Some place its origin to mystic Egyptians trying to capture the quintessential field of vision while others are convinced that it has a mathematical relation to the golden ratio so favored by renaissance artists. But in reality, it is nothing of the sort. The creation and subsequent standardization of the rectangular format in photography have much more humble and very practical origins.
At birth, photography was captured on a variety of frames, ranging from square, round, to sometimes rectangular, depending on the camera and its users. But there was no standard.
A child of the film industry
In the late 19th century, 1889 to be exact, Thomas Edison and his assistant engineer, W.D.L Dickson, himself a photographer, were looking for a cost efficient quality film to be used in their newly invented kinetoscope. Eastman, at the time, had just started producing 70mm and 90 mm gelatin-based film strips. Dickson cut the 70 mm film in two, resulting in two 35mm width films. He then punched perforation in the strip (in order to facilitate its travel), leaving him with an image width of 1 inch. He could have kept the height also at 1 inch, resulting in a square frame, but, being a practical man, decided on 3/4 of an inch, so that he could maximize the number of frames in the 50-foot strip of film he was using. The result was a rectangular frame. The newly born 35mm film was quickly put to good use in many kinetoscopes and later on, widely adopted by the film and television industry.
While the first patent for a still camera using 35mm film first appeared in 1908, and hybrid models (film and stills) existed by 1913, it is not before 1924, when Leitz launched the Leica Standard model E, that the format really took off. With photographers quickly adopting the camera and subsequent imitations, thanks to its ease of use in most situations, 35 mm film soon became a standard in photography as well. And with it, the supreme dominance of the rectangular format in photography. So much so that when digital capture came to replace film, it abided by the same rules, decided more than a century ago, by an engineer looking for a practical solution to his penny arcade machine.
Undeniably, the rectangular frame has done wonders for photography. On its landscape orientation, it mimics our perceived view of the world, while on the vertical orientation, it has replicated a long tradition of painted portraiture. And while photography could only be seen, shared and appreciated on paper, it was a perfect companion. But no more.
Breaking the frame
Along with the advent of digital, the constraints of both capture and display of photography have exploded. We capture on pixels and we view on liquid crystal. Already, the lazy engineers of Instagram, because they didn’t want to have to deal with resizing the app depending on how the viewers were orienting their phones, force-familiarized millions to the square format . While our phone screens remain rectangular, the images inside can go far beyond. Practically all our pocket device can easily take very wide panoramic as well as full 360° bubbles. With the advent of VR, Google even has an app that can take almost full VR pictures.
Our laptop computers, as well as our tablets, can display those same borderless photos, with even higher color depth, far beyond what the 3 color film could ever dream of. We no longer need to view photos as a flat, 2 dimensions, rigid, 3rd person experiences. We can now be in the photo, have it surround us as if we are present with the photographer at the moment he took the frame. The image has no frame, no limit, as it is all around us. No more cropping the sides ( it has no sides). What is on the right matters as much as what is above or behind. It is still static, but can be now fully experienced as a moment.
Plunging into immersive
New Apps like Photonomie even allows selecting how much of the 360 bubble you want to capture, using painting gesture to photograph your surroundings. Not only selecting what is in the picture easy, viewing is as simple as orienting your phone to pan inside image. A full immersive experience, far more powerful than the rectangle frame and without the need for cumbersome glasses.
Already Facebook facilitates the 360° viewing experience, making it native for mobile phones. It is not long before other popular platforms like Instagram, Pinterest or Snapchat offer the same, along with the myriads of publishers apps already available. After all, why offer a constrained rectangular photo to illustrate news, or sport, when an immersive image can reveal so much more ?
So while the rectangular format has had its moment of glory ( for more than a hundred years), it is time for photography to graduate to a more mature, unrestricted frame that is closer to the way we actually experience the world . No longer limited by physical film, or print, it is due time that it takes full advantage of its new digital ecosystem. And while we will never forget or probably never fully abandon the rectangular format, it’s time to embrace the creative freedom offered by the frameless format.
Photo by come cane in autostrada