Like something from a cyberpunk novel, 30 per cent of us now shuffle around our homes in the middle of the night checking our smartphones for messages (Deloitte Global Mobile Survey 2016). In the UK, that means 21 million (USA 107 million) of us wandering around in our Winnie The Pooh onesies checking our iPhone at three in the morning to see if anyone has texted, emailed or sent us photos.
The most exciting aspect of the new batch of smartphones, of course, is the rapid development and improvement of the onboard camera. Especially significant for street photographers.
“I think it becomes obvious if you are the kind of the street photographer that wants to work with a low profile, be as unobtrusive, and inconspicuous as possible then the idea of working with a mobile phone is very attractive,” Richard Koci Hernandez an assistant professor of New Media at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and street photographer, tells us candidly. “It wouldn’t make any difference to a photographer like Bruce Gilden who is very, if you will pardon the expression, in your face, and obviously wouldn’t care one bit about using a smartphone. The general public seems to be overly cautious of DSLR cameras and often-times one of the main advantages of a cell phone is that they are so ubiquitous that it allows for capturing natural, unposed images.”
As a street photographer, Koci Hernandez uses an Apple iPhone as his ‘camera’ of choice. All his street photography is carried out with the iPhone, producing an extraordinarily excellent body of work which compares to the best in the genre.
‘Future’, for example, shows a melancholic man with an arrow pointing at his head, above a sign which says ‘future’, reflected in shadow. At the bottom of the frame is a group of ominous looking blackbirds. The future, symbolised by the arrow, is rushing in on the man, so no matter how weary, melancholic or even resistant to the future he is, it will definitely arrive at him and keep arriving until he no longer exists. He, like the rest of us, cannot escape that one fact. Throughout our lives, the future is continuously arriving into our existential journey. The future cannot be stopped it is perpetually with us.
Hauntingly shot in black and white, the melancholic subject, the arrow, the word future and the blackbirds are all portents of something, perhaps, inevitable – our eventual demise? But, of course, in this photograph it never will. The arrow will never, ever reach the man, the word future will hang in the air for eternity and the blackbirds are forever frozen in time.
The quality of camera incorporated into the smartphone has become one of its major selling points. Something, not lost on the brands. In one advertising campaign Apple hired 41 photographers to go out and shoot on their iPhone. A total of 53 photographs were selected, placed in magazines and put up on billboards in 85 cities across 26 countries with the legend : ‘Shot on iPhone’.
But isn’t there a danger that photographic genres like street photography become too inclusive and the quality becomes diluted? Might there be a glitch in the overarching philosophical requirements of the genre?
“I guess it depends on your definition of inclusive, But I’ll take it to mean democratic,” Hernandez ponders diplomatically. “Everyone with the smart phone can participate in a form of Street photography and share it to social media immediately. There is no longer a gate keeper, or taste maker to decide what’s worthy of the public’s attention. I love the democratization of photography in that sense and have witnessed many examples of very talented Street photographers who would have otherwise been unnoticed by the previous editors – I mean to say gatekeepers – but who are successfully thriving due to their access to a smartphone and the Internet.”
Who is going to disagree with democracy? But, isn’t there a gold standard that street photographers should be trying to attain? Just by putting a few photographs on social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and have them enthused over by best buddies and family, doesn’t make anyone a street photographer? Do we need a control mechanism that should be maintained as the benchmark of good, as opposed to, mediocre or ‘bad’ street photography?
“I don’t know that the traditional aspect of street photography as a tradition needs to be redefined, as there are still a plethora of magnificent photographers practising the craft and holding true to the tradition,” he told me thoughtfully. “But certainly a new era of untrained but passionate photographers have the power to redefine the genre. If one’s goal is to maintain standards and quality output I think that ship has already sailed (in the email he sent me he put a smiling emoji here). There is certainly a vast sea of below standard low quality output which is expected when you flood the genre with more photographers who have yet to reach a maturity of practice. But the way to maintain quality and standards is education, and masters of the craft leading by example.”
Thanks to technology, we no longer take film from the camera and wait a few days for it to be developed. Today, with a DSLR, photography is instantaneous. We take a shot, check it out, keep or delete, in seconds. The smartphone, in turn, and when allied to social media outlets, speeds up this process but it also changes the world of the photographer irreversibly.
“Well I think that smartphone photography among other things has dramatically changed the photographic landscape as we knew it in a pre-digital era,” Hernandez tells me candidly. “I think there is an entire book to be written about the subject of a new form of communication formerly known as photography but now dubbed social photography. The majority of people using their smartphone to take images are not making images with the mindset of a photographer, but with the mindset of visually communicating to another person. I happen to think that intent is a huge part of what defines the term photography. I think -in an academic sense- the majority of the world is practising social photography, not the traditional form of photography that we might define and recognise as pre- digital.”
But is assistant professor Hernandez optimistic?
“There is no question that the digitisation, socialisation and mobilisation of photography has changed the form forever. I’m quite excited for a continued, Healthy future for the art form.”
*Richard Hernandez is the author of ‘Downtown’
Follow Koci on Instagram @koci