It’s common to hear people say, “Here are my iPhone images,” but how often do we hear, “please look at these photos that I made with my camera”? What other gadget has become an adjective that’s an almost essential part of the description of the image?
PAST GAME CHANGERS
In 1924, the Leica Rangefinder revolutionized photography with its new mobility and format. The brand name is frequently referenced by its passionate advocates, but other than the “Leica Gallery”, it’s not used as an adjective. In 2008, the Canon 5D MkII integrated video as never before, weaving the term “5D” into discussions of image-making. And of course “Lomography” is a commonly quoted trademark. But there’s no equivalent to the use of “cell phone” and its variants as an essential qualifier of the images we look at. Just compare the results of a keyword search on Corbis using “Hipstamatic” vs. “35mm”.
THE EXPERIENCE OF SHARING IMAGES
We relate to the camera in a smart phone in a completely unprecedented way. No more is a photograph a simple record or description of what we see. There are 100 billion photos on Facebook. Clearly, sharing images has become part of the experience of living. These are not records to be filed in albums, but vibrant, immediate expressions of our current experience quickly washed away by the next upload.
This is true even professionally. I work in photojournalism, where the cell phone image is a powerful experiential phenomenon. Consider the Japanese tsunami and the Syrian crisis—images of these events bring viewers close to the action, not only by intimate proximity (no telephoto lenses), but more importantly through unfiltered connection to the participant combined with immediacy. Images pop up online throughout the action. This is a transformative sharing experience and a very different photographic event.
THE INVISIBLE PHOTOGRAPHER
The smart phone liberates photojournalists to move anywhere quickly (just as the Leica did in 1924), but perhaps more importantly, it makes them invisible. Once separated from the action physically and psychologically by the bulk of their cameras, photojournalists may now disappear, blending with the participants who are themselves wielding camera phones. As distinguished photojournalist Ron Haviv told me, it can be hard to separate the roles of participant and observer — raising new practical and ethical questions. In a profession where digital retouching has been strictly forbidden, what does it mean to produce images that rely on digital filters and postproduction manipulations? In the commercial world, the pursuit of technical perfection is suddenly trumped by enjoyment of the cell phone’s rough qualities. In the art world, fascination with process continues to be integral to the appreciation of the image. How long before we have a $100,000 cell phone image (if David Hockney’s not already there)?
NOT JUST ANOTHER CAMERA
I hear some photographers say, “It’s just another camera.” But really it’s not. I’ve seen those same photographers behaving and producing in very different ways, not comparable with simply changing format. The “smart phone” adjective has a justified place in our vocabulary — but for reasons that we are only just beginning to understand.
See a gallery of smart phone images at Corbis.
By Stephen Mayes
STEPHEN MAYES is Director of VII Photo Agency in New York, representing 23 of the world’s leading photojournalists (www.viiphoto.com). He has worked at the top levels of photography for 25 years, in the areas of journalism, art, commercial and fashion – working as manager of Network Photographers; Chair of World Press Photo competition (and seven years as Secretary); SVP at eyestorm.com; SVP at Getty Images; and Director of Image Archive at Art + Commerce. Stephen regularly writes and broadcasts on the ethics and realities of photographic practice.