When Thoreau said, “You can’t say more than you see,” he assumed that sight was the premiere sense of all our senses. Of course, at the time he delivered this quote, wet plates were just coming to Walden Pond.
DSLR Cameras are an established part of our visual culture with roots so deep that wet plates form the bottom of their family tree. Cell phone cameras have no such roots; they are a digital phenomenon and today they create images equal to or better than many high-end point and shoot cameras. But these are not beginner cameras, such as the Kodak Brownie, Instamatic, and low end point and shoot digital cameras. Cell phone images are a cultural disrupter. Their size to reality relationships, the cheap cost, and the ability to share our digital lives almost immediately, makes them a genre that is disrupting our concepts of power. Phonegraphy has brought us a new wave in photojournalism, and is quickly developing as a visual art tool apart from traditional digital photography. (Remember when traditional photography meant film).
Cell phone images (and their video cousins), such as the shots that came across Twitter from the Arab Spring or more recently digital photographs from Syria, have transmuted the balance of our perceptions of world power influencers. Because of the connection to social publishing, there is little in the way of a gatekeeper, such as a photo editor who may want to poise what we see with other images or then again, the editorial policy may exist for purposes of spinning a story in accordance with some agenda. Either way, it’s raw negatives or footage as the ‘newsies’ say.
Cell phone images are generally original capture, which is a representation of saying not more than we can see, and manipulation, or the hand of intervention, is minimal. These photographs have become a big part of how we interact with the world, and how others interact with us. No longer does one share scrapbook images with a few intimate friends or family, they share them with the world and deep down hope for a ‘like’ or two. However, they are also part of an electronic network process, guided by political or economic calligraphies rooted in the algorithms controlling those image-making or sharing networks. I must admit that last sentence may have you gazing at your navel, but if you consider the implications, you might conclude this is something that would have scared the crap out of Thoreau. Perhaps it should scare or at least concern us too.
I am concerned, maybe troubled, but like everyone else I am using my phone camera and yes, my Samsung Galaxy S4 is a powerful digital unit with pixels far in excess of many previous DSLR’s. On a recent assignment to Alaska, I gave it a great workout and documented bits and pieces of our adventure. The results were excellent technically, but something is missing for me at the emotional level.
Ergonomically I am not yet comfortable holding the device. Extending my arm to aim and focus seems distant and cumbersome. When I see an image in a viewfinder, even in the Instamatic of a long time ago, there was a sense of intimacy as I was able to study the entire frame before squeezing the shutter. With a phone camera, I feel I’m trying to adapt to a workflow full of digital buttons, slides, and messages that interrupt my concentration and creative workflow.
When I work with my Mark III, I am thinking postproduction as I squeeze the shutter. With the cell camera I need to tap some spot on the glass, and I am wondering if I will find or see this image again. When I work with DSLR, I press on buttons, twirl real knobs, and make positive decisions. It’s real, whereas the phone camera is in perpetual auto mode with tap, double tap, tap and hold, moves that seem more like Morse code then image capture.
Right now I can see more then I can say with my DSLR, but with the phone camera— I am at Walden Pond; I can only say what I see.