Why ‘free’ stuff destroys our sense of worth – a lesson from photography

I read a while back that a proportion of the photos being taken these days don’t even get looked at afterwards. The advent of the cellphone camera hasn’t just killed the ‘pocket snappy’ camera, it’s thrown us into the age of disposable imagery where photographs are taken and then forgotten.

It’s kind of ironic, as those cellphone cameras are getting good. The one in my phone has more megapixels than the first DSLR I bought, though it lacks the flexibility and capability in every other respect. But it’s OK for a quick snap if I’m caught without my camera gear (which is often, given that the camera and lens alone weigh 2kg).

Personal photography took off with the invention of acetate roll film in 1881, licensed seven years later by George Eastman for use in one of the first box cameras. Eastman’s camera was swiftly joined by other small cameras which – in terms of who most used it – were the analog equivalent of today’s cellphone cameras; and then in 1900 Eastman-Kodak began promoting the first mass-produced ‘snappy’ camera, the ‘Brownie’, invented by Frank A. Brownell but apparently named after a cartoon character.

The ‘Brownie’ harked to the eighteenth century ‘camera obscura’ with its fixed-focus meniscus (magnifying) lens. Multiple models followed. A few soldiers smuggled Brownie cameras into the front line during the First World War. But they were still nowhere near as ubiquitous as cellphones today. And afterwards – as prices fell and the ‘second industrial revolution’ made consumer goods ubiquitous – cameras were still a luxury item, relatively speaking, largely because of developing costs.

Photograph my grandmother took of a sawmill’s hauler in operation near Puketitiri, Hawke’s Bay, mid-1920s. Scan from a print made in 1983 from the original negative.

My grandmother had one in the 1920s, taking a fair number of photos of life in and around Puketitiri, a milling district in inland Hawke’s Bay. But photography still wasn’t all that common. Part of the problem was the technology: the cost-per-photo was mind-blowing relative to the cost of today’s photography (which is basically ‘free’).

Back then photography was a drawn-out process: the film – usually in rolls of 12 – had to be carefully loaded to make sure the cogs were fully engaged. Then it was used. Then it had to be developed and the photographs printed. Some photographers set up their own darkroom but in practise, the everyday ‘happy snappy’ photographer relied on a chemist’s shop. Film often went ‘undeveloped’ for some time, occasionally pushing the limits of how long the chemistry of exposed film lasted. It was expensive, and any print other than the ‘contact’ print – made by pressing the negative against photo-sensitive paper – was even more costly.

The quality of these images wasn’t great – it didn’t dent the business of professional photographers, including their mainstay in New Zealand: the street photo. This continued into the early 1950s. Professional photographers would lurk on city streets, offering to photograph passers-by – to whom they’d sell prints.

A snapshot I took of the Louvre’s main entrance (the pyramid!) during the ‘it’s gonna cost you a dollar every time you click that shutter’ era, but hey, I was a tourist.

By the 1960s personal cameras were ubiquitous in New Zealand, but even then it was expensive. I still recall my own early photography where the cost per print was anything up to a dollar, which was a lot of money in the 1980s and 1990s. Especially if you were a shutter-mad lunatic. Not that I am admitting to anything… (cough cough).

There is a point to all this. Back then – because the cost of pushing that shutter was high, because of the fiddliness of film and the delays in seeing what the results might be – the onus was on to get it right. To get those pictures properly set up, to make sure the focus was spot on, to control that depth of field, to make sure the composition was artistic, and so on.

Of course photographs are still taken that way today. Some of them. But I kind of lament the fact that so many are not. Free devalues any sense of worth.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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7 thoughts on “Why ‘free’ stuff destroys our sense of worth – a lesson from photography

  1. The same is true in the television/film industry. The cost of purchasing and processing film used to be horrendous, even tape stock would add up to quite a bit, but now there is an attitude that digital video is ‘free’, in that you only need the storage space. However there are still a lot of other costs to consider, such as the work it takes to process the footage in post production and the time to sort through it all in the edit suite to find the key shots. I always prefer to work with a shooter that has experience shooting on film or video tape, as they tend to have much more efficient shooting ratios and are more likely to get all the shots that are required for a sequence. Digital-natives are more likely to take a shotgun approach, over-shooting yet often not getting the key material.

  2. Excellent entry.

    It may be just me (I know its not, but it may be an erroneous minority view), but I feel we’re entering an age where technology is ruining everything.

    1. I’m inclined to agree. Tech is certainly ruining the value of things and it’s hard, at the moment, to see what is currently being valued – everything, including products for which hard-earned cash has to be paid out, seems to be disposable.

  3. This is analogous to what one hears about free ebooks — people acquire them because they’re free, but don’t bother to read them and regard them as valueless (although that’s not true of the authors who produced them). Perhaps the real cost of these things is time.

    1. I think time’s definitely the commodity – if all other costs go, then the cost of how long it takes to read something must become the point of competition. Awkward for books: as you say, they’re not free (either monetarily or in terms of time) for the authors.

  4. Some new tech stuff I like, some things seem too much. I took so few film photos that I can not comment on it – today I take about a thousand each month and from them, I get a few good ones. I do have several cameras better than the one on my cell phone.

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