- Captures anything on the screen as a .png file
- Stored on a smartphone camera roll or a computer desktop
- Not actually a photo
I’ve always been embarrassed by the photos I take. They are the unremarkable images of sunsets, landscapes, and buildings in beautiful light that millions of people take every day, even if I do tend to get the horizons straight and avoid sticking my fingers in the frame. My smartphone screenshots, on the other hand, are unique and intimate. Stored automatically in my iPhone Photos app, alongside those pictures of sunsets, these images range from the aspirational (books I want to read mentioned on Twitter, meals I plan to cook cribbed from Instagram) to the conversational (memes, marked-up articles, podcasts queued to Fauci facts). Though taken haphazardly, these screenshots are far more revealing of my lived experience than any clichéd snapshot; they are the subconscious of my camera roll.
The term screenshot is derived from the word snapshot, which, in turn, was borrowed from hunting and applied to amateur photography in the late nineteenth century. It suggested a photograph that was taken quickly and casually, like firing a gun without taking careful aim. A 1953 instruction booklet titled Snapshots with your Brownie Hawkeye Camera accompanied sales of the camera. The text references a past when cameras were seldom used, “brought out of hiding only for vacations or special occasions.” It then goes on to describe the “new thinking” about a contemporary world in which cameras might be kept “handy and ready” for all the “unposed, on-the-spot situations right around home.” Such new thinking, incidentally, would also sell a lot more film.
Are screenshots photographs at all? Technically, they’re made by a smartphone’s operating system, not by its camera. Apple Photos long clumped them together with photos of receipts and ignored them in slideshows, while Google Photos now silos them into their own category. Screenshots are often more text than image. They are photography’s second cousins, descended from the same impulse to document the world, but one step removed. They are, essentially, documents of documents.
The history of the screenshot can be understood as an alternate history of photography. In 1832, long before digital screens existed, a French Brazilian typographer and draftsman named Hercules Florence invented a photographic process that aimed to reproduce printed materials. His technique involved printing images on paper with tiny holes punched into it. Light passed through the holes, allowing an image to be transmitted onto a sheet coated with silver nitrate. The process eliminated the need for a large printing press and allowed images and text to be reproduced without the intervention of a copyist. Only a few of these copies survive, but Florence’s term photographia, a neologism made from the Greek words for “light” and “drawing,” used the same roots as the modern term.
To his chagrin, Florence’s invention was eclipsed by two other photographic processes that were made public in 1839, first in France, by Louis Daguerre, then in England, by William Henry Fox Talbot. Apparently, neither inventor knew of Florence’s earlier experiments in Brazil. Even the official etymology of the word photography refuses Florence’s patrimony, attributing it instead to Talbot’s friend Sir John Herschel. Florence’s dream of easily reproducible words was replaced by a welter of images. Words were demoted to mere captions.
The modern era of screenshots began with the rise of computers in the 1960s, according to the historian Matthew Allen. The earliest computer screenshots were made with cameras rigged to capture the screen from the outside. This setup borrowed from the amateur practice of photographing historic events—such as the Kennedy inauguration or the moon landing—on home televisions. While snapshots of TVs were common at midcentury, pictures of computer screens, like computers themselves, were rare. Computer screenshots remained a specialist phenomenon through the early 1990s. In 1992, MacUser magazine reported the introduction of a “screen-grabbing program,” which allowed everyday users to make images of computer screens from within the operating system. These were called “screen grabs” or “screen shots.”
According to Google Ngram Viewer, which charts the historical usage of terms, the noun screenshot began its ascent in 2004, the same year the massively multiplayer role-playing game World of Warcraft (WoW) went online. Video game makers, including Activision and Nintendo, had been recommending that players take photographs of high scores on-screen since the 1970s and 1980s. (The media historian Jacob Gaboury notes that Activision offered iron-on patches to players who mailed in photographs of their record-setting scores.) These WoW screenshots were different, however: not only were the images made within the operating system (no external camera setup was required), but they captured actual moments within a game, as opposed to its result. A how-to article on Engadget went so far as to recommend practicing screenshotting in advance, so that when the action picked up, players would be ready. The author gushed: “Whether you’re talking about mind-blowing scenery, incredible in-game experiences, or just good times with friends, you’ll experience plenty of WoW moments that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” Still, these Kodak moments for avatars weren’t yet photographs. Instead, the operating system relegated WoW screenshots to their own folder, far removed from snapshots of life lived outside the game.
It wasn’t until 2008 that screenshots escaped the narrow confines of gameplay and user manuals. MacWorld walked readers through the choreography of the new gesture, available to all in iOS 2.0. The iPhone screen blinked, then the screen image appeared in the camera roll, where users could manipulate it or share it just like any other photo. Reflexively, I can feel the little pinch, the give and click of the buttons, even without a phone in my hand. Screenshots have multiplied in the past decade, for both good and ill. From public-facing celebrity Notes app apologies to clandestine copies of images that were otherwise designed to disappear, screenshots are the candid camera of the internet. They can be used in service of truth and transparency, revealing ugly behavior online, but they can also be fun and familiar, reminders of conversations and memes not otherwise archived in memory.
During the pandemic-caused lockdown of 2020, many contemporary snapshot subjects slid out of reach. No brunches, no birthday parties, no crowded bars, no concerts. Instead, those of us able to shelter in place relearned how to take snapshots “right around home,” as Kodak had suggested seventy years before. First day of Zoom school, Dalgona coffees, and quarantine cocktails all called for cameras. Some of these moments aligned with the old adage that photographs make memories, but others seemed to mirror the photographer Garry Winogrand’s stated motivation: “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”
Behind these photographed flashes of achievement, though, there were weeks of sweatpants and scrolling. Screen-time reports confirm just how much of life was lived online in 2020. The app RescueTime reported that average screen use jumped to almost seven hours per day per person in April 2020. Before quarantine sourdoughs and “quarantinis” were real, they were recipe screenshots. Screenshots, like snapshots, are aides-mémoires. They translate the moving world into a static record. Susan Sontag has suggested that “photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time. Television is a stream of under-selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. A still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.” Anyone who’s ever opened an app with intention (to look something up, I swear), only to find herself lost at sea as soon as the scrolling begins, knows that every image on the internet “cancels its predecessor.” The screenshot is one modest way to stem the tide.
Even as group pictures and parties have become possible again, screenshots endure. Like Hercules Florence’s alternate history of photography, screenshots tell our pandemic stories at a slant. In December 2020, when I surveyed a Facebook group for photographers about their smartphone camera photos (taking screenshots of their responses, naturally), the vast majority reported more screenshots and note-taking pictures than any other photographic genre, from portraits to landscapes. Scrolling through my own camera roll from 2020—photos and screenshots mixed together—I find screenshots of hawks in my birding app, massage tools on Amazon, physical therapy exercises frozen on YouTube, CDC statistics highlighted in shaky yellow, guided meditation prompts. In early 2021: a broken link on a vaccine-scheduling site. The ocean. Clouds. The generically beautiful landscapes take on new meaning when captioned with screenshots. Even if my screenshots don’t make my boring pictures better, they make them mine. Screenshots are snapshots of interior life.