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The History of Photo Organization

If you were around before the year 2000, you probably remember those days when we'd drop our film off at local pharmacies or at stores dedicated just to developing photos, like The Photo Place, Moto Foto, and Fox Photo. Remember those? These places were a common sight, and you'd usually have a few choices right in your local strip mall.


We used to call it 'taking pictures,' and we referred to the prints simply as 'pictures'. We’d leave our camera roll of 24 shots at the store and then wait a couple of days for a phone call that our photos are ready. The store had to ship our roll off to a wholesale developer.


A plastic envelope or sleeve of developed photos with photo negatives and photo prints

We'd pay around $10 (which is about $30 today), and get a plastic or paper envelope stuffed with our pictures. If we splurged a bit more, we could even get duplicates of each photo, along with a strip of negatives just in case we wanted more prints later.


You could also go the mail-order route, popping your camera roll in the mail and waiting a week or two to get back an envelope filled with your photos.


This industry was called photofinishing, and by the mid-80s, we were spending about $4.5 billion a year on it—that's a whopping $12.5 billion in today's money! The big game-changer came in the late 70s with 1-hour photo printing. Instead of days, we could get our photos developed on the spot. As J. William Byrd, a photo store owner, said back in '88, "We live in an instant-gratification society; we want things now. The one-hour, on-site lab can provide that."(Source)


The First Evolutionary Step – The Stack of Photos - circa 1900

Since the early 1900s, after taking our camera roll to get developed, we'd end up with a stack of prints on our kitchen counter to sort through. We'd keep the good ones, toss the bad, and if we were really on top of things, we'd put the keepers into albums. We might have one album for the whole year, or one for each vacation or kid. It was a whole thing, and our folks and their folks did it too.


The Second Evolutionary Step – Is it Worth the Storage – circa 1995

The first true digital camera hit the market in 1990, costing about $1,200 in today’s dollars —a steep price, mainly attracting businesses. Apple jumped in with the QuickTake 100 in 1994, aimed at everyday folks but still pricey at $1,600 in today’s dollars.


By the late 90s, digital cameras were all the rage. These cameras had pricey storage cards, and instead of having to buy extra cards, we would transfer photos to our computers. But if we couldn’t get around to transferring, we had to make the decision of what to keep or delete. We would scroll through the camera itself, select the bad photos, and delete them off the storage card.


By the 2000s, smartphones with cameras were the new normal, starting with Nokia, Blackberry, and Motorola, and then Apple with its first iPhone in 2007. Early on, phone storage was so tiny that we had to choose quickly which photos to keep. Over time, though, as phones got smarter, with better cameras and more storage, we no longer needed both a digital camera and a smartphone, so we ditched our digital cameras, and just went out with our smart phone.


The Third Evolutionary Step – If You Wanted to Share, You had to Print - circa 1999

By 1999, with the rise of digital photos, digitally-native companies like Snapfish and Shutterfly popped up, changing how we handled our photos. We could choose which ones to print online, only printing the ones we really liked or wanted to share, and could even send them directly to family and friends. If we wanted to share photos, printing them was the simplest solution.


The Great Devolution – The End of Curation – circa 2023

The forcing functions for curation are gone. We’re no longer evolving, we’re devolving.


  1. The piles of physical photos that once cluttered our kitchen counters are gone.

  2. No prints necessary for sharing. We just email them, text them or post them on social media, but only if we remember to do so right away.

  3. With digital storage becoming increasingly affordable, there's no urgent need to delete photos; they can automatically sync to the cloud.


We used to think our parents were overwhelmed with their boxes of disorganized photos, but our situation is worse. We find ourselves buried under tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of photos and videos. They’re stuck on our phones, computers, in the cloud, or on external drives.


The urgency to curate has faded, and unless we share photos immediately, many remain unseen. Countless great pictures sit forgotten, hidden in the digital depths of our devices.


The Final Evolutionary Step – Making Curating Enjoyable – circa 2024

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can evolve again. Let’s rise up and fight the good fight against digital chaos. Let’s make our libraries enjoyable, so they’re a joy to browse through, easy to search, and shared with the right people. Let’s make a reminiscing experience out of photo organization, so we can relive our life story as we curate our past, remember forgotten moments, and rediscover the experiences and relationships that make us happy. Get the Photo Organizer App, today!



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