Portrait, landscape, and masonry

I am working with images from a century of family photographs, but most of them were taken from about 1990 to 2012. And technology changes how we picture the world.

From the late nineteenth century studio photographs to the most-recent taken-on-my-smartphone snaps, the presentation of the images has constantly changed. The ‘standard’ 3×5 and 4×6 images of the 80s had almost nothing to do with the actual cameras and lenses used, and those were built to suit the film not the other way around. When you find an older image it will often be displayed in a ‘view frame’ with an oval cut-out surrounding the subject. In part this is due to the lens technology of the day, with ‘fish-eye’ lenses distortion increases logarithmically toward the edges.

New films inspired new cameras, new lenses. The “Brownie” cameras used by Betty and Maynard used 120 and 127 film, and a set of negatives are even larger – probably 105 film. These medium-format films were paired with cheap lenses in cheap box cameras, yet still managed to take often excellent photos.

Later yet, 135 and 110 film, continuing to shrink the format as film quality improved, pushed out the older formats with better lenses and hardware to compensate for simply less area available to record detail. 110, especially, became synonymous with cheap instant photos – often poorly processed as well.

The 35mm camera, though, shifted amateur photographers from the upright portrait shot to the landscape. Previously the cost of film and developing meant photos were reserved for important life events; few could afford to shoot ‘memory’ photos of a place or view, and so rationed their photos primarily as pictures of family and friends. The one-hour photo shops which suddenly dotted the retail markets meant anyone could take almost any picture and just ‘hope it turns out.’ Landscape formats ruled for nearly 30 years.

Digital cameras passed through the same cycle of development: initially low-resolution light sensors going through a progression of increasing pixel density and sensitivity, while simultaneous the cameras have devolved from highly-crafted to cheap and disposable. A modern DSLR camera does much more than its predecessors, but will not last as long and will start failing very nearly as soon as it is put into service. Cheap implementations are everywhere – from cellphones to clothing clips to cheap pen cameras you can plug into a USB port.

But the ubiquity of the digital camera, the unusual device form factors, and the exceptionally bad lenses with which they are sometimes paired have resulted in a shift away from what had been, for more than a generation, the ‘traditional’ layout. The portrait format is back, but probably as much because of how we hold our phones as any real desire to capture an image in an upright presentation.