Overlooked: Photography and the Smartphone

We've gone from capturing special moments on film, to snapping every aspect of our day on smartphones. What are the upsides and what are we losing? Photographers, curators and thinkers reflect on how this new image culture affects us, as well as its surprising links to earlier eras of photography.
A visitor takes pictures of a global day's worth of printed photographs in a work by Dutch artist Erik Kessels, at the 44th annual Rencontres d'Arles photography festival. (AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

For his 2018 tour, rock musician Jack White is asking attendees to stow their cellphones away inside specialized locking pouches during the concert. He's not the only one asking people to stay in the moment instead of capturing life through their smartphone cameras and sharing their images on social media. It's all part of the backlash to the meteoric rise of a new visual culture, which has transformed the way we take and share still photographs and videos. 

Smartphones have become the default camera of choice around the world. With the rise of social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat, we're taking photos of everything from our morning coffee to the evening sunset and endlessly sharing them with each other. It seems like a revolutionary era for the photograph. But is it?

A woman takes photos with a selfie stick at a mirrored installation on opening day at the Museum of Selfies on April 1, 2018 in Glendale, California. (Getty Images)

With an estimated 1.2 trillion photos being shot a year, some accuse Silicon Valley of landing us in the middle of an unmanageable image glut.

The numbers are certainly unprecedented. However, Elizabeth Cronin says that photographs have always been wildly popular. A few years ago, Cronin co-curated a New York Public Library exhibition on the history of sharing photography.

Cronin points to historical examples of different formats like the stereograph. The identical double images were popular in the mid-19th to early 20th century.

"They were mostly landscapes, but also genre scenes, pictures of cats, dogs, flowers  many of the same types of images you would see on Instagram today, and people [in the late 1800s and the start of the 20th century] -- would enjoy them, and collect them," said Cronin.

As for sharing, people had flattering photographs taken and mailed them to each other via little portrait cards known as cartes de visite.

A 1867 stereograph known as 'American Eagle." A stereograph uses two identical images placed side by side. (W.E. Bowman/George Eastman House Collection )

Today's selfies — the quintessential smartphone by-product — are often debated as potential evidence of an alarmingly narcissistic youth culture.

[A selfie is] not a narcissistic display for the world. It may end up there, but that's not necessarily the intention." - Martin Hand, sociologist.

But others believe the selfie shares qualities inherent to virtually any kind of portrait photography, past or present. Everyone wants to present themselves as they imagine they look — whether through a physical posture, make-up or filter effects.

Even photo studios of the 19th century and early 20th century provided backdrops, clothes and props for customers to use. Parents have always chosen baby photos and school pictures that conform to their idealized view of how their children should appear. And who hasn't taken a glance in the mirror before getting a passport picture taken?

We select the most flattering images of ourselves — that's why visual culture expert Thy Phu sees every photo portrait as a kind of selfie. 

"Photography, whether analogue or digital, can do that level of exposure." 0:41

Thy Phu (Celio Barreto)
Expressing oneself through photos can be conventional and corporatized in the age of Facebook expectations and Instagram hashtags. But commercials and ads from 20th century photography companies like Polaroid and Kodak also encouraged consumers to buy their products to capture special "moments" with family and friends before they were lost forever.

Whether digital or analogue, cellphone or celluloid, there have always been people who use photography creatively and for their own purposes.

Toronto painter Margaux Williamson may be a visual artist, but she uses Instagram lightly — seeing it as a place to capture a collective moment happening in real time, rather than to create lasting work.

Street photographer Stan Hister wrestles with the corporate side of Instagram, but uses it to post thoughtful portraits where he tries to capture the "artistic truth" of the strangers he encounters.

Stan Hister posts his street photography portraits on Instagram. Above is a small selection of his work. (@facestellnolies/Instagram)

"I have moments that to me... seem magical, in which I connect with a person," said Hister. "Being able to create a vivid image of that person as a human being gives me some hope about the ability of us, as a society, to survive and transcend where we're at right now."

GUESTS IN THE PROGRAM

  • Elizabeth Cronin is Assistant Curator of Photography at the New York Public Library
  • Martin Hand is an Associate Professor in the department of Sociology at Queen's University in Kingston
  • Stan Hister is a teacher and street photographer based in Toronto
  • Thy Phu is an Associate Professor in the department of English and Writing Studies at Western University in London
  • Margaux Williamson is a painter based in Toronto

FURTHER REFERENCE

  • Feeling Photography, co-edited by Elspeth H. Brown & Thy Phu, Duke University Press, 2014
  • Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia*, Nancy Martha West, University of Virginia Press, 2000. (*This is the famous book on the history of Kodak that Thy Phu mentions near the end of the episode.)
  • Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 13: The Wheel (referenced at the end of the episode)
  • Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us*, Will Storr, The Overlook Press, 2018 (*note: this book is not about photography, but explores the roots and state of our current culture, and argues that selfies are a symptom of our hyper-individualistic society)
  • "Selfies: Narcissistic, Empowering, or Just Fun?" A 2017 debate on CBC's The Current, with writers Andrew Keen and Sarah Nicole Prickett (heard in a clip in part 2 of this episode)
  • Ubiquitous Photography, by Martin Hand, Polity Books, 2012
  • Family Camera Network is a "collaborative project that explores the relationship between photography and the idea of family, whether of origin or of choice," and collects family photographs and oral histories in Canada 
  • Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography was an exhibition "drawn entirely from the New York Public Library's collections, explores the various ways in which photography has been shared and made public. Photography has always been social."

**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey

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