Do You Really Need a History of Digital Photography

I promised to dispense with the history and pros/cons of digital photography in a few paragraphs. Don't blink, or you'll miss this background entirely. In practice, history has no value unless it provides useful perspective. The chronology of digital camera development isn't important; the role of digital photography in the centuries-long struggle to reproduce images is.

Digital cameras and scanners are a technological miracle that we've needed for more than 500 years. For millennia, text and pictures were more or less equals: scribes illuminated or illustrated a manuscript at the same time the text was drawn. It took a little longer to draw an illustration, but, as they say, a sketch is worth a thousand words.

However, for much of the last half of the previous millennium, the distribution of text became several orders of magnitude easier than the reproduction of images. Movable type allowed text to reach the masses, but pictures still had to be laboriously carved as woodcuts, engraved in steel, or converted to halftone dots before they could be printed. The transmission of words by telegraph predated wirephotos and fax machines by roughly a century, and the first 35 years of the Computer Age were dominated by text and numbers. Newspaper advertisements in the 1860s were better illustrated than accounts of the Civil War, and computer artists a century later sometimes created portraits by assembling ASCII characters into crude mosaics. (If you've seen these, you'll know why they were considered crude.)

It's only been the past few years that digital cameras and scanners have provided the technology we need to meld text and pictures seamlessly with our documents, computer presentations, Web pages, and other electronic media.

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