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Post-photokina '04: Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm?



The digital photo field has undergone new paradigm changes, which sounds impressive till you ask a question. What's a paradigm, anyway? Something worth only twenty cents? As in, "he didn't have a para two thin digms to rub together?" For if they're as momentous as any three-syllable word ought to be, how come we keep hearing about paradigms? Over and over? "This is a paradigm change," and "there was a paradigm shift in so-and-so." If it's so big, could it really show up with the frequency of 20-cent items at a candy stand? Or has the paradigm shift indeed become coin of the realm?

Don Sutherland

Put it to you this way. Sometime between 1904 and now the horse, which had been ubiquitous among the citizenry since before civilization, vanished from the streets. That's a paradigm change. One hundred years ago, the first powered flight was declared, and as this is written, we have a space ship that took a version of the horse's replacement, an advanced automobile, to toodle around Mars. That's a paradigm change.

Unlike other expressions meant to convey the amazingly large—take your pick from "huge," "humongous," "billions and billions" and a stupendous array of others—"paradigm" is not a measure of quantity. Something cannot be "more paradigm" than something else. A paradigm is a model, and that's all.

Don't take our word for it. According to one dictionary, a paradigm is "One that serves as a pattern or model. A set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them [emphasis added], especially in an intellectual discipline. Applications of the term in other contexts show that it can sometimes be used more loosely to mean 'the prevailing view of things.'"

A paradigm refers to the basic plan and order of the subject. A paradigm change simply means that the fundamental organization of the subject has revised, making it a big thing to that subject. But how big it is to the rest of the world, depends.

Any society that could go from horses to Martian rovers in one thin century is bound to have model changes in many of its constituent agencies. So yes, for our twenty-cents' worth, you can have paradigm changes by the minute as the coin of the realm, but they'll be of more or less significance.

The Shape of Photography

The paradigm for the photography market has changed in many ways since the year 1904, when flexible film was barely drinking age. Plenty of people were still using glass plates, which themselves had brought paradigm changes to a science that began with copper plates. The advent of Kodachrome in the mid-1930s sent its own paradigm shifts through photography, as it enabled not only the capture of a subject in color, but also its presentation to large audiences by projectors.

Television came along too, sometimes thought separate from photography, but not really so. It still involves the interaction of light upon a sensitive substance, for the purpose of creating an image, and that's what photography ("drawing with light") is about. TV has wrought a few paradigm shifts of its own, of course, one of them ushering in electronic photography as we know it.

The Orthicon and related imaging tubes used in early TV cameras were closer to film in the way they drew with light, but by the 1960s and 70s, CCDs had attacked and conquered. Another paradigm shift in imaging.

We don't think about it much, mostly because the products are made by different divisions of the companies and marketed through other channels, but other forms of imaging—X-Ray, sonic, magnetic, and so on—represent paradigm shifts in photography. Or, maybe better, paradigm shifts away from photography, using something besides visible light on the sensitive substance to draw the picture. But all these other imaging forms certainly followed and were maybe inspired by photography.

The psychology that thinks of seeing the unseeable is a paradigm shift from the psychology that doesn't. One came after Daguerre, one came before.

The earliest writers cast about for ways to describe photography. It was a hit from the outset, but still needed explanation. Because those copper-plate Daguerreotypes gave a silvery sheen, some of the best descriptions used the analogy of a mirror. That too is silvery, and if you're living in 1840 and you think of your reflection as somehow becoming frozen in a mirror, you've got your arms around photography.

Once the idea of a frozen reflection is ubiquitous to society, can the electron microscope be far behind?

The Shape of Thought

It is frequently said that when the house is on fire, the item most folks try to save first is the family photo album. This actually is not a paradigm shift. Before Daguerre, they'd have rescued the family Bible for much the same reason.

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