What's in a name?

Like millions of others, I use my iPhone to take photographs, some as part of my artistic work, and others to record my life with family and friends. I share photos on social networks: Facebook, Instagram, EyeEm, Flickr, and my website.

Some call what I do phoneography or mobilography, phone photography, iPhoneography or Androidography. To others, it’s just photography. A lot of names, and sometimes name-calling, are associated with the latest evolution of photography. The names suggest changes in what we think of as a camera, and its impact. The camera is becoming something other than a single, dedicated device designed solely to carry out one function: capture or reflect light to create a photographic image.

Sirens, Seattle, Wash., June 2011, iPhone 3GS,  photo by Star Rush.

It’s difficult to deny the popularity of smartphone cameras and their reach into millions of lives, even as they are charged with everything from the debasement of real photography or the peril of photojournalism’s integrity. They are charged with shallowing visual culture via an influx of amateur photographers or by imposing a sameness to images through use of image filters.

We’re talking about a camera that many own whether we set out to buy one or not. The camera comes with the cell phone, after all. Mobile photography intentionally draws photography enthusiasts (pro and amateur alike) and also hooks millions who tap into their own creativity via serendipity by playing with an inexpensive, creative app or looking at others’ images on social networks like Instagram where they’re inspired or stirred to join the mix: “I can do that!” or “I can do it better!”

Whatever we call it, smartphone photography is regularly showcased around the world in exhibits, books, festivals, contests, image-sharing networks, and workshops. Mobile Journalism or Mobile Reporting courses are now offered at universities and colleges, including USC Berkley, Ball State, and elsewhere.

Print and Wire, Seattle, Wash., May 2011, iPhone 3GS, photo by Star Rush.

Defining a mobile photo

It can be hard to nail down just what a mobile photo is: news photo, fine art image or family vacation snapshot? Because most of us have our phones on us all of the time, photographic opportunities abound: pics at meals or of our meals, flowers in the garden, cars in parking lots, kids doing this and that, products on shelves, our happy (and sad) feet, skyscrapers, clouds, strangers on mass transit, and trees we sit under, and so on. Artists use the camera to sample images that become something else, creating in the style of bricolage and abstractionism. They alter the images expressively through digital editing, processing and painting. Others, like me, use the camera in a conventional photographic way, creating narrative or documentary photography.

Results can be stunning realistic photography or expressive visual art, harrowing visual accounts of social and cultural upheaval across the globe told by those in the midst of it all, or gallery-quality fine art. Often, the results are far less glamorous or obviously significant.

Drive In Service, Mount Vernon, Wash.,  June 2011, iPhone 3GS,  photo by Star Rush.

Where does Instagram fit in?

Instagram’s very public acquisition by Facebook cast new light on smartphone photography and art. Instagram didn’t invent smartphone photography, contrary to coverage in the media. It’s not a photography app as much as an image-centric, social media community. While there are many image-sharing apps, Instagram is very public and very popular now.

There are many apps available to add filters to images or edit them in any number of ways; check out Apple and Google's App Stores. Many who post to Instagram do not use the app’s filters; honestly, they’re not the best. Some who post to Instagram are posting pictures they took on DSLRs, and even scans of film photographs.

So, to describe an Instagram user can be a complex task, as is describing an "Instagram photo". Common are small, mundane moments of contemporary life told in snapshots of little apparent value except to those individuals capturing and posting them. Maybe it is these images that make us uncomfortable or uneasy for the sheer magnitude of their ordinariness, the weight of their mundaneness. They certainly stir a lot of judgments about the merits of smartphone photography. Critics take them as representative of what the entire medium and its diverse worldwide community produce. Such overgeneralization is wrong.

The Dreamers, Seattle, Wash., January 2011, iPhone 3GS, photo by Star Rush.

Until recently, smartphone photography and art was largely an underground scene:  a passionate, globally active one, with lively social networks (on platforms other than Instagram), innovators and worldwide exhibits beginning as early as 2010 in New York and early adopters experimenting even earlier. Now, regrettably, to millions, Instagram has come to be the face of something much more diverse and multi-faceted than what’s often portrayed in snappy and emotional blog commentaries.

Filtering through the controversy

Across the web, bloggers decry the use of filters to alter an image’s color, often to mimic a film-like or nostalgic look. What is the role of such imagery in the genre of photojournalism: what is accurate and truthful, or truth altering -- and what is not? The very popularity of Instagram can be a source of consternation:  too many amateurs, too many bad images, too many brands and corporate marketing, well just too many images -- period. There are fears of a shallowing effect resulting from this proliferation of images across our increasingly digitally, mediated lives. Will a consequence be our inability to critically discern a meaningful capture from the thousands of images that pass our eyes each day?

