Monday, July 22, 2013

Camera Snobbery

 Subway Sleeper, 2012
(iPhone Photo)

I admire Brandon Stanton’s web site, Humans of New York. Stanton posts wonderful photographic portraits of interesting looking people he encounters on the streets of the city. Sometimes he even tells a little of the story behind the people.
What prompts me to bring up Humans of New York is that Brandon posted a picture the other day and apologized that it was taken with an iPhone camera. As if an apology was necessary.
Last week I had lunch with a photographer friend who’d recently recommended to another friend that she take a “real camera” with her on a trip to Italy rather than use her phone camera.
I find it interesting that even as they continue to insist that toy cameras like Holgas and Dianas are serious artistic tools, many serious photographers look down on phone cameras.
The early phone cameras were pretty weak. But so were the first “real” digital cameras.
Over time things have changed. These days the worst phone cameras offer equal or better quality that many recent point-and-click digital cameras. I’ll bet the proliferation of smart phones with built-in cameras has pulled the rug out from under the cheap digital camera industry.
Phone cameras don’t offer all the features and flexibility serious photographers demand. But for 99% of the public, they meet basic needs and can be fun. And most important, they make photography relevant and a regular part of people’s lives.
Along the way, they’ve also become popular in the artsy set. David Hockney published a book of iPhone photos, and he’s not the only one to take to the phone for some artistic fun.
When the chemistry of photography was first being worked out, 19th Century photographers used this new medium to document the world. They scattered around the globe and brought back photographs of the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China.
Next, they turned the cameras on themselves and on other people. We learned what cowboys and Indians and Chinese and Laplanders really looked like. That you had ever existed could now be documented in an affordable photograph that lasted long after you did.
So what’s the beef with phone cameras?  I get the impression the purists resent that phone cameras make photography accessible to people who “don’t understand good art,” as if taking bad pictures undermines the integrity of good pictures. I think they’re jealous that almost anyone can now take decent pictures without having to know and understand all the arcane chemistry and process we once had to know to make and print photographs.
So, Brandon, I hope you won’t feel the need to apologize in the future if the best camera you happen to have handy is the one in your phone. It’s not the camera that makes the difference. It’s what you do with it that matters. 

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