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Wednesday, 29 June 2022


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Funny the timing on this. I was going thru my newsfeeds on my phone and saw an article in the Guardian on a street photographer that I know from a few of my books on the subject, she uses a Fujifilm X-Pro1 and the 35mm f/1.4 for her work. In the article she was out and only had her phone, so she used it to capture a nicely layered image (linked below). I dug out a book, Masters Of Street Photography that she is featured in and this image is proudly in her portfolio along side her Fuji shots.

I still can't use my phone for anything serious... too stuborn.


Imagine that our species survives its current growing pains and that the role of archeologist is something akin to a "digital sifter." The best digital sifters will be the ones who can coax the AIs into sniffing out what they want from the virtual termite hill of one's and zero's that we are generating around us as we speak (and type). The AIs will choose the current Shakespeare of cell phone photography 500 years from now as we haven't the tools or attention to see the geniuses among us. They are always there. . . . but you just don't know who they are until after you are gone.

I don’t think either “compact” or digicam” covers it. “Point-and-shoot” is always meant in a derogatory way but a Nikon dslr I owned would fall into that category since it was not possible to disable the flash (except physically with a bit of tape). The Ricoh GR series is “compact” but not a “point and shoot”. A term is needed for non-phone cameras. Really people are thinking of ‘large sensor’ cameras but they call them “professional” cameras which is daft because many people use phone-cams professionally. The Guardian published a similar piece https://tinyurl.com/2f5d5bdx to the AP one with some of same content and throughout both they refer to “professional” cameras.

Those numbers, and your musings about culture, rang a bell, so I went and looked up literacy rates. It seems US cell phone ownership has barely surpassed US absolute literacy rate, and smartphone ownership matches US basic literacy rate, which happen to be roughly average among developed countries. (Links below.)

That makes me wonder what our photo literacy rate is, but I'm pretty sure we haven't come up with any standards for that.

But regarding "culture", I don't think that our ideas or beliefs or conventions about photo (or image) culture are any more or less tenuous and arbitrary than those for word culture. But the latter may offer helpful perspective on the former. Like the way folk language percolates upward and changes "standard" language. Is that perhaps equivalent to what artists like Nan Goldin did with snapshots, or Warhol with Polaroids? Or how security cameras, camcorders and cell phones affect Hollywood cinematography?

In a sense, isn't that various "camera-pointing schools" influencing consensus culture? And isn't that how all "culture" works, more or less (in ways both good and bad)?

Which leads me to a novel (for me) perspective on the function and value of high culture: as a filter, curator and preserver of low culture (with, of course, undeniably complex dynamics and arguable results). I suppose this take lets me comfort my liberal-arts-college-educated self with the hope that I can to some extent use my access to high culture to curate my view (and ever more speedily), and illuminate promising paths that I can explore on my own at "street level".

I'm kind of grasping at straws, here, but my point (or hope) is that there are straws. This particular one happens to be in my comfort zone, but it's certainly not the only one. Curation is becoming more and more crucial an activity and role. For better or worse, it's also one of the things being democratized by the network, and all those smartphones. So if this particular "greatest" collection doesn't suit you, there are plenty out there, and counting. I think the important thing is to acknowledge that there are many approaches, but pick one already.

Literacy data:


That's 2012 data, but there was no change in 2017. Full data here:


I think there's always been a gulf between photography as something people do, and academic photography -- also something people do, but not the same people. Academics (including fellow travelers in the world of professional art) need to establish legitimacy; creating "schools", making the rules, etc. are a tried-and-true way of doing that.

Thanks to the democratization of photography, and especially the smart phone camera, the gulf is now an ocean. The last semi-credible estimate of the number of photographs uploaded to the Internet each day comes from 2014, and was already in the billions.

There's some good academic scholarship on photography and social media. I'm less enthused about academics trying to make names for themselves by applying the old rules of the game to photography today.

I don't know where this is all going, but I do know that as someone who tries to make photographs that might be worth looking at more than once (for an instant), it's tough slogging.

P.S. By "you" I meant of course the general "you", not "you, Mike". And one should pick five curators/collections, not one. Definitely five .

