Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Camera Phones and the Democracy of Photography

If you follow the chronology of photographic history, there are some milestones that illuminate how the medium has become more and more available to the everyday purposes of the public at large.

1839-Photography’s advent: The first photograph is officially created by Niepce in France 12 years before but this date is when Daguerre and Talbot simultaneously unleash each of their unique processes upon the world, forever changing media, art, and society as a whole. Both of these processes (the Daguerreotype and the Calotype/Salt Print) are the province of the elite, wealthy and all but most adventurous hobbyists for the next decade. The chemistry is sophisticated and for the larger part of the 19th century a photographer is equal parts craftsmen, scientist and alchemist (upon those rare occasions when images of lasting value linger into our contemporary consciousness even today). While the operator of the camera is as distanced from the everyday citizen as the hierarchy of classes essentially allows, beginning in the 1850’s the average person is finally able to afford a likeness of themselves, a luxury previously only reserved for the commissioners of painted portraits and the expensive tastes of church patronage. The “Tintype” and the “Carte de Visite” were the first true levelers of this prior artifact of excess, with everyone from soldiers in the American Civil War to casual tourists now able to possess a small, inexpensive portrait made in a quick manner.

Flash ahead to 1878 when the laborious and complex wet-plate collodion negative technique is replaced by a dry-plate version, then 1883 when celluloid (modern-day flexible film) is introduced and most importantly 1888: the introduction of the Kodak Hand Camera. This is the year the “snapshot” is born and with it the rise of the “vernacular”. The vernacular is common, even generic and boring everyday photography created by amateurs, in-laws and basically anything not deemed art or serious photography. This is the true ascent of photography’s democratic ideal: that anyone, not just a skilled technician and not the previously wealthy class of the old world could now make pictures whenever and of whatever they wish. Kodak’s Rochester, NY facility boomed under the marketing scheme of selling the cameras preloaded with roll film and then having the customer send the entire camera into the factory. The labs then printed all of the images and loaded the camera again for its next term of use. It was genius. This is the business model that launched Eastman Kodak to stellar financial heights. (It is ironic and unfortunate that the advent of digital photography and less dependence on traditional silver-based materials has essentially been the death knell of this corporation a century later.)

So it is by no mere coincidence that one year after the introduction of this snapshot revolution that in 1889 one witnesses the birth of Pictorialism, a photographic movement that lasted until the outbreak of World War I and came into existence with the express purpose of establishing the photographic medium as a fine art and in direct opposition to the types of pictures being created by the quotidian masses. (This movement was noble in its intentions but ultimately doomed in its insistence on mimicking the surface effects and subject matters of painting, attempting to co-opt aspects of the latter in legitimatizing photography’s place in the visual arts.)

Fast forward a half-century or so and we arrive at the large-scale introduction of color photography. Color images had existed to some degree in the 19th century, either through a process where miniaturists on staff at studios would paint colors over monochromatic pictures or through incredibly laborious and unstable processes like the “Heliochrome”. The Lumiere Brothers introduced the “Autochrome” around the turn of the 20th century and while the Pictorialists experimented with this technique, the slides were one-of-a-kind and incapable of reproduction. (I had the pleasure of seeing some examples of autochromes in Paris at the Musee D’Orsay some years back in a darkened room, and the aesthetics of the pictures are gorgeous.) It was really the debut of Kodachrome film in 1935 and its wide scale use by families and tourists in the 1940’s and beyond that ushered in the age of the true to life images that we take for granted now. While color remained the domain of the advertising photographer well into the 1970’s, essentially hands off to fine artists, generations of families now grew up on the amateur father or mother snapshot still image-maker, not to mention the pulpy 8 and 16mm moving pictures that became a staple of American and European living rooms during the era. (Polaroid becomes a mere footnote in this article, but Edwin H. Land’s innovation in instant picture making is where this whole summary culminates in the mainstream uses of photography as we know them today.)

From the 1970’s to the early 2000’s the amateur or vernacular photographer was judged by the sharpness of his glass, and if he used the best cameras available on the sub-professional market. The often Nikon clad weekend warrior photog was hunched over due to his enormous telephoto lens and their estimation of success was the itinerant house guest’s notion of “hey, you took these? These could be in National Geographic!”.

