I recently came across a clip from a 1945 Atlantic article written by Dr. Vannevar Bush, the then Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, entitled “As We May Think.” World War II saw scientific innovations which created mass casualties, not only at Nagasaki and Hiroshima but also in the trenches of Europe and the Pacific. Bush recognized that these advancements were only extensions of the physical and wrote this piece to encourage scientists to set aside that mindset and to focus more on the mental aspect of humanity, in hopes of innovating knowledge rather than strength.
Bush saw new technologies, such as improvements in photography, as ways to help innovate and encourage learning. Looking into the future, Bush gives his predictions about the future of photography:
“Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice. The lens is of universal focus, down to any distance accommodated by the unaided eye, simply because it is of short focal length. There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with two spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.
Will there be dry photography? It is already here in two forms. When Brady made his Civil War pictures, the plate had to be wet at the time of exposure. Now it has to be wet during development instead. In the future perhaps it need not be wetted at all. There have long been films impregnated with diazo dyes which form a picture without development, so that it is already there as soon as the camera has been operated. An exposure to ammonia gas destroys the unexposed dye, and the picture can then be taken out into the light and examined. The process is now slow, but someone may speed it up, and it has no grain difficulties such as now keep photographic researchers busy. Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately” (Bush, The Atlantic, “As We May Think“).
I can just imagine walking around with the so-called “walnut” on my head, using three millimeter film while studying the world through photographer glasses. Had this ridiculous prediction come true, the modern day photographer would be nothing short of a spectacle.
This is not to say that today’s photog isn’t sometimes a spectacle. Pros with a 400 2.8 and a second body over their shoulder, accompanied by knee pads and a fisherman’s vest are often a sight to behold.
But, setting aside the overall comic effect of the predictions, the article is quite accurate on some finer details.
“There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color.”
Of course, automatically advancing and color film became the norm before film left the spotlight. But the more intriguing point above is the hundred exposures prediction. I don’t think anyone could have predicted digital memory in the 40’s given the size and power of computers at the time, but the anticipation of more memory interests me because for about 50 years after this was written the 35mm roll of film was the common means of photography. It often had 24 or 36 exposures per roll, far short of the 100 expected. Then, in the late 90’s digital became good enough to take down film and we now have the ability to store thousands of high quality images in a card smaller than a roll of film. This 50 year stagnation of photographic innovation could very well have contributed to the slow demise of the beloved Kodak.
And maybe the most astonishing of all, something that changed the entire profession.
“Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.”
And advantageous it is to be able to chimp at an LCD screen to confirm proper exposure. It has allowed for instantaneous feedback, when one would have had to go develop before any sort of feedback at all.
For better or for worse, great improvements in computing have allowed for the invention and rapid improvement of automatic analog and later digital photography. Today, we have cell phone cameras more powerful than digital SLR’s were five or ten years ago.
The exponential leaps in technology that occur every day, seemingly, continue to alter our lives. Being almost twenty I can recall the first time my family got dial-up Internet and the demise of the pay phone. Yesterday a two-year-old asked me where her iPad was. As quickly as technology is increasing today, where will it be in twenty more years and, more importantly, how can we use it to support knowledge, rather than ignorance?
I think it’s fair to say you will not see me with a camera on my forehead anytime soon, but could you see me with an SLR system with a built in light field sensor?
Only time will tell what the future holds in store.