I agree with a lot of this. I always have my phone on me, and it fulfills the need of the old point and shoot I kept in my backpack all the time. But when I intentionally feel like I am going out specifically to take photos, I grab my Fuji XE-3.

I feel that the main difference between now and in the past is that in the past, you had to invest money to be able to do any kind of photography at all. That's not true now; everyone is capable of taking photos, and with equipment that blows away any point and shoots or even the early dSLRs that I had. The main difference now is that Photography with actual dedicated cameras has turned into some sort of craft. It is an intentional thing for everyone who participates in it, not a necessity just to get a photo of your kids running around having fun. So the people who invest in cameras invest in better cameras from the ground up, because they want to experience using a camera, specifically.

The world has reached the point where if you aren't going to invest in a decent camera, you're just going to use your phone, which everyone has. So you get a camera to step up from phone photography, to make that intentional leap; whether it is for the chance to experience using film, or play with lenses, or just get that tactile experience of using a camera, or whatever the reason.

I wrote about this in my blog two years ago. "The subject of photography is not the subject of photography. At its basic level, photography is about pictures, not the tools and processes involved. (Although I'm a photographer, so I do love those tools and processes.) But in a way, those hordes taking pictures with their cell phone cameras have it right. They care nothing about the tools and techniques of photography; They’re only interested in getting a reasonably clear picture they can send to friends or family. They care about who or what they are photographing, not the act of photography itself. In other words, they are the direct descendants of all those who heard George Eastman's slogan "You push the button and we do the rest" and lined up to buy his pre-loaded, ready-to-shoot cameras."
Read more if you're interested at http://alifeinphotography.blogspot.com/2020/06/cell-phone-cameras.html and http://alifeinphotography.blogspot.com/2020/06/so-why-not-just-shoot-with-your-cell.html.
As to the issue of what happened to digital point and shoot cameras, they were too complicated. My wife's little Olympus P&S was much more complicated to operate than my Canon DSLR. I wrote about that in another post: http://alifeinphotography.blogspot.com/2020/05/whatever-happened-to-point-and-shoot.html

There may not be “schools” of photography, though it’s hard to see why not as, today, everybody copies everybody else, and the wonder would actually be if a tiny flower of original photographic thought was to spring up somewhere, anywhere, and make itself known. What there used to be, was a bunch of star photographers who, collectively, formed schools such as the New York one that you don’t want to accept as such. Fashion, during the mid-sixties to the end of the eighties, also had its firmament of stars, whereas now, not so much - or I gave up trawling through the clones and the rubbish to find them.

Amateur photography is interesting for about as long as it takes for you to understand how to make a picture that has more than mere content and technical acceptability. When you realise you’ve cracked the code, the only thing that can make it remain interesting is commerce, and in today’s world, even that has mostly lost its shine, and so I suspect that a continued application to the medium suggests that one is either still struggling to get it, or has nothing much else to do with one’s free time - as was my own situation for pretty much the past thirteen years or so.

Photography, especially now that it really means sitting down on your veins for hours in worship of computers, is probably worse for your health than was film. It’s said that golf ruins a long walk; I’d suggest that carrying cameras, never mind tripods, will eventually ruin your posture, never mind your walks. All that weight over the decades did not a lot of good to my back. At last, I can go for a walk, free of both cameras and guilt!

It’s not like a divorce; more, I’d say, a mutually pleasing separation, where both parties still retain a set of door keys for that rare occasion when it might be fun for a little while.

Just another pencil.

I remember when ihones first appeared, there was some young guy who started an online photography school for iphone owners. It was actually quite good, but I felt overpriced. I'm sure he aimed at all the new camera owners with their expensive iphones, that wanted to get the most out of their new gadget.I don't remember custom schools for Polaroid photographers.

Oh, but surely there is a smartphone school? Selfie Time, to be Borat. The big question is - which phone maker dares go first and skip the outward, world -oriented camera and only feature the self oriented one? All those mirror selfies including a tilted head, seductive look and pouty lips. Or a sixpack of steel.

