Ephemeral Photographs

I was struck by Mat Honan’s recent article in Wired Magazine, The Quality of Your Smartphone’s Camera is Only Half the Picture. He writes:

Photos have become just as ephemeral as the moments we’re trying to capture.

His criticism is based in the dubious photo-organization found on an iPhone (in contrast to an Android) and the lower photo quality found on Android devices (compared to the iPhone). It seems both systems have something going for it, but they are both incomplete photo management systems, hence photographs as epehemera.

I have nearly 4,000 photos on my iPhone (as of Dec. 30, 2013). My first photo taken with this phone was on Dec. 5, 2012, which means that I took 4,000 photos with my iPhone over the last year. Granted, at least 10% of these photos are screenshots that the five-year-old took.

My photos are organized into five folders: camera roll, panoramas, videos, instagram, and starmatic. The iPhone does finally have an improved folder feature that I should begin using, but can I easily keep this folder structure off the iPhone? I didn’t even realize they had the option to create your own folders because initially this was not a feature. I also do not own a Mac, so any photo organization on the iPhone needs to translate to my PC. Currently, I have dropbox (using that referral link will earn me more space) set up to automatically upload camera photos from my iPhone when over a wireless connection. This gets photos onto my desktop, but does not retain any photo organization on my iPhone, so setting up folders on my iPhone seems rather pointless. I need photos to auto-sync to folders as soon as they are taken and for these folders to be retained as they travel to dropbox and ultimately to my desktop. I’ll have to do more research to figure out how to make this happen.

How do you organize smartphone photographs? Do you use an app? I’m hesitent to download yet another app. I’m kind of burned out on apps. I’d rather these tech companies just make a better product in the first place rather than just leaving it up to other developers, which then the consumers have to sort through. Don’t get me wrong, I like that anyone can create an app, but I think it also lets Apple and Google off the hook from creating better (even more user-friendly) products in the first place.

I’m getting a bit sidetracked by talking about how to make this photo organization happen. Let’s move back to this idea of photographs as ephemera.

Honan is correct in that without any rhyme or reason beyond place and date to photo organization, smartphone photos really are just pieces of ephemera. Apps like snapchat embody this idea of photos as ephemera. We moved from not having enough photographs to now having so many that we might as well have none because we can’t easily wrap our head (or our technology) around the sheer volume of photographs. Snapchat solves the organization problem by deleting the photo nearly immediately after it is shared. (I have never used snapchat, so I could be misunderstanding, how it actually works.)

How do we move photographs back to being photographs and away from being ephemera? How do we make photographs more permanent? 

At this rate, my daughter will inherit not shoeboxes or scrapbooks full of a few thousand photos, but hardrives full of hundreds of thousand photographs. These photos won’t even have the opportunity to end up in some antique store and then on the wall of an Applebee’s restaurant.

I’m inspired by Jennifer Wilson’s intent to scrap less in 2014 because photographs are no longer scrapworthy just because they exist (such as in the days of film). Photographs are now scrapworthy because they are actually meaningful to a person. The challenge, then, is to develop our own personal philosophies as to what makes a photograph meaningful so that we can wade through the jpgs.



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  • jenniferswilson

    Can you browse your iPhone as a drive if you plug it into the computer? I found these directions:

    Plug in your iDevice to your computer with the USB, close iTunes if it launches, go into My Computer (on a PC), click on the iDevice as if it were a flash drive, open the visible folders until you get to DCIM – that’s where your photos are stored. From there, you can add, delete and edit – including drag/drop to or from your computer.

    I am guessing though that the iPhone folders are virtual though and won’t be reflected in the file structure, but it’s worth looking.

    In terms of organization, I don’t worry about them being organized on my phone. I’m trying to automate more of the process to make it easier to keep them organized on the computer. Picasa, PSE Organizer, and Lightroom all have auto-import features… and I’m trying to be more comfortable with letting technology do some of the thinking.

    And with regards to your main question, the answer (to me) is deleting more photos. By making the decision about what is legacy and what is ephemera, we increase the value of individual photos. I took over 5000 photos last year (both cameras), but only saved around 2000.

  • Rhonda H

    I love those last two paragraphs, Stephanie. I’ll never eat at Applebee’s the same way again! I’m all in with Jennifer…quality over quantity.
    Still working on reading Homeward Bound. Just able to do little bits at a time.

  • Nat

    Don’t ask the archivist about ephemeral photographs 🙂 Much of our personal history is endangered by the fact that it is digital. Hard drives will corrupt and be lost, technology will renew itself, etc. making it likely that your grandchildren will have a harder time seeing your photos than you did with your grandparents’ hard copy ones. The whole thing troubles me. Don’t get me started on the issue of posting them to third party services like Facebook and having no real way to get them out of there.

    I have an Android phone and every few months, I plug the phone into the computer so it acts as a hard drive and then drag the photos into my regular photo organization folders. Android has a nifty auto-backup/upload picture that sends my pictures to a private Google+ area when I’m on wifi, but I use that as a failsafe if I lose my phone, not a way to organize pictures.

  • I agree. Technology changes and breaks. Companies close up shop and then you potentially lose whatever you are storing with them. I just can’t imagine handing my daughter a stack of hard drives or the password to a cloud account and say, “here are all the family photos.” Tagged or not, I just can not imagine anyone wanting to search through those photos for the gems that are worth keeping.

    I use dropbox to automatically upload my iPhone photos to a dropbox folder to get them onto my laptop. Eventually, they get deleted from dropbox (after they are backed up elsewhere and prints ordered).

    Is the problem with the third party services that you lose control over the photo, that the photo can never really be deleted, or something else? I’m just curious what your perspective is on this.

  • I would love for my iPhone photos to auto-organize into month/year based folders. This makes sense for me and how I deal with photos. This would help me keep track of what has been moved, backed up, and printed more easily. It would also enable me to sort through and delete more easily directly on my phone.

    I’ll have to try the method you suggested to see if that would work for my needs.

  • Thanks! I’m always intrigued by the old photos on restaurant walls. I wonder what the restaurant designer was thinking when deciding to hang these photos up. I’m sure it had more to do with making the place more “like home” than rescuing photos from the trashbin, but it makes me wonder…

  • Nat

    Oh the problems with third party services are numerous but probably could be summed up with the loss of control over your photos. Yes, they can never really be deleted. With services like Facebook, if you “store” your photos there (think about someone who takes photos on their phone, uploads to FB, then changes phones several times without backing up the photos), there is no way to get original, full-sized, files out of them.

  • Oh ok. I hadn’t thought about people who change phones. Facebook is really missing out on potential revenue if they did incorporate full-size file storage (along with a printing service).