Wed, Dec 18, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Do camera phones spell the death of photography?

In London, celebrated photographers weigh in

By Stuart Jeffries  /  The Guardian

“Don’t get me wrong. I love iPhones and Instagram,” says Olmos. “But what I worry about is that Kodak used to employ 40,000 people in good jobs. What have they been replaced by? Twelve people at Instagram.”

Progress often has casualties, I suggest. “I don’t oppose progress in photography,” he replies. “I’m pleased there aren’t darkrooms and suspicious toxic chemicals you guiltily throw down the sink. I’m pleased there are no longer photography companies who got silver out of Congo by bribing Mobuto for their film, as used to happen.”

But there’s a stronger reason that makes Olmos argue photography is dying. “The iPhone has a crap lens. You can take a beautiful picture on the iPhone and blow it up for a print and it looks terrible.”

But who needs prints in a paper-free world? “For me the print is the ultimate expression of photography,” he retorts. “When I do street photography courses, I get people to print pictures — often for the first time. The idea is to slow them down, to make them make — not just take — photographs.”

Guardian photographer Eamonn McCabe agrees: “At the risk of sounding like one of those bores defending vinyl over CDs, I think there’s a depth to a print you don’t get with digital.” He recently looked up an old print of a picture he took of novelist and Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, who died last month. “It was a black and white print I took with a Hasselblad, a tripod and a lot of window. It took me back to the days when photography didn’t make people like me lazy.”

Why is digital lazy? “It’s a scattergun approach. You snap away thinking, ‘One of these shots will work’, rather than concentrate on capturing the image.”

McCabe used to take two rolls of 24 exposures on a typical assignment. “Now I can shoot 1,000 pictures in one of these sessions on digital — and I give myself a massive editing problem as a result. I don’t think photography’s dead, it’s just become lazy. People are taking lots of pictures but nobody’s looking at them.”

ON A HAPPIER NOTE

For a more positive sense of what digital and camera phone technology has done to photography, I speak to Nick Knight, the British fashion photographer who’s just done two big assignments entirely on iPhone — a book of 60 images celebrating the work of the late fashion editor Isabella Blow, and a campaign for designer clothes brand Diesel. “I work frequently on the iPhone. It’s almost become my camera of choice.”

Indeed, Knight reckons the democratizing revolution catalyzed by improved mobile phone cameras is as radical as what happened in the 1960s when fashion photographer David Bailey binned his tripod and started using a handheld camera. “It gave him freedom and changed artistically what photography was. The same is true for me with the iPhone. For years I would shoot on an 8x10 camera, which wasn’t intended to be moved. Now I have freedom.”

But what about the “crap” iPhone lens? “Who cares? The image isn’t sharp? Big deal! One of my favorite photographers is Robert Capa, whose pictures are a bit blurry sometimes — I love them because he’s captured a moment.

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