"However, it's possible that the photo culture that's becoming less relevant—as embodied in museum and gallery shows; photography in newspapers, periodicals, and books; critical appraisal; and well-known names whose work is familiar to some significant subset of the volitional audience, etc.—was never much more than an illusion anyway, as it could only pretend to comprehensiveness in the best of times. There was always a sort of constructed, willed feel to photography's culture—that is, that it was not so much something that was as something we wanted." Beautiful, ouch, and love it. Why I keep coming back here.

I would think the strength of smartphone photography would be the depth of field it offers. This might be useful for shots such as seen in the work of Alex Webb where a lot is going on in multiple planes in the photo. Ironically, smartphones are now trying to blur stuff artificially. Personally, I think compact point-and-shoot cameras still have a lot to offer. I've accumulated over a dozen of them.

Surely, in decades past every adult had a camera of some sort. So that's not so different to today. They didn't take as many pictures because of the cost but that camera came out on every holiday, family occasion and visit to somewhere. The resulting images were mostly badly composed and not of interest to anyone other than the family concerned.

The only differences between now and then are the sheer number of meaningless photos being taken and their distribution. There is still plenty of good photography out there that is unknown to a large part of the general public.

That has always been so. Only those who are visually aware buy art and photo books and go to galleries.

Of course the phone has ruined photojournalism to some extent, but it could be argued that it is a good thing that witnesses anywhere can show us what they see, and there is still a place for deeper photographic essays.

A good thought provoking article.

I quess that all the visual arts could be said to be without trends too, if you compare the masterpieces of Botticelli's Venus or Da Vinci 's charcoal sketches, with pencil sketches I and thousands if not millions of people make to communicate ideas to others.

It all I suppose depends on the intent of the person making a picture with a camera. Is it just a sketch? ( a photograph made with the cell phone when I read the gas meter) Or was my picture a studied informed attempt to communicate emotion alongside the information.

Museum and Gallery shows are becoming irrelevant, mostly because the curse of staged "Conceptual Photography" is displacing the other forms of photography that can be understood by those of us without a fine arts degree.

The french humanists transmitted emotion in their pictures that is quite easily understood by all (eg. The kiss by Doisneau).

I think you are missing the aspect of communication and editing that is just there under your fingers on a smart phone. Smear it, swipe it, send it to the whole family and all your friends with a gesture. Of course the gestures come more naturally to those under a certain age. And your moment of fame is no longer 15 minutes, more like 5 seconds.

The efforts that Adobe and Capture One are making to put my 20-60 Megapixel raw images right under my fingertips on a tablet or iPhone are pathetic by comparison.


It's not Smartphones that changed photo culture, its social media.

In the old days most people could only show prints one at a time or to small groups which greatly limited their scope. Only a small number of people could get their pictures into mass media like magazines or books.

If everyone had a Smartphone but there was no social media and you could only distribute your pictures one at a time to people you knew the old culture would still be here.

If there were no Smartphones and you had to digitize your negatives to get them onto social media then the world would look a lot like it does today. If the world had 1% of the images it has today no one could tell because there are so many out there.

Ok, so in the last almost 20 (!) years you help me learn to appreciate the photographic language, enjoy great bodies of work, styles and so on.
An now you say that it "was never much more than an illusion anyway".
I'll take that illusion, thanks; and might agree in principle to what you express, but: now what? What am i supposed to enjoy photographically, as far as contemporary work? Flikr or Instagram?
BTW, i follow a handful of people on IG; the twin Turnley and Martin Parr Studio are most of my stream. Not even close to a good way to enjoy their work, for me at least.

[I didn't mean to say that photo culture wasn't viable, or that it wasn't a way to understand accomplishment. I only said that it probably wasn't a comprehensive assessment of all that was going on. It's easy to see that now, now that there is less of a distinction between intentional and demotic work, and now that there is such a huge mass of work being created that no one can even survey more than a tiny bit of it to draw conclusions. But really, it probably was always more like that than we imagined.

