From 40 plates to 6 billion files – the scale of photography in a digital age

Photograph, John Dilwyn Llewelyn,

John Dillwyn Llewelyn, “St. Catherine’s Island, Tenby”, 1854

In November, 2011, I wrote a short piece on Managing the Image – Sorting through the Catalog that explored some of the key differences for prolific digital photographers between managing an image archive of digital photographs and silver-based negatives. I was reminded of that essay when I read the New York Times article on how the “rediscovered”  photographs of  John Dillwin Llewelyn, inspired “The Photographer of Penllergare: A Life of John Dillwyn Llewelyn 1810-1882” (Goldberg, 2014). Forty ancient daguerreotypes  unearthed in 1973 from a dusty box found in a garage in Wales, led Noel Chanan to research the life and photographs of Llewelyn, who turns out to have been married to the sister of Henry Fox Talbot, one of the co-inventors of photography, and who became a well-known photographer in his own right (Chanan, 2013). The book is a remarkable time capsule of the life of an elite family living in the 1800’s and is culled from thousands of photographs that Llewelyn made of family life, travels, and of nature.

John Dillwyn Llewelyn, “The Birch Bark Canoe”, 1856

There were two aspects of this article and book that struck me:  the fragility of the digital image and the mind-boggling quantity of digital images that exist today and that grow exponentially with each capture made by  millions of people across the globe.

Independent research indicates that at Fickr alone, 3.57 billion photographs had been uploaded by December, 2013 (Fickr claimed 6 billion had been uploaded by 2011), but this is only one of many locations where individuals publish their digital photographs (Michel, 2014). And these are only the published images, which we could reasonably assume are people’s best images from what is stored on their hard drive. Metadata would be the only way to make sense of this scale of images. Llewelyn was a prolific photographer who created thousands of images using the wet collodion process, which is just a little more labor intensive than connecting the cable from your camera to computer and clicking “Import”.

With wet collodion camera and dark tent, c 1854

Yet, even his images, made by a recognized photographer during the early days of photography when the total number of photographers on the planet numbered in the thousands, still dropped out of sight relatively quickly.

Llewelyn’s photographs take on meaning, because they survived time and are drawn from a fewer number to begin with. They are each well-composed and technically proficient for the day, especially given the challenges of the collodion process, but often their aesthetic content is not so much different than the family snapshots preserved on Iphones and Flickr worldwide.

John Dillwyn Llewelyn, “Young Lions Age 3 Weeks”, 1854

In the 1850’s photography was reserved for the aristocratic class, as it took a healthy investment of time and material to create a photograph (Goldberg 2014). In “Young Lions Age 3 Weeks” we see a young boy with some rather exotic pets, but other than this distinction, this image and others are indistinguishable from millions of images captured  today by adoring parents. So, a few hundred years down the road and trillions of images later, how will our descendants pick out the significant images from our time? Will the images even survive or will the opposite happen –  where the “cloud” we share is eternally populated with the digital likenesses of one indistinguishable individual after another? Will the significant and meaningful images of our time become camouflaged inside the massive output of billions of image files?

Photographs today exist in two basic forms:  the print and the digital file. There are far fewer prints than files, since it costs time and money to transfer a digital image to paper, whereas the cost of storing thousands of family images in digital format is free or almost free. The growing pervasiveness of tablets and smartphones is changing the way we share our images and making it easier and more convenient to avoid printing, and instead, hand over a piece of luminescent digital glass to share. Given the past twenty years of technological change in which recording formats, devices, and media have all come and gone many times, it might be that the hard drive or Ipad discovered in someone’s future garage will not be worth much more than the raw materials they contain. For a digital photograph to survive it will have to be printed archivally or it’s digital file upgraded and transferred by a caretaker.

At the end of her article, Goldberg (2014) asks “A century from now, will someone be able to retrieve tens of thousands of tweets, texts and emails from communication companies and obsolete platforms (and, who knows, even the National Security Agency) to fashion so panoramic a tale?”  For the 2014 Sony World Photography contest, several hundred finalists where selected from over 140,000 entries. Is it possible to even make valid distinctions about the value of individual images in relation to each other at this scale?  It seems that heavy curation lies in our future and in our future perception of our history.

Comments are welcome.

© Douglas Barkey




Chanan, Noel. (2013). The Photographer of Penllergare: A Life of John Dillwyn Llewelyn 1810-1882. London: Impress.

Goldberg, Vick. (2014). From a forgotten box, a ray of light; Daguerreotypes spur book on John Dillwyn Llewelyn, The New York Times. Retrieved from

Michel, Franck. (2013). How many photos are uploaded to Fickr every day, month, year. 2014, from


About Douglas Barkey

Director of Teaching and Learning Effectiveness The Art Institutes Photographer, Artist
This entry was posted in Digital Photography, Photographic Technology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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