It’s rare to see a bad photo today. If, by chance, a bad photo is taken and cannot be filtered, edited, or otherwise enhanced into something visually acceptable, it is swiftly deleted. Why hold on to anything less than perfect? Why, when with a cost-free click you can disappear it from your digital life, lest it ever inadvertently make its way onto someone else’s social feed, where it might be screengrabbed for eternity.
It wasn’t always like this. Bad pictures used to abound in what could seem like an almost deliberate, karmic attempt to humiliate and haunt their imperfect subjects. Back when the one-click Kodak dominated, most pictures—unflattering, off-center, accidental, overexposed, and everyone as red-eyed as vermin—were not worth keeping. No one could figure out how to operate the focus. Hardly anyone knew when to turn off the flash, or how. Few people had any aesthetic sense. You could sift through a roll’s worth of fresh prints, their chemical scent almost wetting the air, and not find a single picture aimed anywhere less ominous than the region directly below your chin.
You never knew what you would get once the little button was clicked. You had to wait to find out, usually a week or longer, until 24-hour photo shops, with their bargain-basement development quality, were introduced. You’d head back to a Fotomat after having dropped off the little black plastic roll, full of hope, barely remembering what was on there, because film was precious and the roll may have taken months to complete, especially if it was a 36 rather than a 24, only to open the envelope and discover one blurred atrocity after another.
Things got worse during that frantic period in the ’90s when every catered wedding and sweet-16 party featured dozens of disposable Fuji cameras that somehow landed only in the hands of guests who couldn’t take a single decent picture. You’d be tempted to throw a good number of shots away, but more often you didn’t, because film was expensive and tossing out photographs seemed like a vain and frivolous thing to do. Dare to snatch the film from a friend’s Polaroid as it slid out of the slot, convinced you’d been caught looking ridiculous, and you risked certain wrath.
Browsing through photo albums from this time is like encountering a dark period from an inexplicable and occasionally brutal-looking past, one in which everyone cried at parties and scowled through reunions and looked miserable at their brother’s Little League games. No one ever thought to bring a camera along on those rare moments when you were looking your best. School pictures routinely documented the horror. Your braces. The uneven middle part. That mottled gray backdrop. You might try to hide the telltale 8-by-10 envelope from your parents—of course they’d ordered an overpriced set—but they’d keep the photos anyway, as if out of spite. These once-a-year portraits were part of your childhood history! For the rest of adolescence, you’d flee any adult wielding a camera.
From this angle, it was impossible to fathom the impending dominance of the selfie. Who knew how much people would adore taking pictures of themselves? That teenagers, a traditionally awkward and self-conscious set, could spend entire afternoons posing and perfecting shots of themselves. That seniors worldwide would love selfies so much, tour buses would make stops not for plain old photos of landscapes and landmarks but for pictures of the tourists themselves. That entire “Instagram museums” would pop up purely for the purpose of snapping pictures against wacky backgrounds; that in lieu of docents, museum staff members would stand by to help take photos of visitors posing inside Instagram-ready installations. That upscale hotels and restaurants would design bathroom lighting specifically to enhance selfie potential. Yes, bathroom lighting. But the background in all of these situations is secondary to the main attraction, because in our perfected and selected selfies, we all always look our best.
And yet. Snap-happy people today seem to miss something about those less inhibited, less groomed days—something that has gotten lost amid the relentless Instagram parade of goofy puckers, extended tongues, cute cross-eyes, and three-quarter-angled images. Curiously keen to recapture the not-knowing-what-the-hell-is-on-there waiting period that analog film required, young digital types have taken up the popular Dispo camera app, which forces its users to wait until 9 a.m. the following day before photos “develop” and they can view the damage. Dispo calls itself a “live in the moment” social-media product—no editing, no hashtags, no captions. Is it possible that bad photos showed us something we wanted or needed to see?
This article was adapted from Pamela Paul’s forthcoming book, 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet.