Did you know that there is such a thing as a dumb phone? It’s the opposite of a smartphone, obviously! It’s an old school phone purchased to make phone calls and used for texting. It has few if any apps and poor cameras incorporated in its offering. Drug dealers and criminals use them and call them ‘burner phones’ as they are cheap enough to ditch and burn. Meanwhile, smartphones are getting more and more expensive offering increasingly sophisticated and proficient still and moving image capture. Speaking and texting come as a given.
Camera manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall and are beginning to collaborate with the phone guys. Both Leica and Hasselblad have got in on the act as of course have Sony and Samsung (Yes, Samsung did used to make cameras, quite good ones actually!) These companies have no issue with seeing their futures as being connected with the phone in your pocket. So, why do so many photographers still need to define their work by the camera used to make the image?
I still see photographers apologetically post images stating that it is a ‘smartphone snap’, as if it could not be considered to be a serious image due to the phone it was created with. I see photographers challenge viewers if they can tell which image was created with a DSLR or a smartphone. Surely, we should have moved on from this. The quality smartphone image has been with us long enough.
The smartphone is a powerful and useful camera. Easy to carry, easy to use and perfect for making images without intimidating the person or people you are photographing. Let’s accept that.
Perhaps the issue is with its ability to make everyone a photographer. It shouldn’t be. Everyone who makes photographs is not a photographer, we know that this definition is more sophisticated and nuanced than just making images.
In contrast to the deniers are the smartphone evangelists who feel the need to write books and hold workshops based on using the smartphone as a camera. I have no issue with their passion, but by highlighting it as requiring special skills further emphasises the idea that it is not a camera like any other.
The truth is that it does not require special skills and the books based on smartphone photography I have looked at prove my case. What the smartphone does do is help you to see, not merely to look, but to see, to see photographically. This is another good thing, particularly for those beginning their learning journey with the medium. It amazes me that schools and colleges are not more aware of this fact.
In my opinion the teaching of the technicalities of photography should come second to the ability to see, compose and define what to photograph. Without subject matter, there is no photography, however competent your technical skills are. This is where the smartphone excels by taking away the complexities of camera usage and placing the emphasis on the image itself. I encourage the use of the smartphone in my teaching and reject the necessity of teaching analogue for this very reason.
I am writing this article in 2022, not 1922. Our tools have changed and we are no longer defined as photographers by physics and chemistry. The digital revolution and subsequent evolution of computational image-making has given us a new box of opportunities to explore focused on expanding our creativity. The smartphone is part of that evolution, it is not the solution to all problems, but it has changed the way in which we make and share images. It has introduced photography to those who do not consider themselves to be photographers and given them the power to make photographs with no technical knowledge. I have no problem with that.
I think it’s time for photographers to fully accept the smartphone as a camera, to stop using it as a safety blanket when posting images and for educators to finally accept that analogue is over as a teaching tool. The future is not in a darkened room, but it is in your pocket. That’s not dumbing down, it’s getting smarter.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022