When Is Photography Not Photography?

When Is Photography Not Photography?

Has photography in the widest cultural sense morphed in to something that isn't photography? Renowned director and photographer Wim Wenders takes aim at the smartphone.

In a short video essay, Wenders bemoans the constant click of the smartphone culture. Over his career of nearly 50 movies, he has had a number of Oscar nominations including the 2014 documentary “Salt of the Earth” about Sebastião Salgado. He was also a prolific shooter of Polaroids during filming and this has led to a touring exhibition called “Instant Stories” (recently at the Photographers' Gallery).

For a BBC interview, Wenders takes aim at the proliferation of cameras on smartphones and that, now, everyone is a photographer. Or rather, he starts at the end point which he identifies as the problem (smartphones) and then proceeds to outline some of the symptoms. The billions of photos, the throwaway sameness, the unreality of filters, the lack of reverence for the final image. He sees all these photos simply as disposable pixels that have a short shelf life. He believes the ubiquity of cameras, their ease of use, and the sheer breadth of processing options actually reduces the creativity of the photographer.

Thinking back on his film career, he identifies the lack of resources as a key driver in the creativity of the film process, forcing him to diversify his repertoire. He suggests this “sameness” has devalued photography as a genre. In fact, I would go as far to say that he identifies a lack of art in photography, so much so that it is not photography anymore. He sees it as something different, that is created with a camera. And he wants a new word for it.

Does Wenders have a point? Has the proliferation of smartphones and Snapchat filters changed the foundations of what photographers think of photography? Is it art? And is there a new word for it?

Photo by wilkernet via Pixabay.

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26 Comments

Kyle Medina's picture

"now, everyone is a photographer." Its this negative mindset that is becoming cancer within the amateur/pro community.

"Photography is the "art" of taking photos. The public are not taking photos for the "art" but the connivence of having the ability to take and share their own personal photos. Nothing has really changed except the medium that we see photos. Our puny minds can't except the information overload of seeing everyones personal photos. Especially by the older generations (50+). Which is the the demographic that complains the most about the advent of smartphones.

I am 50. Please don’t put everyone in a bucket. I never refer to anyone as a millennial, they are a person, young or old, female or male. I disagree with you, photography is for everyone, you can take a photo but can’t really call yourself a photography until you have learnt the craft, I mean understanding the physics of light, lens etc. This is all of course variable, because we never stop learning. Knowing what you are doing and why you are doing it is the combination of science and art. I don’t call myself a chef because I put a ready meal in he microwave, but I am still entitled to eat.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

Where do you draw the line?

Do i need to know why spaghetti gets soft when cooked or do i just need to know how long i have to cook them?

Do i need to have sold an image to be a photographer or do i need to have fun in the progress of taking the image even if nobody but me will ever see it?

Hi Max, as I said, when you know what you are doing and why you are doing it, then you know whether to call yourself a photographer. It’s really you who decides.

Douglas Turney's picture

I'm 52 and love the advent of smartphones.

Michael McCray's picture

I dodged, I burned, I registered, played with temperatures, chemistry, used filters and had a book with a hundred techniques for film. During that time there were lots of film cameras made for everyone just a little more expensive as far as total cost per image. Now I do every thing and more with key strokes on my computer or moving my finger on a screen. I don't miss chemicals and have more time and tools to create.

David Love's picture

A person that owns a camera is a camera owner. A photographer is the person that uses it to try and create something. I own a car, doesn't make me a race car driver. I see a lot of people at conventions run out and buy a camera and then start approaching cosplayers and models to shoot. Usually stalking, insisting until they say yes and then the model wonders why the pictures are horrible. They don't pay us for our camera, they pay us for the results and most cel phone pics to me are like red carpet and paparazzi pics, they tell us what's going on but I wouldn't hang them on my wall.

Pat McEntee's picture

Having a car makes you a car owner. Driving it makes you a driver. Driving specialized vehicles makes you a specialized driver; a race driver, a truck driver, a taxi driver, chauffeur, etc. None of that has anything to do with the quality of the driving even if the specialty driving usually requires more skill.

I've seen some great shots done with cell phones and poor shots done with very expensive equipment. And race drivers do have a disproportionate number of accidents.

David Love's picture

Yup. Can hardly tell the difference.

William Murray's picture

The assertion being made is that a person cannot be an artist (by photographer he means artist) if that person uses a mobile device to capture an image. It's a position that is as every bit as absurd as asserting that using a Leica, or a Hasselblad, or an 8x10 makes a person an artist.

At this point I can only imagine grandpa Simpson yelling at the sky because he no longer comprehends the world.

I don't think his assertion is so much someone can't be an artist if they use a mobile device as that the use of mobile devices inhibits an individuals growth as an artist or even their desire to approach photography that way. Your camera *helps* to create a mindset.

William Murray's picture

I can't disagree with regard to mindset. I'm finding that digital (as a whole) is too clean, too easy, and too predictable, and that it leaves me empty, and accordingly I'm moving back towards film.

Really? That's cool! I have a 1980's Minolta and a 1961 Canon P Rangefinder and keep telling myself I'll jump back in but never do. :-(

William Murray's picture

Yep. I'm currently shooting medium format pinhole, and as soon as I move I'll be setting up a dark room. I'll also buy a 4x5 kit again (they're super cheap).

Tony Moll's picture

I bet the same type of arguments were made when cameras took away from the art of painted portraits. Either way, I believe there are three types of photos. Photography being the art of capturing light on film. Digital Photography being the art of capturing information and Phonegraphy being the art of capturing swipe-click moments.

I prefer the thoughtfulness of shooting film.

To be or not to be... I love when articles like this try to delve into deep philosophical subjects that will have a huge impact in the future of (creative) civilization:))

When the intent matches the outcome, you have a photograph. Everything else is noise.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

This discussion is popping up everywhere.
Art is subjective - if somebody thinks their photo is beautiful and art then let them be. It doesn't concern you. Just look at whatever you want to look at.

And it is nothing genre specific. Do I find modern art more appealing than impressionist paintings? No.
Does that make modern art less of an art in the eye of the artist or the museum director who put it there? No.

Do I find synthesizer summer hit that some 16 year old kid created on their laptop more appealing than a Mozart symphony written 250 years ago and played by 100 people in an orchestra? No.
Does that make the music more worthless in the ears of the people who party to it? No.

I could go on and on like that. But rather than thinking about all the selfies out there, i would rather focus on my "art" and make that better. It's up to me who i will look at as a role model.

He has a point that we're in a throw away society. But that is not limited to photography.
Many jobs have been lost over the years that involved artistic skills and craftsmanship. How many blacksmith/saddle makers etc. do you know?
It is how it is, as sad as that may make you. The bright side is, that almost all these lost professions have found a niece in modern society where they can still perform their craft and probably on a higher level, with more artistic freedom than before.

Andrew Smith's picture

This story is getting old. Photographers complaining about everyone being a photographer. It's not new. Everyone had a simple film camera. They took it on holiday and to family events, weddings included. The pictures taken were for personal use. The pro's still sold their pictures to the happy couple and guests. What's changed is the easy with which they are shared with the advent of the smart phone. Isn't this more about Wenders plugging his exhibition and needing something to say?

Robert Nurse's picture

Could it be that the difference between "photographers" whether smartphone, 35mm, medium or large format is the level of effort brought to bare to master the art form? I love cycling. But, I'm nowhere near the top performers. But, I'm still a cyclist. I'm near 60 (damn!) and I remember a time when everything post related was done in the darkroom/lab. Today, anyone can realize their vision for their photos with LR, PS, Capture One, etc. The only difference is convenience. I will say, though, that I do prefer to get most of the work done in-camera and leave the rest to post. You just can't get it all done in-camera. At least not at my level of expertise. But, when "too much" is done in post, is it still photography? The debate will continue long after I'm gone. Is it art? Yes! Most assuredly!

Douglas Turney's picture

This same argument has been going on for hundreds of years. Andy Warhol makes prints of Campbell's soup cans and people say it isn't art and he isn't an artist. Monet develops his impressionist painting style and some people at the time (and some today) don't consider it art. The camera comes into existence and painters don't consider photography to be an art form. The argument is old, old, old. Art always eventually floats to the top.

Not everyone taking a picture/photograph is trying to make art - most of them are just trying to have some fun or to document some event.

Jon Dize's picture

When you have lived long enough, in my case 64, a licensed professional photographer for 43 years, MOST of the topics and arguments I read are old, old, old. In my opinion, it is no longer photography, when you have to wait for the paint to dry while you are washing out the brushes.

Douglas Turney's picture

Jon I might not be as old as you, I'm 52, but I'm tiring of these arguments of "is it art if....?". As you agree, these arguments are old. One thing I believe is time helps determine if something is art. Art stands the test of time and the numerous reviews of critics.

With that being said I believe too many people believe every photograph has to be an attempt at being art. I totally disagree with this line of thought. Photography can be art or it can simply be a means of documentation or communication. My photo of a Campbell's soup can in the grocery store is not an attempt at art but rather a means of confirming with my wife, who is at home, that I'm getting the correct type of soup. Andy Warhol's printing of Campbell soup cans was an attempt at art, which I believe it succeeded at.

James Korn's picture

Another day, another cranky dude who thinks he can define what qualifies as art/photography, because, "Back in my day..."

Mark James's picture

If you are shooting manual and taking into account your surroundings and lighting as well as your subject, you are a photographer. Everyone else is just documenting/recording their lives for whatever reasons they have. Lets call it DDL, Digatly Documenting Life.