A Center Initiative

A Look Ahead

Historical Trajectory of Lens-Based Media

I will start with an assumption; all that came before in the history of photography prior to 2000, has only barely prepared us for all that lies ahead. We have the basic concept of ‘fixing’ an image or an event on media that can be duplicated and shared, first with only a few and now with millions. The ‘how’ however, has given way in importance to the ‘why’ and the ‘when’; practitioners of lens-based media, prior to 2000 were largely thought of as professionals – artisans or tradesmen or technicians who had to master their craft, even when engaged in making art. Mastering the ‘how’ was critical to the individual expression each practitioner sought; tied to the question of why am I creating this as well as the when you will get to see it. 

I don’t know if any of this is right, but this is my gut feeling about photography 20 years into the 21st century. There has been a decoupling of what came before and new constructs have taken their place. And when I refer to photography, I am really speaking about all lens-based media, especially those that fall under film and video. In our current moment they are often interchangeable, like putting on a different pair of shoes depending on the outfit you are wearing on a particular day; who do you want to be today?

In my personal prehistory of 21st century photography, there are 3 moments that stand out. Each significantly changed the how, the why, and the when, and each also brought changes to the people engaged in the process, both creator and recipient. 

–   The Leica

Photography and film existed well before 1924 but it was only after the invention of the Leica that the connection between man and machine began to truly change how we perceived the world around us. Small, loaded with film on a roll that could provide many exposures and held up to the eye with your hand, the distance between seeing and doing – the how – began to evaporate. We know the rest; the tool enabled the practitioners to create images in places many had never seen before and, with the help of the printing press, distribute to the world at an ever increasing pace. The new ‘how’ of the Leica helped create a new ‘why’ of storytelling and a new ‘when’ of sharing.

       – The Nikon F 

For much of my life, this second data point has been the one defining lens-based media creation; the 1959 invention of the Nikon F SLR. This design was not invented by Nikon but it was refined and hardened so that this camera became the tool of choice. It brought the eye directly into the lens and then made that lens almost infinitely variable. A photographer’s sight was now technologically superior to regular humans and as a result their ability to shape any society’s worldview was formidable. As 1959 gave way to the 1960’s, the Nikon was able to survive wars, earthquakes, hurricanes and social upheaval and it empowered photographers to wear it like armour. It also allowed the rest of us to understand the world by seeing it; good and bad, clearly through its Nikkor lens eyes.

The Nikon F still influences many cameras today even though most exchanged film for computer chips almost 20 years ago. Perhaps it is because the design and functionality are the height of perfection, or perhaps because for generations of ‘professional’ practitioners it is the last bit of familiar we can hold on to.

–  The iPhone

2007 is the moment when lens-based media prehistory merges with the present, with the invention of the iPhone. Even as little as 5 years ago it might have been considered heretical to include the iPhone in the history of photography; I don’t think anyone can make a case for that now. When Steve Jobs introduced it he highlighted its 3 most important features – it’s an iPod, a phone and an internet communication device. Even Steve Jobs did not fully grasp what he had unleashed on the world when he combined a simple camera with the internet – he changed the relationship between the ‘how’ and the ‘when’; I can easily take a picture or shoot a movie and share it with you right now. The ‘why’ becomes infinite – to show you my new child, my last meal, or a revolution happening in real time.

The rise of iPhone photography was inevitable although many of us didn’t connect the dots right away. We were still thinking about this in an analog way with many fixed variables. Moore’s Law states that we can expect the speed and capability of our computers to increase every couple of years, and we will pay less for them. The iPhone was the device that truly transformed the camera into a lens-based computer; one whose capabilities would increase quickly and change not only what we create but what we do after the moment of creation.

In 2012, writing for the Poynter Institute, I naively stated that, “At NPR, our multimedia team has decided to treat our iPhones like cameras; just like our (Canon) 5D’s, just like Cartier-Bresson’s Leica. Our standard go-to camera is still a digital SLR but there are times when the iPhone is a better choice.” What I didn’t understand was that Moore’s Law took this decision out of our hands; the evolution of lens-based media became tied to the evolution of the iPhone and its progeny on the day that Steve Jobs introduced it with only a passing reference to its camera. He did correctly state, however, that the iPhone was “a revolutionary product that changes everything”.

The history we are making today is inextricably tied to the fact that almost everyone has a high quality lens-based media creation and consumption device with instant communication capabilities in their pocket. This level of wide spread saturation can only lead to an ever increasing number of new ways to use these ‘cameras’ while they evolve at an ever increasing rate. Today will become history and history will become prehistory faster and faster.

The Role of Lens-Based Media in Contemporary Culture

  • Rise of “The Creators”

Lens-based media creation used to fit mostly into a few easy to understand categories. You had family photos and home movies. You had amateurs and hobbyists creating photography and films not for money but with the spirit of the professional. There were artists using both media to make a living and for creative expression in books, on gallery walls or in film and video festivals. Finally you had the professionals who derived their income from working in the press, television, or film industry, often tailoring their personal vision to the needs of the client or an organization.

Stating the obvious, these distinctions are very hard to find anymore; blurred, smugged, and turned into something unrecognizable to many. Today we have ‘Creators’, people versed in the tools of lens-based content creation and distribution who may work for a company, for themselves or just do their thing for art and love and internet fame. What makes them different is that they can be any or all of these things and easily morph between them at any time. The connector for all of them, and for society as a whole is that our appetite for content consumption has tilted heavily in favor of visuals – news, music, games and personal communication. The chicken and egg of the 21st century might be whether the easy content creation tools have made visuals the dominant media or is it our desire for more visuals that fueled the development of better, easier tools and distribution.