Good point, though, thanks for making it. --Mike]

The camera phone will be a bad thing for historians. I have never know a single person that ever backed up their camera/phone. I have suggested that to some who should know better, and it just goes over their heads. Historian's should prepare themselves for a few decades of no photographic evidence.

Will anyone in the future believe the story of the steak with ketchup down the wall in the White House?

Re: Chrome Hat

Nice pointing!

Almost everyone can read and write – that does not imply that there is no literary culture anymore.

I like to compare 'photography' with 'writing'. It does not make sense to talk about 'photography' in general, any more than it does to talk about 'writing'. (I think I'm slightly paraphrasing Steve Edwards here, from his excellent OU book 'A Short Introduction to Photography'

Photographic tools, writing tools... that's another thing

Whilst having huge reservations about the point of a cellphone camera as photographic tool in the way that a photographer might think of photography and its tools, there is no doubt at all that it makes a wonderful instrument for simplifying communication. Take a snap of a part, of a broken item you want to replace from a hardware store etc. and a clear image saves both you and the shop hours of cross-purposed communication and possible - if not probable - misunderstanding. Try buying a new garden chair to replace and match the specific design of a broken one, and thus preserve the visual integrity of a set of them, without a photo. However, even though the cellphone can work wonders with its version of HDR etc. and allow estate agents’ hearts to soar with joy, it ain’t anything that would cause me to replace a traditional camera; for a start, the ergonomics are horrible. On the other hand, if the user has known nothing else…

@Bill Pearce:

I backup my iPhone. I would posit that some meaningful percentage of iPhone owners use iCloud, Dropbox, Amazon Prime or some other service that automatically copies their pictures into the cloud for ‘safekeeping’. Safekeeping from the eventual calamity with your phone, like dropping it in the toilet or watching it get run over by a car (my specialty).

That being said, I agree with the thrust of Mike’s point: there are too many publicly available images to get a gestalt of all of them.

I think the problem is self-curation. Too many images are placed “out there”… If one personally selects the best ones for others to view, then a personal style might come through. And with that, groupings might appear which could be called “schools”?

Michael stated, “…many people who had good cameras didn't really make pictures to speak of, and there was a more marked distinction between people who worked with thoughtfulness and intention and those who only made snapshots, because the practice and the craft made such a heavy demand in terms of time and dedication.”

I agree, mostly. But I think the vast majority of photographs taken now (99%+) are merely throw away, fish-wrap detritus. Their sole purpose isn’t to enlighten or provoke, nor to illuminate or argue - their function is simply to show. “Here’s where I am,” “This is what I ate.” “This is my family.” “Here I am at _______.” And so forth. Really not much different than the vast majority of photographs taken throughout history.

Perhaps in time some of the current photos might accrue some further meaning or interest beyond just showing. Look at the book, “Snapshots 1971-77” by Michael Lesy for a thoughtfully curated selection of old snapshots. Those photos (found in a dumpster in San Francisco) were taken for the same reason people take photos now: to show. And who did they want to show them to? One might argue everyone, but I believe their real target audience was the same as always - family and friends.

It’s true SM has given current photographs a bigger audience. But just because I put photos up on the ‘Net doesn’t mean anyone is going to see them. Given the staggering numbers of photos posted, the only logical conclusion anyone posting photos could make is that virtually no one will see them.

I don’t believe the issues have changed. Some of the processes have been altered. But the end result is the same: no one is going to see those photographs.

I can't photograph with my smartphone, and I do no watch superhero or phantasy movies. Have not even seen a Star Wars movie. I have much better things to do. And yes, photography is an art.


"...there is probably a huge body of the greatest work ever created in photography that's out there somewhere, if it could only be found and collected—but it can't be and never can be."

Don't worry, someone will write an algorithm to find it. :-)

Peace and all the good stuff,
p.s. something weird happened, mayhap I posted this twice?

Thought you might like this:


Hi Mike,
As soon as I saw the title of this post all I could think of was 'Like A Rolling Stone' by Bob Dylan. I mean it was immediate!
It's because of the Chrome Hat rhyming I believe.

"You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat"

Now I can't stop singing it of course.

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