A Brief History of Photography on the Internet

A Brief History of Photography on the Internet

Ever since the first photograph was uploaded on the internet the two technologies have evolved in tandem and both share a fascinating history. Digital photography developed in the 1980s and by the early-90s the first digital single reflex cameras became commercially available. These cameras have become increasingly cheap and powerful over the years and have also changed the way we take pictures, allowing the capture of huge numbers of images in a wide range of light and environmental conditions, picture editing, digital manipulation and post-production, and, crucially, the ability for amateurs and professionals alike to upload photos to the internet. The internet also took off in the early-1990s; it was primarily a text-based technology, but photography quickly became an integral part of web design and in turn the web became a prime method for storing and sharing photographs and other types of images.

The first ever photograph on the world wide web

On the 18th July, 1992, CERN IT developer Silvano de Gennaro posted the first ever photograph on the world wide web . The image was a badly Photoshopped promo shot of obscure comedy band Les Horribles Cernettes, part-time performers who also worked at the CERN laboratory in Geneva. This was during the infancy of the world wide web, the technology was mainly used by scientists to share information, but from this inauspicious start the history of photography on the internet would grow into an enormous phenomenon.

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Online picture libraries

During the 1990s the internet continued to spread into all forms or communications and media including photography. Stock photography agencies had been a crucial part of commercial photography throughout the history of the photographic image, licensing and supplying images and generating an income for photographers and the photography industry. By 2000, three major stock agencies had moved their businesses online: Corbis, Getty Images and JupiterImages. These were followed by smaller players and soon an enormous variety of images were available in web-based picture libraries.

Google Image Search

During this period Google was rising to its position as the world’s most popular web-based search engine, and in 2001 the company released its ‘Image Search Engine’. This development allowed any internet user to quickly and easily search the web for photographs; and anyone with a website or blog was able to share photographs with an potentially vast audience. This had copyright implications, but also opened up enormous possibilities for sharing and finding photos.


In 2004, Canadian developers Ludicorp released Flickr, a web-based image hosting platform that allows users to upload photographs and pictures. Yahoo! acquired Flickr in 2005 and it has since become one of the most popular photography related websites; today it hosts more than 6 billion images. Flickr members upload photographs to share with friends, family, professional contacts, and the wider public; create online portfolios to showcase images; and join Flickr groups and communities. Flickr also provides a means for embedding images on blogs and in social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

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Facebook, Twitter, social media and the cloud

Facebook, Twitter and other social networking services have become an important part of many peoples’ lives, a way to communicate and a place to share and store photographs. Launched in 2004, Facebook is now the internet’s largest photographic storage service, reportedly holding more than 90 billion photographs and receiving 250 million uploads every day. Since its release in 2006, Twitter has also become an extremely popular social platform for photography, allowing users to instantly share photos taken using their camera phones, and these images can be retweeted and rapidly spread across the web. Social media services and other forms of online ‘cloud’ storage provide a means for backing-up photographic collections, so if your digital or hard copies are damaged or lost the images can be retrieved. It also means that you can access your photographic history anywhere the internet is available. The development of other applications and websites has further pushed forward the history of photography and the internet.


Instagram was released in 2010, and quickly became a popular photographic sharing application – there are currently more than 100 million registered users. The app is designed to reference the square photo format of Kodak’s iconic Instamatic and Polaroid cameras, and enables users to filter their pictures and share via social media services. In April 2012, Facebook acquired the Instagram app, along with Instagram’s 13 employees, for $1 billion in cash and shares.


Another example of developments in social photo sharing is the Pinterest website, which allows users to create themed collages of images on a pinboard-style platform. Users’ online pinboards are themed according to interests and organised, categorised and presented in way that makes them discoverable to other users. Launched in 2010, Pinterest now attracts a huge amount of media interest, membership and hits – in August 2012 the site received nearly 25 million unique visitors.

Smart phones and tablets

Recent years have seen a massive increase in the use and reliance upon smart phones for everyday activities, and, along with other devices such as tablets and pads, bring together many of the key elements in the shared history of photography and the internet. Many of these devices contain high resolution cameras, are connected to the internet for instant picture uploading, enable digital image enhancing and manipulation, can connect directly to social media services for sharing and updates, and apps can be installed to tailor the device to the users specific photographic requirements.

Copyright and Creative Commons

Copyright is a thorny issue when it comes to photography on the internet because although websites and blogs often reproduce images from other sites, technically the copyright belongs to the original owner of the image. Copyright rules are also complicated by different rules in different countries and the terms of service that are applied when users upload images to sites such as Facebook. Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization that helps clarify copyright issues by providing free copyright licenses that define how images published on the internet can be reproduced and modified by others. There are a choice of four different CC licenses with various terms for reproduction including whether the copyright owner allows reproduction, whether the image may be modified, whether derivatives of the work may be created and if the image can be used for commercial use. Creative Commons was founded in 2001; by 2008 there were an estimated 130 million works with CC licenses. Flickr was one of the first major online photography communities to adopt CC licensing and by 2011 was hosting more than 200 million licensed photographs.


The future

The future of photography on the internet and the direction this evolution will take is difficult to predict because of the intense rate of development in technology, but several key factors can be identified that will shape this future: the technologies themselves that facilitate photography and the internet (cameras, computers, the world wide web); the sharing of works by social media communities and copyright licensing; and, of course, the creativity and artistry of scientists, developers and photographers.