Ah, and on the 7th day God rested, but then everything was nearly open 24 hours/7 days a week and in this atmosphere came Digital! Analog photography’s decline was of course precipitated by the introduction of digital cameras and what at first was the sole province of the technophile soon became the working standard of photojournalists and media, and now the domain of the majority of people who consider themselves “photographers”, novice, professional, or ambivalent to the term whatsoever. At first digital cameras had to catch up to the resolution and dynamic range of film-based capture but within the scope of 20 years, digital has essentially surpassed film in sharpness and reproduction quality except for the largest of traditional formats. This leads of course to the teaser that possibly drew you to even reading this essay…the appearance of camera phones on the scene and their contemporary status as photography.

Now, when I mentioned sharpness and quality in the previous statements, let me be clear. This matter of quality is key because much of the world has lost its appreciation for subtlety and classic aesthetics, which is at the heart of the matter. Camera phones now possess incredible resolution and can even be utilized to make the small-scale prints that once would have graced the pages of the typical family picture album. I have no doubts that relatively soon “Moore’s Law” will account for camera phones being able to make greater and more significant enlargements and with even smoother and more professional looking results. (This assumes of course that people still view pictures as prints or in traditionally published media, as tablets, phones and online require about a quarter of the resolution necessitated by the older standards.) Damon Winter’s 2010 Iraq War pictures were made with an iPhone and stylized with a widely available app. This year Nick Laham had an image of New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez published on the front of the New York Times that was captured and processed through Instagram. Often photojournalists and other media photographers supplement their higher quality captures with images created in this vein, and it will only continue to grow more and more popular. This fails to recognize of course how many millions of individuals utilize this technology on the daily level and as Anderson Cooper claimed in an interview he conducted of Kelsey Grammer, with Instagram “Everyone’s a professional photographer”.

Alas, where does that leave us? Are images created with camera phones “photography”? Yes, without a doubt. But, are they “serious photography”? No. That may seem a bit snobbish, but it is in reference to that quality issue I referenced before. It’s about process…thought…commitment…and things not always seeming as easy as society would have you believe. There is a substantial difference between the amateur photog that anyone on earth can claim to be these days and those practitioners of either traditional or contemporary craft that can truly refer to themselves as photographers of a certain regard. Even if the case is made for qualified and dues-paying professionals using these apparatuses, they are essentially pushing a line that they know they are in the unique position to walk over. Quality is an evaluative term and it can be troublesome in this age of political correctness, social egalitarianism and post-modern globalization. That said, is it wrong to believe that people who have dedicated their entire lives to the craft and service of the photographic medium are not separate from the remainder of the public in their status as photographers? If some stranger came up to you in the style of Alec Soth or Bruce Davidson, would you think higher of them if they were asking to photograph you with a large format view camera or a Leica rather than framing you in 5 seconds with their phone? What about the future status of professional photojournalists or art for commerce? Will all commercial and news publications simply scroll through the archives of Flickr and Facebook to access ready-made images that require no greater thought than a computer logarithm mimicking a “Holga” effect or vintage sepia? What will it mean when more and more MFA Photography programs are tortuously extended into a Studio Art PHD when schools can require more and more education and finances of their students, but still accept that they might never learn the craft of photographic history and potentially complete a thesis project with a camera phone? These are some of the expansive questions that face photographers of tomorrow and ones that do not present easy answers.

Roland Barthes hypothesized in Camera Lucida that the vernacular photographer was closer to the true essence of the medium due to the photograph’s quintessential nature of having documented, or certified “this has been”. He also believed that when photographs were subjected to the same aesthetic constraints of composition, surface effects, etc. as those of the traditional visual arts that they sacrificed this essence in an attempt for legitimacy. Perhaps he was right, but I find rather that a combination of these concepts is truer to the crux of the argument. That the democracy of photography is a large aspect of its power, but that also it is a momentous achievement of a photographic image-maker to transcend the billions of pictures circulated endlessly through the world at any given time and create those pictures of lasting import, value and ultimately physical or intellectual craftsmanship. And that readers, can only be attained through process…thought…commitment.

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