May 23, 2005


Torrent of images is leaving film in the dust. Evolution of photos creating unforeseen effects on society.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Written By Todd Wallack, Chronicle Staff Writer

In a small, second-floor photo supply shop on Folsom Street, Volker von Glasenapp sits and waits for the phone to ring.

But that wait between calls is getting longer and longer because von Glasenapp is trying to sell film in an increasingly digital world. His business — fittingly called Just Film — used to have 12 employees. Now it has one.

“I refer to myself as a buggy whip salesman or a blacksmith,” said von Glasenapp, resigned to the digital photography revolution that has changed his world.

Of course, digital photography has changed just about everybody’s world. It isn’t just a trendy niche anymore; it is becoming the dominant platform. More than 4 out of 5 cameras sold in the United States this year will be digital (not counting single-use cameras). And the amount of film sold annually has dropped 60 percent since 2000 as people make the switch to digital, according to Photo Marketing Association International, an industry trade group. By now, both pros and amateurs alike have abandoned film, experts say.

“In 2001, it was early adopters” taking up digital photography, said Mike Wolfe, a Seattle-based analyst with InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, a consulting firm. “Now it’s the latecomers.”

The evolution is having profound and unforeseen effects on society — from changing the way that people record their daily lives to making it harder to trust the images we see. Archivists wonder whether digital images will remain as permanent as prints for future generations. And sociologists wonder how it will change the way friends and family relate to one another.

First and foremost, many people are awash in digital images. Without the cost of film and processing, there’s little to stop shutterbugs from shooting everything in sight. And some do just that on a daily basis.

“I might take 20 pictures of birds at my bird feeder to get one or two to share,” said Tony Miksak, 60, who owns a Mendocino bookstore. “With film, I would have stopped at four or five, max.”

And people are taking their cameras everywhere. One in 10 Americans now carries a mobile phone with a built-in camera. Others tote cameras in their backpacks or purses.

“My motto is, ‘Never leave home without it,’ ” said Gerald Parrott of Napa. “You never know when you will catch the most incredible sunset at the beach, a snake or a beautiful flower while you are hiking.”

Some believe the technology is making photography more casual. Instead of having relatives smile stiffly for formal portraits, people are increasingly taking snapshots of everyday life.

“It leads to more openness,” said John Grady, a sociology professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, whose research involves photography. “People are getting more documentary in style.”

But people are also holding onto fewer of those images in tangible form. Some shutterbugs delete photos they dislike just moments after the image flashes across the tiny camera screen.

“Blowing the bad shots away at no cost is a joy of digital,” said Alan Drummer, a Burlingame marketing writer.

Or people park images on their hard drive, leaving them suspended as bits of electronic data. Only a fraction of all digital photos taken are ever printed onto paper.

“I used to be really good about putting my photos in albums, (but) I don’t have physical albums anymore,” said Katie Sommer of San Francisco.

Nowadays, Sommer said, she prints pictures only if she wants to frame them or for special occasions.

But some observers think Americans’ willingness to discard digital images is a sign that photos are becoming less precious.

“Taking pictures used to be an event of sorts,” said von Glasenapp, the film retailer. “Now they have camera phones — they e-mail pictures, look at them once and trash them. The image is not what it used to be. The value of the image is no longer what it was.”

The rise of digital photography also raises questions about whether people will save these images for future generations, the same way they usually keep old prints.

Some experts point out that traditional film and prints degrade over time. But so do compact discs. And it’s unclear how people will access old digital photos decades in the future.

But Grady, the sociologist, thinks people are taking more care than ever with photos.

In addition to shooting a flurry of images, people often spend time selecting the best one and touching it up. Many cameras now come with software to retool images, something that used to be the province of professionals. More elaborate software is available for sale.

For instance, Drummer, the Burlingame writer, recently used Adobe Photoshop to create a better family portrait. Drummer replaced the pouting face on his 3-year-old with a smiling image from another picture.

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