A lone, black figure trudges across an icy glacier. Jagged, snow-dusted mountains tower on the horizon. The scene resembles a still in a dreamy, futuristic space film, and looking at it fills me with a vague sense of longing. It may come as a surprise, then, that it was captured on an iPhone at the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina by Julio Lucas, who has been named 2014 Photographer of the Year in the eighth annual iPhone Photography Awards. People in 17 countries, from Taiwan to Canada, submitted entries to the contest’s 17 categories.
When most people think of iPhone photography, they think of Instagram. But not everybody is enamored with the popular app: namely, some professional photographers. Their thoughts were recently summarized by Caitlin Dewey in The Washington Post: “Much fuss has been made by professional photographers displeased with the democratization of their medium. Instagram has ruined photography, some have said. A camera in every pocket is less a blessing than a curse.” Another log on the flame is the mildly annoying culture — a mutual affirmation society full of “rad” and “epic” photos — that has sprung up around Instagram, vividly described in Kirsten O’Regan’s article, “Snapshots of Instagram’s ‘Instafamous Elite.” Those mustachioed hipsters who go on “Insta-walks” can’t possibly be true photographers, can they?
It’s an old discussion, one which you might say began in the 1990s with lo-fi photographers like Terry Richardson, who challenged photographic pretension by using a Pentax point-and-shoot camera. And despite the holdouts, many professional photographers today have already recognized the iPhone’s worth. A 2011 Wired article observes that the photographer Annie Leibovitz called the “accessible and easy” lensed smartphone “the snapshot camera of today” during an appearance on NBC. And how’s this for a telling statistic: in June of that same year, the iPhone surpassed two popular digital SLRs as the top camera on Flickr, a photo-sharing platform largely comprised of serious hobbyists and professionals.
But some still feel threatened by how the technology has allowed a new, untrained mass of humanity to make “art.” This elitist debate recalls the hand-wringing over photography that occurred in the mid-19th century, when it was still a new-fangled medium some feared could destroy painting. “Let photography quickly enrich the traveller’s album, and restore to his eyes the precision his memory may lack,” Charles Baudelaire permitted in his 1859 polemic On Photography. “But if once it be allowed to impinge on the sphere of the intangible and the imaginary, on anything that has value solely because man adds something to it from his soul, then woe betide us!” Baudelaire was convinced that if photography were seen as an art form, it would make painting redundant.
Just as hindsight reveals an element of truth in the French poet’s words, there is something to be said for iPhone photography critics’ concerns. It can, for instance, be incredibly thoughtless. Ever since I got my first iPhone, taking a photograph has become a knee-jerk reaction to sparkling cityscapes and perfectly poured cappuccinos. I sometimes take a picture of something before I really see it. This impulse brings new meaning to photography critic Susan Sontag’s pronouncement that everything now exists to end in a photograph. The problem isn’t technological, but behavioral — doubtlessly part of the larger tide of mindlessness that has swept our fast-paced, screen-sucking culture. And apps like Instagram reward this behavior not only with a visual catalogue of our existence, but also with likes, comments, and the general positive energy that comes from feeling connected. The result is a sycophantic experience void of true critical thought.
What may bother us the most, though, is that the way we consume these images devalues them. When I check Instagram, I scroll through an unending procession of photos I will only ever view once, occasionally pausing long enough to “heart” them before they’re buried by whatever is coming down the factory line next. And when something truly remarkable like Lucas’s photo appears, does it really make an impact amid all the sunsets and selfies? How much do I even notice it? An old art professor once encouraged me to continually feed myself visually; well, I have never been more fed, but the ephemeral nature of the app doesn’t allow much time for digestion.
But like the digital SLRs of the early 2000s, these cameras are here to stay. So rather than dismiss photography from iPhones (or other camera phones) altogether, or call it a curse, we should embrace this new democratization by considering it more deeply. If it has brought an influx of images — more than we really know what to do with — it may also mean we, as an audience, also need to approach these photographs with a more discerning, contemplative eye. At the same time, the culture of creators needs to move beyond that of the effusive, clapping-hand emoji toward one that is more critical.
Though the winning IPPA entries were taken using a specific technology, they show that a photographer is more than the mechanisms he or she uses — just as an artist can be more than someone well-versed in brushstrokes. This new democratization reminds us that the artist is always greater than the medium.
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