Spin Cycle, Seattle, Wash.,  June 2010, iPhone 3GS,  photo by Star Rush.

The judgments are not new. They tend to accompany each iteration of camera innovation and its impact upon photographic and visual culture. Photography historically has stepped steadily toward the masses. Each technological innovation brings cameras that increase accessibility, mobility, disposability and popular consumer adoption, along with critics who ask hard questions. A look back shows evidence of this: the Brownies, SLRs, Polaroids, point-and-shoots. Each camera in its way removed barriers, a layer of mechanical complexity, technicality, size, cost, and with them a certain sense of mystery, perhaps even seriousness. Each was expected to jeopardize photography. Maybe they have for some as they brought photography to the masses by making its tools cheap, disposable, mobile, accessible and fun.

It’s true of smartphone cameras, too, except with a twist. Smartphone cameras alter not just how we make images but how we view them. In the palm of our hands, we can look at hundreds, thousands, of images a day created nearly anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds by all kinds of people: good and bad, ridiculous and astounding images. No longer are we keeping our photos to ourselves in shoeboxes, slide organizers, or albums in the back of dark closets.

For the Long Journey into Winter, Seattle, Wash., December 2010, iPhone 3GS,  photo by Star Rush.

Unlike conventional SLR or DSLR photography, smartphone photography is seldom only defined through the hardware specification of the phone or camera and its features. Software is just as important, if not arguably more so. For example, iPhone photographers and artists benefit from thousands of creative, social and image-sharing apps, and creative apps for Android users are increasing.

I happen to think viewing photography solely through the lens of  "hardware" is old-fashioned. Perhaps useful and valuable in its own regard, but overall, globally, it's dated. The smartphone camera is augmented by hundreds of camera apps, each offering its own features, benefits and capabilities. Swapping camera apps happens in seconds. The same is true of editing apps. Choices are many, use is easy and the cost is low enough for apps to entice consumers to experiment on a fairly regular basis.

Innovation lets loose ingenuity

Apps, social networks, community, connections, people: together, these fuel the engine of smartphone photography and art. Innovations in these areas let loose the ingenuity of humans to do all kinds of creative things with a combination of small camera, processor, accessible user interface and diverse third-party apps.

The ubiquity of the cell phone gives people a kind of chance. A type of democratizing of creative opportunity surfaces - not necessarily of quality or significance. The quality of a finished product is still dependent upon subjective variables: taste, timing, tenacity, a visually attuned eye for composition, culture and the rest. Still there’s potential, which is alluring and addictive to photography and visual art enthusiasts for which a shortened learning curve can lengthen creative possibility, and whole lot of fun.

Still, Seattle, Wash., January 2011, iPhone 3GS, photo by Star Rush.

Smartphone photography transmogrifies the handheld device into a conduit to creativity, community and culture. The heart of smartphone photography is that it is a connected experience. The device connects, in the palm of our hands, image capturing, editing, sharing. It connects consumer and creator in a single experience. It connects an individual photographer or artists instantly with others like her in common interest across a multicultural, multilingual world.

We forget too easily what came before our time. We lose our memory for how we adjusted ourselves, our processes, our ways of viewing, interrogating and understanding images. Ultimately, the ways in which visual culture adapts to innovation becomes invisible, absorbed into the fabric of our visual and photographic culture faster than it is possible to sort our way through the many arguments calling for the demise photography due to this or that.

If I Express, Deming, Wash., May 2011, iPhone 3GS, photo by Star Rush.

Will we truly lose our abilities to discern beauty, truth, meaning, or significance amongst all the images flooding us now? I think these concepts have always been contestable, debatable, and they always will be to one degree or another.  We are changing, just as our means of recording our worlds, the mundane moments of ordinary lives, and sharing them with others is changing. There are many more of us in these conversations now than ever before. More images, more perspectives, more voices in the conversation: these are good things.

Star Rush, @starrush360, is a Seattle-based photographer, writer, and educator. Her photography has been exhibited in the United States and Europe, and published in numerous publications. Rush is a founding member of Mobile Photo Group, an international collective of mobile photographers. She teaches composition and rhetoric, and literature at Cornish College of the Arts.