Creation and consumption in the early 2000’s was a tale of polar opposites. Traditional print publications began to collapse and television and film moved from appointment viewing to on demand. Flickr, in 2004, became the first successful photo sharing site; more photo album then living collection, but it tested the pre-iPhone waters of ‘instant’ visual storytelling for an audience. Instagram’s one to many photo platform was built for the iPhone generation in 2010 and dominates this landscape 10 years after its creation. Instagram combined creation with consumption in such a seamless way that we now take it for granted that every new thing must let us do both.

The 2016 new thing, TikTok, solidifies the ground around anyone becoming a creator by lowering the bar on what creation means. It takes a page or a scroll from Snapchat the 2011 variant on visual creation and sharing that emphasized the temporary and the imperfect. Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel said “Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment. It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion – not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.” ‘Authentic’ is the word most often used in this context; today’s creators are at their best when what they create looks easy and real enough to have you think you too could do it. Again, these new tools have changed our relationship to what we are creating, what we are consuming and why we choose to do either. They also make the definitions of creator and consumer insignificant; we are all becoming both, providing visual programing of our lives and watching the lives of others in a deconstructed media landscape.

  • The Eye of Social Justice

Jacob Riis’ tenement photos, liberated Holocaust survivors, photographs of lynching parties, fire hoses and police dogs used against peaceful protesters by Bull Connor, the assainations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the death of Stephen Biko, Tank Man. Photographs that documented hate and fueled movements.

For as long as lens-based media has existed it has documented humanity at its best and at its worst. Death on Civil War battlefields were some of the first images to move into the mainstream; the ongoing procession of the moments mentioned above is only accelerating with our new tools and the belief that we are each capable of being our own network broadcaster; one to the world for good or evil.

The 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King is often cited as the first ‘viral’ video of this kind; capturing often hidden violence and bringing it into the light of day. Many thought that one video would change things; almost 30 years later we are still watching it, only sped up, live streamed and on a never ending loop. Differences? The perpetrators film themselves now or are filmed by legions of smartphone wielding bystanders. Just in the last few years we’ve had a police shooting live streamed as well as the mass murder of 51 Muslims who were at prayer. And, of course we can not fail to mention the murder of George Floyd, filmed by both the police and dismayed onlookers, offering a multi-cam view of the murder as sophisticated as many ‘traditional’ broadcasts.

When I talked earlier about lens-based eyes getting closer and closer to the world and showing it to us faster and faster, we are also seeing it unmediated; no gatekeepers filtering the good from the bad. Where once Life or Look magazine or network television were able to balance what we saw heavily in favor of what was perceived as ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’. No such control exists anymore. Our lens-based culture, for that is what we live in now, feeds us reality faster than any of us can plan for or process. Yes, we have the fun dancing videos but we also have demonstrations and cries for justice streaming a thumb swipe away. If this feels arbitrary, it is. If it feels like there is no easy path forward it is because, in the words of the writer Willam Gibson, ‘there are no maps for these territories”. We can only hope that a better balance in how society behaves will be reflected in the ‘show’ we are all creating.

The Future of The Practice

  • Always New Technology

The next 50 years will not only be about the technology of lens-based media, but also about the people who use them to create and share, as well as for information, relaxation, and entertainment. Moving forward, those people are becoming one in the same. As our devices become smaller and more capable, we will find new places to take them and new things to do with them. Analog distinctions between video and still photography are already disappearing; just as the ease of switching between one or the other has increased, so too has the need to make a distinction decreased. For the dedicated artist or artisan one or the other may suffice, but for the majority of creators and consumers who are also the majority of us, we will move back and forth as the events of life unfolding in front of us dictate.

One currently evolving technology to keep an eye on; the path taking us from Google Glass to Snapchat Spectacles to whatever glasses Apple is currently working on. Putting an always ready camera and display next to your eye means capture and consumption almost at the speed of thought (or without thinking). Couple that with a real-time augmented reality flow and you can potentially bring other worlds directly to you or send them instantly out to others. The streaming show of your life becomes the news, becomes art, becomes social upheaval, becomes entertainment for the one or the many.

Throughout the history of photography and film that we now refer to as lens-based media, change driven by technology has been a constant. What will be different is the pace of change, as well as the universal nature of these tools. It’s not just professional needs helping to chart the future, it’s all of us.

About the Author
Compendium Essay Contributor, Keith Jenkins at the NPR offices in Washington, DC

Keith W. Jenkins, Senior Director of Visuals for NPR, has been a manager specializing in visual storytelling for most of his career. After several years working as a staff photographer at both The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, Keith became the first Photography Director at the newly created washingtonpost.com website in 1996. In 1997 Keith was hired as the Photography Director at AOL where he worked for 3 years before returning to The Washington Post as Photography Editor for the Magazine and later Deputy Assistant Managing Editor for Photo and Picture Editor for the newspaper.

 Keith’s teams have earned Pulitzer, Emmy, Peabody, Murrow, World Press, and Webby awards for The Washington Post, NPR, and National Geographic. Keith first joined NPR in 2008 and spent 5 years setting up the Multimedia department before heading to National Geographic where he served as Director of Digital Photography and General Manager.

Keith has taught and lectured on digital and visual journalism at Georgetown University,  Syracuse University, Ohio University, and The Poynter Institute. As a photographer, Keith earned numerous awards and a portfolio of his early work is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Image Credit © Allison Shelley // NPR