Throughout history, the fine art community has had a reluctance to accept photography as a proper form of artistic expression. With time artists using the medium began to slowly explore its implications as a means to express themselves artistically despite criticism. Cameras eventually started to emerge that were more consumer friendly and opened the world of photography up to a much wider user base.
In the past 30 years or so, the industry has rapidly evolved. Moving from some of the early mass produced point and shoot film cameras all the way to the current tiny lensed digital cameras attached to our mobile phones. With the dawn of this seemingly backwards step, philosophies regarding the validity of certain branches of the photographic community are being called to question once again. Many photographers with ties to its history in pop culture are attempting to make sense of a new breed of casually curious photographers who are using their mobile phone cameras as a means to create their art.
I keep a peripheral eye on trends in the photography world as do many photographers and one area that I have been subliminally collecting thoughts on is the “best camera is the one you have with you” movement. A key element to the growing popularity of this way of thinking is the evolution of the mobile phone camera. It has seen a reluctant sort of adaptation through the years as mobile phone manufacturers started trying to cram larger lenses and sensors awkwardly onto the back of phones with limited success.
That is, until Apple shows up one day with the iPhone. While the first couple of models came paired with limited photographic capability, the dawn of the App store and a few brilliant minds discovered that mobile phone photographs could be disguised as decent photos with a few post processing tricks. Suddenly the tiny cameras on the back of iPhones became capable of moderately admirable photographs.
If memory serves me correctly, an app called Camera Bag was the first to gain traction within the app store. Of course with any new trend competitors started to crawl out of the woodwork and soon the more conceptual Hipstamatic app was born. With time we started to see attempts at other, less gimmicky sorts of mobile apps which allowed us to edit basic aspects of an image and slowly but surely the photography section of the app store filled up with countless applications to edit and share your mobile photos. Then along comes our buddy Instagram which somehow stepped into the spotlight at a tipping point with just the right combination of features and the rest is history still in the making.
It’s amazing that things have evolved so quickly that the concept of making a mobile image look stylized in a nostalgic or old looking way has folded back in on itself in the form of the clever InstaCRT app project. The idea is that you upload your image to a remote computer which projects the image onto an old CRT monitor at which point a DSLR takes a photo of said monitor and transmits the effected image back to you. While it is a fragile concept mechanically, it does make for an interesting addition to my theory that trends in digital photography can only continue to dwell on the past for so long before the cleverness of it implodes. Here are a couple of examples run through the process:
I heard an interesting discussion on a podcast about motion pictures in which they talked about how audiences are hesitating to embrace higher frame rate in films because it looks fake or a bit TOO real. The same goes for current model high resolution digital still photography as well. This all comes back to this generations visual expectations and comfort zones.
The psychology of it is fascinating and seems to have a lot to do with a reluctance to evolve technically in connection with certain, often subliminal, aesthetic criteria. Pop culture and the last century of its evolution is constantly speeding up to the point where new approaches to certain recorded mediums are not as easily accepted in all cases.
Generational gaps in technological advancement are starting to overlap. It is a delicate balance for content creators to either push forward and risk being ridiculed for too drastic a change or, alternatively, dwell too much on the past. This is why many are finding comfort in the middle ground with things such as digital filters to make the clean looking images from their digital cameras look older as a means to compensate for the change. Adding digital noise to an image is a keen example of this. It is a transitional gimmick used by many photographers (and film makers) as the gaps between generations of content creators close in on each other at an ever increasing pace.
At any rate, I feel it is safe to say at this point that mobile phone photography has quickly become THE way average consumers without the need to own a more elaborate camera make photographs. With or without filters and post effects.
What interests me in all of this is the philosophy that many photographers have taken to heart when it comes to mobile photography. When I first started reading articles and books written about the idea of mobile phone photography being a viable alternative to carrying around a fully capable camera I could not help but think that it was a movement based around laziness. Why on earth was it so difficult to have a moderately capable camera around if you consider yourself to be a semi-pro photographer? Even opportunistic hobbyists shooting more casually should have more sense than that, right? I of course realized almost immediately that I was being a bit harsh on the concept overall.
