From binary baby to “Friends selfie”: A (brief) history of the digital image

We see thousands of images online every day. We take a trip back over the history of the digital image to see how we got to this point.

On October 15th 2019, Jennifer Anniston broke the internetmaking history as the fastest Instagram user to reach 1 million users when she posted a selfie accompanied by the cast of Friends. It’s since had 16 million ‘likes’ and been viewed billions of times.

This particularly nostalgic shot didn’t just prove how much people love Friends – we probably don’t need to tell you that people love Friends – it also proved definitively just how powerful the digital image is in our society.


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And now we’re Instagram FRIENDS too. HI INSTAGRAM 👋🏻

A post shared by Jennifer Aniston (@jenniferaniston) on

Images have always been a huge part of how we communicate with each other, with research showing that 93% of all human communication is visual and suggesting that we process images 60,000 times faster than we do words. It’s no wonder that imagery was used by early humans to communicate far before the written word was developed.

93% of all human communication is visual


But we’ve never been exposed to more images than we are today. 

150 years ago, people’s only exposure to images was through a select few analogue photographs and art pieces. 

“Today we take more photos every minute than were taken in the entire 19th century”

Then the introduction of digital images changed everything

Today we take more photos every minute than were taken in the entire 19th century. And because we’re exposed to more and more photos every day, we’re also becoming more picky with what we want to see – and getting pretty good at filtering out the images that don’t engage us (after all, how many do you scroll past without dropping that all-important ‘like’). 


Let’s take a brief pause from the onslaught, and look back at the history of the digital image to understand how we got here. 

1957: It’s binary, baby

While the first camera was invented in 1816 (and announced to the public in 1839), the first digital image did not appear until 1957. Russell Kirsch, a scientist at the National Bureau of Standards, created the first digital image by crafting a crude scanning device to turn a photograph of his three month old son into binary code – making him the subject of the first ever digital photo. 


1975: Kodak takes first place 

Though analogue cameras had been around for decades, the development of digital photography began in earnest in the 1960s driven by a need for images that could be replicated and stored digitally, as well as a faster turnover than analogue cameras could offer. 

“The process of capturing the first digital image took 23 seconds”

The first handheld digital camera was built in 1975 by Steven Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak. The camera weighed 8 pounds and worked by recording black and white images to a cassette tape, with a resolution of 0.01 megapixels. The process of capturing images took 23 seconds.

The first photograph taken through a digital camera was taken in December 1975 by a lab technician named Joy. 

Ironically, Steven didn’t save a copy.

However, what was a passion project for Steven Sasson wasn’t picked up by Kodak who didn’t see the mass appeal of digital photography, deciding it would take too much development to be useful, and would effectively destroy the film industry. Kodak dropped the project.


Steven Sasson’s digital camera, 1975

1990s: The democratisation of the digital camera

Despite the digital camera’s invention, it took years of development before they became widely available to the general population after Kodak’s decision not to invest in the tech.

“The widespread availability of the digital camera was a cultural phenomenon, completely democratising and revolutionising the art of photography forever”

This change took place in the 1990s, with the first digital camera to hit the market, the 1990 Dycam Model 1, marketed as the “Logitech Fotoman”. 

For the first time in history, people could take photos without needing to use chemicals and dark rooms to develop the photography, allowing a much, much wider range of people to experiment with photography. The widespread availability of the digital camera was a cultural phenomenon, completely democratising and revolutionising the art of photography forever. 


The 1990 Dycam Model 1, marketed as the “Logitech Fotoman”.

1992: Enter the JPEG

The 90s also saw the birth of a familiar name: The JPEG

Development of the JPEG began in the 1970s with the discovery of a compression technique named discrete cosine transform (DCT). DCT later became the basis for the JPEG image standard, introduced by the Joint Photographic Experts Group in 1992.

Today, several billions of digital images are stored as JPEGs every single day.


2000: The camera phone enters the picture

Even with wider availability of cameras in the 90s, we still had a long way to go. And arguably the biggest step along the way was the advent of camera phones. 

The first phones with built-in cameras were released in 2000 by Sharp and Samsung. The phones made digital photography even more accessible, leading to an explosion in digital images. 


The first camera phone

2010s: Image, meet internet 

But it was only with the internet, and in particular the rise of social media, that the digital image found its true home

“Over the last couple of decades, digital imagery has become increasingly important for effective communication”

With the boom of channels such as Facebook and Instagram, the number of digital images being taken had a place to be stored en masse – and their numbers multiplied. The rise of the internet and social media also changed the way the business world used images, with marketing teams using digital images in new and innovative ways. 

Over the last couple of decades, digital imagery has become increasingly important for effective communication. With digital imagery now a democratised force, the saying “an image speaks a thousand words” has never been more accurate. And images, like the “Friends selfie”, speak to so many every single day. 


The future of the digital image: AI, VR and deepfakes

As we move into the new decade and technology revolutionises the way we interact with the world, our relationship with digital imagery will also evolve.

Technologies like virtual reality have the potential to make the way we experience digital imagery more interactive, adding – quite literally – new dimensions. 

“AI practices such as computer vision are changing the way artists and businesses alike approach image creation and analysis”

Meanwhile, other technologies will have quite a different impact. In the last few years, we’ve witnessed the increasing use of “deepfake” technology, where digital images and video are doctored so convincingly that it’s impossible to tell whether what you’re seeing is real or not. This could completely change our relationship with digital imagery as we’re forced to question the legitimacy of the image.

Inevitably, one of the biggest trends right now is artificial intelligence (AI). AI practices such as computer vision are changing the way artists and businesses alike approach image creation and analysis

This new era will turn the way we view creativity and beauty on its head, and potentially change our relationship with the digital image for good


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Jergan Callebaut
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