Recently, I’ve heard photographers decrying the rise of the cellphone camera, complaining that the pictures are terrible. “How can people do that? Don’t they care about quality? They’ll never know what a good photograph is.” It reminds me of the still-active kerfuffle in audiophile-land about music that’s undergone lossy compression – think MP3 and AAC. “How can people do that? Don’t they care about quality? They’ll never know what good music sounds like.”
I’m not bothered at all by cellphone photographers. In fact, I think they’re a good thing.
Let’s consider the photographs they’re making from the perspective of someone who cares about art.
Almost all of them aren’t art, and won’t be art even if they last hundreds of years and become historical. You can’t blame that on camera quality. The same photographers in the same situations, had they been lugging around Nikon D3x’s, would have been producing more detailed, crisper, less noisy, images with greater shadow information, but that wouldn’t elevate the end product.
Some of them might be art, and what makes them art probably won’t be diminished by poor image quality. Terrible image quality hasn’t kept Robert Capa’s Omaha Beach photographs off museum walls. Sometimes, images that are deficient by normal standards are prized for their problems; photographers buy leaky plastic cameras with cruddy plastic lenses and sell the results for big bucks.
The best camera in the world won’t do you any good if you left it at home, and the great advantage of the cellphone is that you probably have it with you. In the hands of a skilled photographer who understands what it can and can’t do, a cellphone can produce remarkable results. In the hand of someone who knows and cares nothing about f/stops, a cellphone can produce better images than a Brownie Hawkeye or your average Instamatic, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about them.
Now let’s talk about the photographers.
I have some sympathy for the argument that overly compressed audio trains the listener to accept poor reproduction as good sound. That’s because most people don’t listen regularly to live, unamplified music, and don’t have a frame of reference for what music should sound like. I don’t see the analogous line of reasoning that says that looking at photographs with poor technical quality will dull people’s sensibilities so much that they won’t recognize what good quality looks like. Unlike the case with music, we live in and view the world with our eyes all the time and we know what the real think looks like. Even if you discount our experience of reality as not relevant to knowing a good picture because reality is not flat and rectangular, in the modern world we are everywhere surrounded by technically excellent photography in print and on high-def displays.
Rather than a world-wide dumbing down of people’s photographic sensibilities and appetites, I see a strong probability of the reverse: a growing number of better image makers. Call me a Pollyanna, but my reasoning goes like this. Pretty soon almost everyone will have a camera with them nearly all the time; for many of them, buying it was not a conscious decision – it just came with the phone. Because the camera is there, lots of folks will use it. People have a more intense experience of photography (and lots of other things) when they are creators than they do when they are simply viewers or consumers. In people who have a bent in that direction, experience as an image maker can spark an interest in making better photographs. Given the interest, there are many ways to get better at photography: Internet websites and forums, courses, workshops, and so on. A necessary – but not sufficient – condition for significant improvement is practice, and the always-there nature of a cellphone camera fosters that.
I both anticipate and hope for a future in which more people grow more serious and proficient with their own photography, and because of that, develop an ardent appreciation of the work of others.