 19th century Victorian family album has exactly the same purpose as the 200 pictures of your kid that you carry on your phone. I was working in the apparatus division research laboratory. My supervisor came to me one day and said, I want you to look at a new type of imager that had just become available. Called charged couple device imager and that was the Fairchild CCD 201. I thought if I could build some sort of device that would capture an image, well that is called a camera. I called it my baby because it made me cry a lot. I always say that. What I was dealing with was something that could convert a light pattern to a charge pattern. I had to get that charge pattern off the device really quickly, and store it somewhere. So I was going to try and make a digital conversion device, and then store it in RAM. I decided I needed a form of permanent storage that didn’t require batteries. That was easy, actually, because magnetic tape on cassettes were being used for all kinds of reasons in the early days of computers. They were storing digital information. People always talk about building the camera. More than half the effort, probably more than half the effort, was building the playback unit. To make it suitable for a television signal because that was the only way to electronically look at an image. This was all digital. Right from the output of the CCD all the way through to the output to the TV set. That was all digital everywhere in between. To give you a timeline of digital photography we have Steve Sasson in 1975 building the first truly digital camera. In 1986 Eastman Kodak Company comes out with the megapixel sensor. In 1987-88 Jim McGarvey builds tactical camera which evolves into the 1991 Kodak DCS. It came in a rather hefty suitcase that contained the camera and the storage device. The next year they are actually able to combine all those parts into one smaller body, the DCS 200. In 1994 the Apple Quicktake 100 is the consumer camera. The first megapixel consumer camera is the Kodak DC210 in 1999. It is a very short timeline here, when you get into it, maybe 20 years or so. Of course now everyone has either a smart phone or a tablet with a camera built into it. The first digital camera I ever saw you had to load a floppy disc into it. My mind was blown when I saw that. What was this? You can put a picture on a computer now? There are generations of kids now that will never know what film is like, or what leafing through a shoebox full of 4x6’s from Moto Photo. It’s things like that. It is just gone. That’s Talbot. The man that invented the negative. Digital made the negative obsolete, and this is the way we see images. It can be deleted by accident. It is not a physical thing. We use to have the possibility that you might run across a photograph of your grandmother when she was eighteen years old, in the back of a drawer that nobody knew about. Suddenly, you have this picture. That can be found later and interpreted. When you have a digital image, what is the thing that you have? You have code or something. Rarely do people print out their photographs anymore. When we are seeing things ephemerally on a screen it becomes very much like everything else we see on a screen. Our relationship to memory with regard to the photographic image is changing and it will be really interesting to see where that goes. It is surprising to most people when I tell them I love digital. I just love digital technology, and they will look at me and think it is heresy. Artists have come to a point where many of them are saying, I feel like the machine is in control and I want to have my hands in this object. When the finished product is something other than a computer screen, it harkens back to the day when photography was a craft. It is not just about the image, though image is king. It is about the object itself, and you made that object.