What is mobile photography, and why are we still asking that question?
If you ask someone, "What is photography?" what would they say? Most people's answers would probably be the same. We all understand photography as an art, science and practice -- where an image is recorded and turned into a photograph (or a 'light painting,' if you want to get all technical with the literal Greek translation of it). A single moment in time becomes captured as a digital file (or even on film, for all of you old school folks).
But the reality is that photography has been changing and evolving for nearly two centuries, from its crude beginnings and complicated chemical processes only handled by professionals to the instantaneous and much more accessible digital world we’re living in today. The latest evolution of the medium, what’s been dubbed 'mobile photography,' is perhaps the most radical change to be seen yet -- as it doesn't just involve a change in how (and what) photos are taken, but also in the growing number of people taking them, and how they are now shared, consumed and ultimately viewed.
This current wave, which is going to be at the forefront of photography for the foreseeable future, is exploding mainly due to mobile devices: 'connected' cameras that you can fit into your pocket and always have with you. Devices like Apple's iPhone truly paved the way: even though the first model featured only a 2 megapixel camera in 2007, a year later the App Store introduced a plethora of add-on camera applications and suddenly made photo-taking on a cellphone a lot more fun and attractive. The combination of accessibility, ease, sharing capabilities and sheer proliferation of smartphones would soon cause a major change in the world of photography, forever.
Dozens of other handsets (operating Google's Android or other OSs) have since joined the iPhone on the market. And the cameras on these mobile devices get better and more advanced with every new model. The new iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S III are just the latest gadgets in a long line of photo-capable devices that are able to produce stunning images. Even the recently announced 5th generation iPod Touch has an excellent 5 megapixel camera.
While it’s taken a few years for 'mobile photography' to gain general acceptance in the photo community (it still hasn’t won over all critics, mind you), there’s no doubt it’s a medium that’s here to stay.
Defining mobile photography
But if you ask the average person on the street these days "What is mobile photography?" you'll either get a look of complete confusion, or any number of varying definitions, depending on who you ask. Many believe mobile photography is restricted to just one device, like the iPhone, or only one app, like Instagram. Some equate it with the overabundance of pics they see on their various social media channels of food and pets featuring oversaturated filters and funky borders, and can’t see it as anything beyond that. And what exactly does it mean when we put 'mobile' in front of photography anyway?
Simon Sparks, a former professor and head of the Department of Philosophy at Oglethorpe University who specializes in the philosophy of art and photography, believes that the term may simply be too broad.
“What constitutes a mobile photographic device?” Sparks pondered our recent interview. “Aren’t most cameras pretty mobile? Oh, I see, one that’s also a phone? Fine. But what about iPods? They’re OK? Huh. But I thought it had to be a phone, too? No? So what’s a mobile device, then? It turns out it’s unclear and it’s going to become more and more unclear as the technology develops (just think what the camera in your iPhone is going to look like in 10 years time; it’s certainly going to beat the socks off most of the DSLRs that are available today). In fact, trying to define something (mobile photography, art, painting -- anything, really) in terms of the thing that’s used to make it is maybe not the best idea.”
Now several years in to this new revolution, we've had amazing breakthroughs and seen brilliant new artists emerge. And yet the medium is still going through some growing pains as it attempts to find its footing and establish a clear definition of its ultimate meaning and purpose. As trends (and apps) come and go, it may be a while yet before we really know and appreciate where this medium is truly heading.
Photography takes its biggest leap yet
Long before the iPhone came along, photography -- as an art form -- had long been a medium reserved for artists who could actually afford it (or at least artists so loyal to their craft that they would sacrifice other things in life in order to save money for their gear). Between the cost of equipment (cameras, lens and other accessories), film development, printing tools and framing materials, it's never been a particularly 'cheap' art form. And for that reason, it attracted a more dedicated set of users who wanted to make the most out of their high expenses.
It's also been an art that's required a lot of patience -- whether waiting for film to come back from the lab, or finding the time to import a batch of pics from a DSLR to a computer (and then process them and share them through now-archaic means, etc.). Add on top of that the fact that photography required a willingness to learn the complexities of most cameras -- each one needing a multiple-page manual to explain how to focus, expose and take a single shot, let alone how to even turn it on. And then there are the cables, memory cards, lenses, batteries and other things to worry about.
Nowadays, more than half of the cellphone-carrying population has smartphones, meaning that the largest percentage of human beings in the history of mankind now have access to rather advanced (yet deceptively simple) cameras -- and can take pictures at any time they want with extreme ease, without much education or expertise in doing so. Photography has finally been democratized for the masses!
But being a 'photographer' is more than simply having access to a camera, pointing it and pushing a trigger button. The debate on who makes a good photographer, or what makes a good photograph, has never been more heated than right now. And because the ease and accessibility of this new kind of photography has made anyone with a device capable of taking photos at any time they want, it's raised many questions about the overall meaning of “art” in this modern age.
For a short while as this genre was emerging (especially with the low-megapixel cameras found in the first smartphones), the overall quality of cellphone photography was so poor that many people didn't take it seriously -- though a few saw the limitations as a creative challenge for artistic photography. Some early adopters -- like actor Joel Grey (best known for his Oscar-Winning role as the Master of Ceremonies in the film Cabaret) who published a book of images shot with his 1.3 megapixel Nokia phone in 2009 -- proved that it wasn't about the tool, but rather the eye.
