Historically, sharing images with friends is not a new idea. In 1854, a wily French photographer, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, created a small, standardized photographic format using the newfangled paper process that made images cheaper and easy to produce in multiples. Its popularity soon spawned a movement called “cardomania,” and cartes-de-visites (CDVs) became the Instagram of their day. You would leave your likeness at a house that you visited, trade with friends, and could also collect images of various celebrities and politicians of the day into albums – the 19th century equivalent of “Liking” them. Queen Victoria liked “Liking” people and collected more than a hundred albums with CDVs of royalty and the social elite.
While sharing images is not new, what has changed dramatically is the content and sheer quantity of imagery shared. This past Thanksgiving was certainly the most photographed in history. As much as 70% of all Facebook activity is based on photographs. Pinterest is the fastest growing site ever. And Instagram has more than doubled its members to more than 100 million in less than a year.
These days you’re as likely to see someone share a graphic aesthetic, quote or object as you are a portrait. It’s a way of looking at ourselves through the lens of objects in the same way a museum might. Margaret E. Knight and Charles B. Stilwell’s design for the iconic paper bag is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art both for its design and because it says something about us collectively.
It’s a bit like building a visual brand. What are the objects, colors, fonts, imagery, words and even associations that best express who I am or what I feel like today? Plus, the scope and malleability of the internet means this overall picture can change moment to moment. Looking back over images from the last month, you can see a snapshot of what you did, with whom you did it and what things were on your mind at the time. There’s so much of this data that no one has figured out (quite yet) exactly how to piece it all into something more meaningful. What if there was a way to combine all those Thanksgiving images from all over the world into something that told a global story? There are folks out there trying – Jer Thorp created OpenPaths, which tries to make meaning out of tracking your locations over time. Unfortunately, it’s not image-based.
Even in the late 1800s, CDVs were also used as advertising – generally for male-oriented products like tobacco. As you might expect, they featured imagery of young ladies with “obviously questionable intentions, showing more stocking than was usually permissible.” The end result was that these advertisements were kept or shared rather than discarded. The same desire in advertising continues today in the digital realm. The right imagery for the right consumer will be kept or shared. Either way, it creates a much longer shelf life for the image and increases the likelihood of it being shared with other people who might in turn keep or share the image themselves. In this way, self-selecting consumers help to create the brand they associate with.
An example of a photographer’s advertisement printed on the back of a CDV:
Finally, just to come full circle, you can now turn your Hipstamatic or Instagram images into physical reality with HipstaMart and Cheapstaprint, respectively, or take it to the next level with Blurb or Keepsy by turning your image collection into a good old-fashioned album.
Nicole Stowe is Director of Visual Brand Identity at The Ramey Agency