Once I let the idea sink in I started to see the appeal. I remember being hard on the Lomo guys when they were gaining praise because I didn’t think there was really any skill involved in shooting with silly toy cameras, you just point and click. It took a while but I warmed up to the idea after playing with one and giving the idea and philosophy more of a chance. This and I started to discover a handful of photographers making truly compelling imagery with the wide variety of handicapped cameras on the market.
Using the iPhone as a camera settled into my mind in the same way. During a trip to India I had my first taste of how handy it could be as my second, quick to grab, snapshot camera because I chose to focus on film photography during that trip and having a little pocketable camera with seemingly unlimited space was a nice addition to my travels.
Where I would once mock the idea of anyone taking it seriously for photography I remembered that we all have different goals and different goals require different tools. It is very much my opinion that a good photograph is entirely the photographers doing and not simply their choice of camera. Even a simplified toy camera can be exploited and used in ways that make striking imagery so why not a little cell phone?
As I have always stated here in the past, every camera has its strengths and its weaknesses and it is the photographers job to utilize his tool of choice to best take advantage of its strengths to create imagery he or she can be proud of. I will tell you one thing though, you won’t ever see professionals start running around with only their cell phone in tow. Well, outside of a few odd photojournalists trying to prove a point of some kind (which I still can’t honestly see as much more than a publicity stunt).
So, all that said, whatever camera you choose to use is fine by me. The thing to consider above all in this argument is what your end goal is with your photography. What are your plans for your images in the future? Are you satisfied simply with the experience of shooting itself? Are you satisfied with the fleeting, twitter like praise of Instagram? Maybe a simple small book of photos or a small print from time to time is all you want or need from your photographs and if that is the case, maybe mobile phone photography is perfect for you.
For many of us however, this is simply not enough. My iPhone provides me with a simple, quick camera and post tools allow me to have a bit of fun with the images afterward. Sometimes a few striking images are produced in the process but as for my end goals are concerned it is mostly a dead end outside of sharing casually online or having a memento of a moment captured. I am not able to make printed enlargements with any reliable fidelity. I most certainly am not able to make a desktop image from them, nor sell them commercially outside of the gimmick of it being taken with an iPhone but that idea has already sort of lost its appeal.
When I see a photo opportunity that I have any real emotional connection to I pull out my 5D if I have it with me or, more often, a film camera like a Canonet or Olympus XA which I always have nearby. Simple, quick, and much more viable for later use. Carrying a ‘real’ camera with me is not exactly a burden by any means. Not if my passion and goals remain in their current state.
I realize there are countless variables in this discussion and I have already cut out a number of paragraphs to keep this from wandering too far off track. I simply wanted to take some time to recognize things as they stand today because we must also consider the fact that we were saying almost exactly the same things about digital photography in general not all that long ago when it started to appear more prevalently on the market. Though the evolution was much slower then, the end result is clearly heading in the same direction with wide spread adoption and constantly improved results year over year. What with cameras focusing after the fact and mobile phones gaining momentum on dedicated digi cams, the times sure are changing, and fast.
I envision a not so distant future where mobile phones completely cannibalize the standard point and shoot market and in the process end up altering the term ‘traditional’ to include any stand alone camera not attached to your mobile device. What this would mean for manufacturers is anyones guess but I would assume they would end up catering more and more specifically to the professional and amateur photographers markets rather than the broad scope of average consumers. Products such as the micro four-thirds cameras and Fuji’s x100 or xpro1 are clear indications of such a change. It will be interesting to see if the bloated structure of some of the companies in the game will be able to readjust to the new way of the world. We have already seen one casualty from a failure of understanding of this evolution which ironically enough is Kodak, one of the pioneers of modern photography.
So despite any naysayers or misguided attempts at saying otherwise we may as well get used to the fact that the art form of photography will continue to constantly evolve. In this new world where every third person you see on the street seems to call themselves a photographer and cameras are as much a part of our lives as food and shelter, it will be interesting to see how the skill and traditional mindsets of many of us who have been in the game for a while will be forced to evolve with it.
In the end, it’s up to you how to react. As I have mentioned before, I always encourage others to look beyond the knee jerk instinct to follow along with what may be the easiest way of doing something. The world of photography is not always about keeping up, it’s about standing out, and we do this by sharing life from a new perspective. Combine this knowledge with goals you set for yourself in terms of how you plan to publish images in the future and deciding what kind camera you need to accomplish your goals will become much easier.