In just a few short years, camera advancements have set the latest smartphones on par with the some of best point-and-shoots. Meanwhile, print publishing is on a steady decline, with the need for higher resolution images becoming less and less of a demand. We’re quickly reaching a point at which types of cameras and overall image quality will soon no longer be relevant, and only the final result will ultimately matter.
It’s the social aspect of mobile photography that truly remains undefined. Apps like Instagram -- a social sharing platform with more than 100 million users and still growing -- have radically transformed the landscape of photography and its meaning and impact on culture. So much so that the 'art' and 'social aspect' of mobile photography have blurred to such an extent that many people are finding it impossible to distinguish between the two. Just as avenues such as YouTube have transformed our idea of entertainment, the sharing component of connected photography is radically changing our views about images.
Jordi V. Pou, a professional photographer of more than 20 years who has added the iPhone to his large arsenal of cameras, and who staged a successful exhibition featuring photos that “happened to be taken on a mobile device” -- has been carefully studying the latest changes in photography in preparation for a recent lecture at a Spanish University.
“Historically there's been three main areas in photography: professional, artistic and domestic,” says Pou, who believes that there has been absolutely no significant changes (other than minor technical ones) to professional and artistic photography with the arrival of smartphones. As for domestic photography, it’s a very different story, he says.
“This is where changes are happening fast,” says Pou. “Families traditionally had only one camera, with someone in charge of it -- usually the father. Now this has changed. There's usually more than one camera, normally one in every pocket of all family members. And people having a camera in their pockets all the time, with the ease of use and sharing, meant that most of them ended up using it.”
But as Pou points out, 'Kodak moments' simply don’t happen every day, or everywhere. Which means people have started to use their cameras for completely different situations, atypical during earlier eras. It's these uses that are causing a major shift in photography.
"Some [images] are just banal, which is really interesting," says Pou, of the new types of photos being taken. "Others use it like photo-notes. And the most important is how photography is used as a social tool. Photography is now being used to be a part of a group or society. You have to share images 'with' friends to be in the group. Photography is not used as a memory tool but as a communication tool (phones are basically a communication device!)"
Can mobile photography ever be taken seriously as an 'art'?
The communication and sharing component of the mobile photography world has introduced a multitude of factors that never applied before, such as likes, followers and overall popularity. This has dramatically changed the intentions behind what kind of photographs people are ultimately taking, as many chase a dream of being popular on Instagram. But most interactions on Instagram are reduced to just 'liking' (heart-ing) a photo or leaving a generic “Great!” type of comment -- and since virtually anyone has the potential to become popular on the app and acquire a greater number of followers (and therefore higher chance of likes), a side effect of this has been a distortion of what is considered 'art' in terms of the photos themselves.
“Liking something doesn’t make it art,” says Sparks. “Unless, of course, you define art as whatever brings a person aesthetic pleasure, in which case you’ve taken the word ‘art’ and made it so broad as to be utterly meaningless: I like pizza and it brings me aesthetic pleasure, but it’s still not art.”
So what does that mean for art in an area like mobile photography, which is so closely associated with its own social aspect? Cameras on mobile devices have brought about a culture where literally anything is captured and shared with the world. That was never the case in the days of film photography, where every shot needed to matter in order to not waste precious film.
Even with the advent of digital photography, people previously shot with more purpose -- if it wasn't for artistic, scientific, technical, practical or commercial reasons, cameras were usually only ever used to document important personal events like a vacation or a birthday party: the 'Kodak moment,' as Jordi Pou put it. But nowadays? Everything is fair game. More pictures have been taken in just the last few years than the entire history of photography before it -- a stunning statistic no matter how you look at it. And so many of these images will fall into a new category.
“This new type of photography can be defined as personal photography,” says Pou. “What is still uncertain is how this will affect the other three types. It will surely happen somehow, but it is still not clear.”
Almost anyone can now easily take a picture, apply a filter from any of the available photography apps within seconds and have a result that's considered acceptable by modern standards. Photo exhibitions -- which used to be events tailored for only the very best -- have also opened up to the masses. The criteria for inclusion in such photo shows has become less about artistic merit, and more about other factors, whether it's winning a contest held by a popular app, having a high number of followers or simply knowing the right people. The feeling that 'anyone can be a star' in mobile photography has heightened the fever for the medium even more, in the same way that 'real life' people starring in reality TV shows have given many people the belief that they can be an instant celebrity, no matter who they are.
But that doesn’t mean the rise of mobile photography has brought about only average photographers working in the medium. Far from it. Many genuine, talented artistic voices have emerged as a by-product of this phenomenon, and a lot of them have very little or no prior photography experience before using a mobile device. In fact, several of these new mobile photographers have been able to master this medium in ways that some veteran, traditional photographers have yet to understand.
In the end, as Pou pointed out, nothing’s really changed in terms of professional and artistic photography with the rise of mobile photography. Domestic photography has expanded to include a new type of 'personal' photography, and there are definitely a lot more images being produced now than ever before. But that’s it. As much as things change and evolve over time, they also stay the same.
A photograph is still a photograph, mobile or not.
Anton Kawasaki (@anton_in_nyc), has become known for his intimate and candid street portraits, which capture the people of New York in "moments" that express love, despair, humor, and the multitude of emotions that make up daily life. His images have been featured in several magazines and in exhibitions in various cities around the world. He co-teaches a series of online workshops on mobile photography, and is a visual storyteller/mobile photographer for hire. He is also a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group. He currently resides in Brooklyn with his husband Sion Fullana -- a pioneer in the mobile photography movement.