The first camera that comes to mind that offered true photographic convenience was made by Polaroid. Next would have been the disposable camera, which everybody made, which eventually became known as the “one-time-use camera” (because people like to pretend they're environmentally conscious, at least by label). After that was the digital camera. Today there is a camera in every smart phone and they provide better picture quality than any of the others I’ve mentioned here.
But, picture quality and photographic quality are two different things.
I just read this article and it got me thinking: can we blame camera-phones for a decline in photographic craft?
Let's go back a few years. My mother has been taking pictures for as long as I can remember – at every single family gathering. She had a Polaroid. She had disposable cameras. Now she has a digital camera. The quality in her photos hasn’t changed a bit. Her composition is, well… awful. And composition – basic framing – is all you really have with these types of cameras. With them you don’t have to worry about light, or focus. You just point and shoot (hence the name). Composition is all that matters. Yet I am heir to 34 years of holiday photos that seem to have been taken by a blind person.
But, we can’t fault people like my mom for their lack of craft any more than we can fault an astronaut for not knowing how to perform open-heart surgery. Most people just don’t care, which means they probably don’t have the eye to make a distinction between good and bad photography. Think about it: how many pictures of a group of friends or family have you seen where the subjects are standing huddled together, in the distance, with more background than subject? How often is the framing crooked? How often are they off-center? (Let's ignore the rule-of-thirds here, because we’re talking something even more basic than that).
The sensibility of people who take pictures casually hasn’t changed. They take pictures for the novelty of it. They use their pictures to remember moments, and to torture their children and loved ones with essentially the same shots of the same people, standing against the same walls in the same living rooms. Sometimes the haircuts are different, or the wallpaper is different, or someone is pregnant, or someone wasn’t there. But, the pictures serve their purpose: to lock down a moment in time. It isn’t about composition or craft. It’s about the people in the shots – however far away from the lens they may be.
I am reminded of a story. A few years back during the World Series parade a player from the winning side looked out into the crowd. Everyone was recording the event with their cell phone video cameras, or taking snapshots. The point he made is that everyone wanted to share their pics and videos so badly, that they weren’t actually experiencing the moment for themselves.
We can’t blame cell phones for the novelty and convenience they provide – but sometimes it might just be better to put the camera down and experience something. The world will survive without that shot of your cat, or your vantage point of the Eagles game from six-thousand rows back, or that half-eaten steak, or your girlfriend sleeping. The people of Facebook will get by, I assure you.
To answer my earlier question: can we blame cell phone cameras for a decline in craft? I don’t think so. I think we’re just more exposed to the crappy pictures people take – the same crappy pictures people have always taken – because people can so easily share them. ...Or manipulate them first, and then share them. Yes, I’m looking at you, Instagram. But, that’s another subject all together.