With the advent of the digital camera, the mighty tide of homemade photographs is growing to alarming or at least eye-wearying proportions.
Flickr alone sops up 5.5 billion such images a year, if one extrapolates from the site’s claim of 4,425 uploads per minute.
More than 10,000 shots reached the New York Times when it asked readers worldwide to take a picture at 15:00 UTC, formerly Greenwich mean time, on Sunday May 2. These were none too distinguished.
Now imagine if that went on 24 hours a day, 60,000 photos an hour, all year long -- as it no doubt does, considering all the photographers who are not even entering a contest --- that would amount to 5.1 billion limp little doodads. My eyelids sting just thinking of it.
I’m not sure whether it was a Sunday in 1826 when Joe Niepce propped up his miniature camera obscura on a second story window sill, but it was morning at his country home in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, a tiny commune in eastern France.
He had coated an 8 by 6.5 inch pewter plate with a thin, juicy film of bitumen of Judea, which contained not a single pixel. This he exposed for eight hours in the bright Burgundy sunlight, focusing on his back yard and barn.
Then he washed the sticky thing with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum. This dissolved and washed away the parts of the bitumen which had not been hardened by light.
And there it was, “View from the Window at Le Gras,” and the historic pewter plate is still on view, all by itself, in a Texas museum.
Some might say it’s a pity today’s photographers didn’t follow Niepce’s example. Mapplethorpe and Warhol and Liebowitz and the shooter in the street would produce one museum piece each, through their own windows.
And we could all spare our overworked eyes.