Connected: accessing the world around us through the lens

Our access to information on a global scale is becoming exponentially easier.

As our channels of communication become more connected and allow us a far wider reach, so do our opportunities to discover previously inaccessible (or rarely touched upon) insights from across the world.

Technology is becoming cheaper, but more powerful, and allowing a far greater number of people to tell their stories to a wider audience.

And amongst the billions of people who live on the Earth, there is still passion to utilise a number of different photographic mediums to share the world immediately around them to anyone and everyone.

Stills photography

The very first medium of photography, the humble still image, can often be overshadowed nowadays by seemingly more shareable video and time-lapse content.

Over the years, from the first negative that William Henry Fox Talbot produced at his Wiltshire home, photography has – like technology in general – been seemingly racing against itself, uncontrollably growing into a behemoth of storytelling and self-expression.

Although the humble still image is perhaps not as remarkable as it once was, as the old adage reads, “a picture paints a thousand words”.

Just take a look at the entries from this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year. The winner, captured by Brent Stirton, is a striking composition in itself, but also portrays a powerful message from across the globe.

The world’s oldest surviving photograph, from 1826
The world’s oldest surviving photograph, from 1826

The awards, now in their 53rd year and run by the Natural History Museum, focus on a wide variety of natural landscapes, from Stirton’s black rhino image in South Africa, to crabs in Australia and even seagulls in Italy.

And, in general, photography awards continue to keep a flame lit for the still image, with dedicated competitions from astronomy right through to urban photography.

With a passionate following and by embracing new technology, the medium is certainly not going anywhere. It would be wrong to suggest it is ‘making a comeback’ – as it never went away – but there is certainly a resurgence in its popularity.

Credit must go to the adoption of the digital age, leaving film in the past (as early as 1957) to move with the times, and with it picking up new enthusiasts and professionals along the way.

It is now as easy as ever to pick up a camera (or a phone, as the majority now do) and start capturing individual moments from the world around us.

Film & video

In the late 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge, one of time-lapse’s earliest and greatest pioneers, created the first real-time animated image sequences. Muybridge used multiple different cameras for this, rather than a fixed position, but from it created the illusion of animals and people moving.

And within the next decade, the motion picture camera had been invented, allowing long sequences of images to be captured using a single device.

Ever since, this form of photography has developed significantly, from sound played live over a reel of film, right through to 3D home television sets.

In fact, scientists in Israel are even starting to merge it with still images, creating a hybrid that almost manages to bring flat images ‘to life’.

But as a photographic medium, a single video clip can help show a more complete picture, that of a series of emotions, a full story or a whole event. Whilst it can be argued that it takes the ‘magic’ out of the consumer’s imagination, at the same time it allows concise information to be shared around the world, with a background and context that is often missing from its still counterpart.

An hour-long documentary is still a snapshot in time, much the same as Stirton’s winning image. But Stirton’s image will never be more than a single moment caught on camera. The indescribably small moment that passed is saved – but everything else has been missed.

An audience preparing to watch a screening at a cinema
Cinemas allow audiences to share the experience of film

On the flip-side, film and video helps to create a complete narrative, a form of storytelling that has become a part of our everyday lives. Documentaries, for example, have arguably never been so popular.

Sir David Attenborough – one of Britain’s best-loved television broadcasters – continues to work in his 90s, such is the demand for his unique gift. His documentaries blend many different types of photographic techniques, but focus mainly on video pieces, the staple of home entertainment.

But by the same token, it is not only professionals who have access to the world through video. And although the rise in camera phones has made video capture easier than ever for everyday users (much like for still photography) there has been plenty of consumer-friendly hardware and software to help along the way.

Flip Video (2006 to 2011) was key in moving home videos away from physical tapes or potato-like recording devices (as they are often described due to the poor quality they produced). Since then, any number of new devices have flooded the market – including in-built video capture on digital cameras and DSLRs.

Nowadays, it is GoPros and other ‘action cams’ that dominate a continually saturating market. Everyone is able to capture every moment of their lives, if they choose to. And because we are no longer limited by physical restraints – such as a finite life of storage or physical film itself – we are capturing years of our lives as they fly past, probably without even realising.

Time-lapse

But what about the truly long-term. Months, years, decades and even longer, lengths that can be difficult to portray through single or even multiple photographs, or even multiple film reels.

From their individual births, photography and film have always been used for historical purposes; to store a moment in time. But at the same time, it can still be a struggle for consumers to actually ‘consume’ them.

Of course, you can compare photographs from hundreds of years ago to those from present day, but in between are countless lost processes, lost stories and lost memories.

Rooftop view looking out towards the East End of London.
London’s skyline is an ideal time-lapse subject

This is where time-lapse can and does fill the ‘void’. It takes an activity occurring over a long period, and condenses it down into a manageable video. Processes that can take years to occur – such as the degradation of a road, the building of a city or a particular scientific study – can be easily considered in just a few short minutes.

Time-lapse still produces still images – the roots of photography that are also behind video – as every frame is an individual moment in time. But, through extensive editing processes, these can be transformed to create the illusion of time passing – just like Muybridge did with the galloping Sallie Gardner almost 150 years ago.

Although the technique has now been around for almost as long as photography itself (or at least its predecessor, chronophotography, has) it has perhaps only been in the last 10 or so years that the true value of time-lapse has been recognised.

Technology giant Google, for example, used time-lapse to bring new life to historical satellite imagery. And some of Britain’s most recognisable arts and entertainment venues, such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Mary Rose Museum, have also used time-lapse to tell stories in a succinct way that would simply not be possible through video and photography.

 

Photography (as a medium) has been able to ‘adapt’ to the ever-growing digital world, to both survive, but also as a vital part of everyday life.

Itself modern definition of visual documentation, it helps anyone & everyone to tell stories, to share emotions and to document the goings on immediately around them, allowing us all to experience anything & everything that the world has to offer.

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