Recently photography has said goodbye to two industry icons. Polaroid stopped production of its instant film, and Kodak announced that it is retiring Kodachome, its oldest film stock, because of declining customer demand in an increasingly digital age. As the Smithsonian and institutions of all sizes face the staggering challenge of digitizing their vast photographic collections in preparation for creating, shaping, and using virtual archives, the questions around "what photography is" are constant. How do you create the state of the art when the state of the art keeps changing? As shocking as it is to contemplate a vanishing species, the story of obsolescence is not new to photography (and perhaps, also fitting, as the introduction of daguerreotype portraits in the mid-nineteenth century single-handedly eliminated painted miniatures as an art form). Consider the Lewis family of New Windsor, New York, who became within a few years of photography’s announcement in America the largest manufacturers of Daguerreotype equipment in the United States. By 1850 they held the most photographic patents and their operation was so large that Quassaick Creek, the small town where they built their factory, changed its name to Daguerreville. But in just a few years, cheap-to-produce tintypes and paper photographs made from negatives in turn replaced the daguerreotype. The population of the town, as well as the Lewis’ rise to prominence in photographic history, came to a jolting halt. Often the history of daguerreotype to digital is a story of progress based on commercial gain, practicality, and sometimes just plain obstinacy. The wet plate collodion process was replaced at the end of the 19th century with dry plates, which offered growing numbers of photographers the option of glass plates already coated with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin. The gelatin-based process greatly increased the speed of the plates, enabling shorter exposure times. And with more photographs, the popular appetite for photographs of all kinds increased as well. Change was not always welcomed warmly. For the most part, each new process was greeted with a mix of derision and anxiety. For example, the albumen process (which used egg whites to coat the plates and which produced a shiny, if sharp, image in various tones of purple, yellow, and brown) was described as having an "offensive and vulgar glare" (and possibly an equally pungent aroma) which was "detrimental to pictorial effect." Nevertheless, the process caught on, and by the 1860s it was in general use, and continued until the turn of the twentieth century. Photography journals printed recipes for using the egg yolks left over after the whites had been used for photographic purposes. Until gelatin paper replaced it, one supplier of albumen paper alone was using sixty thousands eggs a day. The latest fox in the henhouse of photography is digital imagery. Many of the digital imaging techniques were developed in the 1960s at research institutes such as MIT, Bell Labs, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during research for applications to satellite imagery, medical imaging, and character recognition. And then there are the rest of us who, with cameras, PDAs, and cell phones, make all kinds of images for all kinds of reasons. There are some that see this as a distinct advantage digital cameras have over film cameras; others see it as the death of photography itself. But it seems that photography’s short history has already proven that innovation is part of the nature of photography itself. For one thing, photography’s progress gives us more things to see.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.