Mobile phones: camera phones 02.04.12

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The ubiquitous presence of the camera phone today means no event, whether mundane or spectacular, escapes public attention, says James Bridle

In August 2006, when the photo-sharing website Flickr launched "geotagging" – a feature that allowed its members to place photos on a map of the world to show where they were taken – it was hosting 230 million photos from 4.5 million registered users. By the end of 2011, this had increased to more than 6 billion photos – of which more than 300 million had been placed on the map.

Eric Fischer, a San Francisco-based artist and technologist, has used Flickr's photographs to create the Geotaggers' World Atlas. These are maps of world cities made entirely out of the locations where photos have been taken, and Locals and Tourists, the same maps with the dots coloured according to the origin of the photographer. In both cases the density of the mappings is such that the contours of the underlying cities are sharply revealed, right down to the edges of parks, squares and intersections.

In 2009, the iPhone overtook everything from cheap point-and shoots to high-end DSLRs to become the most popular camera on Flickr – a service used by people who take photography a little more seriously than most. And while Flickr took seven and-a-half years to reach that 6 billion figure, Facebook got to 60 billion in the same time frame. It estimates that it handles more than 100 million photo uploads every single day – and almost all of that is because of camera phones.

Consider the strangeness of those words for a moment. Consider the strangeness of the phrase: "I'm just going to take a photo of that with my phone." The mobile electric eye.

The first camera phones appeared in the late 1990s as miniaturisation advanced, but it was the parallel development of sharing technologies that made the technology explode. On 11 June 1997, Philippe Kahn, developer of the first true camera phone, wirelessly transmitted pictures of his daughter Sophie's birth from the maternity ward to more than 2,000 people around the world. By 2003, more camera phones were being sold than stand-alone digital cameras. In 2008, Nokia overtook Kodak to become the world's largest camera manufacturer.

Now, it is almost inconceivable that an event in the metropolitan West might go unwitnessed and unrecorded. Whether it is an amusing graffito or an airplane bellyflopping into the Hudson river, the camera phone manages to simultaneously make the everyday spectacular and the spectacular pedestrian.

George Clooney, a man who hires his own satellites to scan the earth for evidence of war crimes, recently noted: "Now that every single human being on earth has a camera phone, where are all those UFO pictures? Remember, you used to see those pictures – some guy just happened to have a Polaroid when the UFOs appeared? Either it was all bullshit or the Martians have decided, 'Don't go down there, man. All those fuckers have cameras now'."

James Bridle is a writer, publisher, artist and coder



Andy Gilmore



James Bridle

quotes story

Eric Fischer, a San Francisco-based artist and technologist, has used Flickr's photographs to create the Geotaggers' World Atlas

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