Meet the Digital Camera That Lets You Travel Through Time

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BlackBerry's new camera is trying to change, once again, what photography's all about.

At the BlackBerry World conference yesterday, RIM's Vivek Bhardwaj introduced a new camera being developed for the company's new product, the BlackBerry 10 -- one that allows users to detect faces and scroll through frames of the images themselves. "We actually let you go back and forth in time," Bhardwaj said. Instead of missing a crucial instant -- instant-missing being a frustrating mainstay of photography both analog and digital -- RIM's new technology will allow photographers to capture "that perfect moment."

Which: whoa. On the one hand, this is a fantastic innovation, one that could bring a deserved death blow to those group shots showing five people who are smiling charmingly and two who seem to be red-eyed/cross-eyed/drooling.

On the other hand, though, a camera like this -- one that produces images that aren't actually photos in the traditional sense, but rather a tenuous collection of digital composites -- could also represent yet another death blow to what we think of as photography in the first place. Consider, for just a Sontagian second, what a photograph is all about. At core, it's a record of a single moment in time. It doesn't just represent an instant; it captures it. ("Photographs," Sontag says, "furnish evidence.") Which is another way of saying that photos are defined as much by time as by space. As objects, they transport a particular piece of the past into the insistence of the present.

BlackBerry's image-capture system proposes to change that. It proposes to take away the singularity of the photograph itself. Cameras, bells and whistles aside, have tended to be blunt instruments. Milliseconds can divide a brilliant photograph (smiles! charm!) from a horrible one (red-eye! drool!). And here's the thing: That tension has been part of photography's appeal. Photos, as objects, take on the contingency of live performance -- the same kind of thing you get from theater or comedy or dance or speech playing out, precariously, in front of you. There's an element of fleeting reality, of blink-and-you-miss-it suspense -- of danger -- to the art that results. The whole, beautiful thing could fall apart in an instant. 

And time being time, it will fall apart.

Unless a photographer, armed with a camera, good timing, and good luck, is there to save it.

But BlackBerry is proposing to do to moment-driven photography what pre-recording did to live TV: It's making the medium simpler, and quite possibly better, to use ... but it's also taking the serendipity out of it. It's proposing to remove the there-but-for-the-grace tension from images themselves, displacing them from the vagaries of historical happenstance. It's promising photos that have more in common with video than with photography. 

And, in that, it's taking the Lytro ethos of the interactive image and doubling down on it. The Lytro camera, after all, as revolutionary as it is, still operates on the single-moment-caputred paradigm. Though the images it appropriates are dynamic, they are also, temporally, singular. The BlackBerry camera, on the other hand, is inviting you to play with time -- not by capturing it, but by changing it.

Via Jared Keller 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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