What is it about photography on mobile phones?

photo by: www.flickr.com/photos/psexypsychic/

There's been a growing concern expressed by many commentators about the proliferation of images being made by mobile phones.

On the one hand, a core audience, let's call them 'conventional analog' for the moment (and this probably includes me) has concerns about not just how many images are being made, but whether this new movement represents an alternative kind of photography. And something that somehow threatens either their existing worldview of photography or the existence and value of their own practice.

On the other hand, there's the world of mobile phone users. Some of these users have pretensions to being photographers in the conventional sense - in that they're creating consistent bodies of work using this particular device. My current belief, and there's no body of evidence to currently support this view, is that mobile phone users with this characteristic 'linkage' to conventional models of photography are actually quite small in number.
But most aren't interested in producing 'photography' And there are good reasons to suppose why this is the case.

Consider for a moment what mobile phone cameras provide. Camera functionality is now an integral part of a device used for making phone calls and texts, and also for browsing the net. Its a core component of a multifunction device used primarily to communicate rapidly on the move. It represents a truly mobile way for users to transmit a range of textual, audible and visible responses to their immediate environments.

The camera (still & moving) is just part of the device. Non photographers get it bundled as part of the package, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they'd use it and that the results of their labours might not be photography or creative in terms of the traditional historical photographic model.

And this is important to bare in mind. Users are choosing to take images with a phone rather than a dedicated digital 'photography' device. Not all users, but most users. And it's this mass migration of users, taking images without mediation of any meaningful kind that represents the biggest change in what we could call photography, since its birth over 170 years ago.

But is what is happening photography in the sense that we (and I'm referring here to photographers who've been weened on conventional models of photography and camera use) have known it in the past? And does it matter?

In one of the first meaningful studies of this new kind of photography: Creation & Control in the Photographic Process: iPhones and the Emerging Fifth Moment of Photography by Cruz & Meyer, there are a number of references made to the very different kind of medium mobile phone 'photography' represents. Namely the simultaneous capture & transmission of an image. This is a key point. And something that this new medium has 'baked in' that traditional photographic forms lack. Something that more closely resembles a broadcasting model.

Remember, when we're discussing the rapid transmission of pictures point to point between users, often using social media as the platform for showing that content, whether these images are art or creative simply isn't a meaningful or useful barometer to use.

Personally, I don't care for the majority of images taken quickly/instantly and shared without thought. As I've written about often in my articles on photographers, I don't think we can draw an instant comparison between what's being transmitted by mobile phone cameras using conventional models of quality, taste or aesthetic judgement.
It's simply not a factor.

Consider this. A young man enters a new bar to meet some friends. He wants to tell some other friends (who are elsewhere) where he is and show the progress of the evening. He might take pictures of his friends drinking or even of himself and as the evening progresses might continue to take more pictures or take video footage. He'll probably share some texts too or might even post on Twitter/Facebook comments about the proceedings.

If we consider what he's doing with a mobile phone photographic, then all of the content he's produced should be called photography too.
It might not be what we'd wish the practice of photography had become, but it's happening now and it's become normal practise for many, many users throughout the world.
Perhaps the use of the word 'stuff' might be more appropriate e.g. I'm sharing stuff?

For me, and I suspect you too (if you're reading this article via my Twitter account, follow my blog etc) photography is something important in our lives. Something special. Something unique that has become an important or even essential part of the way we express ourselves.

The problem therefore might be that we need a new word or terms of reference to describe either what we think the products of mobile phone cameras should be more fittingly described as.
Or we need a new way to describe the kind of photographic practice we come together to celebrate and think about.
This kind of practise is characterised by a) deliberate and sustained use of a camera to produce distinctive imagery that expands the use of the medium  b) has been 'made' by a combination of human & machine using considered control of lens, film/software, colour, black and white and c) the end results contain the distinctive personality or taste of the maker.

There is another issue too. If we're not going to just put our heads in our hands and look to the past constantly, we do need some way to engage with what's being produced with this new tool.

Joerg Colberg among other critics has recently talked about What's at stake. His argument is not that Tumblr or Facebook or Instagram contain intrinsically 'bad' content. Just that digital photography as characterised by the kind of 'unthinking' point & shoot ethos described above, does not at its core embody any form of meaningful creative judgement.
Also that due to the ease of use, there's no form of creative/personal/emotional risk attached to what's being produced.

What's at stake indeed.

My own current opinion to those of you who are worried or concerned about digital/mobile phone photography is not to worry. It may or may not be photography in the sense we've grown to understand it. It certainly isn't a threat to the kind of practise I've described.

Remember the history of photography has been a continual evolution of technology. The work that people do sometimes is a direct manifestation of that new technology. But also sometimes a reaction against it.

In the long rear view history of photography it's important to retain a sense about what matters and what doesn't. And in my view, mobile phone photography is just a part of a much bigger, broader, landscape in which our own contributions may also feature as important voices.

Nick Lloyd
Feb 23/2013

With thanks to my friend Brenda Burrell for sharing the article by Cruz & Meyer.
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Richard Flaskegaard said...

Very nicely thought through and presented.

I'd like to hear/read your thoughts on how (if) professional photographers need to adapt techniques and practices to this new culture. As MTV had an influence on how we see film, video, and TV commercials, how does cell-tography influence the style of professional work?