Is Cellphone Photography A Brand New Medium?
This story was originally published in August 2013.
The revolution has just picked up steam, but I think it is time to give cellphone photography its due. The humble cellphone that lies in your pocket and mine, is not just a tool to make pictures when you do not have a regular camera around. It is an entirely new medium, whose effect is not just seen in the photographs around us, but in also its impact on society and culture, as a whole.
I am actually quite new to the movement. I recently got myself a smartphone and was curious about the possibilities of this new technology that was always at hand. In effect, I would compare my foray into cellphone photography to my journey in photography. When I was a child, I was interested in painting, but the slowness of the medium led me to explore photography. In the world of photography, I adapted to digital rather early, being fascinated by the possibilities that Photoshop brought, and now, this. My personal interest in any new form of expression has been spurred by the limitations I have faced in the previous medium and any new windows opened by the new technology in question.
For instance, even in cellphone photography, the limitations are fascinating, the constraints… in a way, liberating. Take digital zoom, for instance. It is there in digital compacts too, but one rarely sees it as the camera always has a certain amount of optical zoom, if we need to get close. Cellphones, with their fixed wide lenses, often make me want to get closer and though digital zoom produces a ‘technically incorrect’ look (as it has in the photo below), I enjoy it. The not-so great quality, is great. Pixellation is almost like a new language.
I cannot help but draw parallels between Polaroids and cellphone photography. Polaroids were technically flawed and were used by us while doing commercial assignments, to get a rough idea of the final image we would get. But there were some innovaters who used the same Polaroid camera to make art. It wasn’t art just because the photos looked good, but because they were unique to the Polaroid medium. The medium was the message. Unlike DSLR shots that often lie around in our hard drives, most hobbyists prefer to publish cellphone shots immediately—the immediacy being much more like Polaroid than digital ever has been.
Another important thing I keep pondering about is the effect that the cellphone camera seems to have, on society. As photographers, we have always been seeing, but the accessibility of the phone has resulted in a lot more people observing things around them and looking for memories that appeal to them, visually. This has resulted in an interesting phenomenon. Take any casual cellphone user and study the pictures they have shot in the first six months of them using the cameraphone. You will see patterns, of style, of preferred subject matter, of the way they choose to frame and even the look or app they enjoy. This applies even to non-photographers who just use the phone to make random snapshots around them. This formation of style, which happens in months nowadays, used to take several years for practitioners in the past.
Of course, with the ocean of images that exists, it is important to question the sheer numbers that exist. I personally do not believe in publishing every picture I make, for the world to see. As I use my cellphone more, I probably see it as my scrapbook, only a few pages of which I may choose to reveal.
About Swapan Mukherjee
One of the biggest names in food photography in India, Swapan Mukherjee’s personal work often shuttles between travel, portraiture and his love for architecture. Despite his traditionalist beginnings, he has always looked at new technology enthusiastically, often before it gets widely accepted.