November 19, 2012

Mobile Photography as Art?

Digital Photography Review's new Connect site, which focuses on mobile photography, ran a recent article "Mobile photography finds a place in the fine arts world." The article, especially its supporting photographs aren't very compelling — urban hipster blah if you ask me. But, in fairness, Jon Burris, a gallery director with loose ties to Ansel Adams, who's interviewed in the article, is recounted:

Burris compares the reluctance to accept smartphone photography as a valid art form to the same hesitation toward digital photography several years ago. Collectors once shied away from purchasing digital prints in favor of those made from film. Burris anticipates the same necessary learning curve for collectors as well as the general public to take mobile photography seriously, but expects that in the future, galleries like his won’t put so much emphasis on the medium, instead focusing on the art. He envisions a digital print of an image taken on an iPhone 4S hanging next to a silver gelatin print on gallery walls worldwide.

Some reasonable points but I principally disagree. Chosen medium (and its tools) are absolutely important in supporting an artist’s chosen path. And the medium of mobile photography is in its infancy. As a creative medium, it is grossly reliant on post-processing software with its myriad of instant filters and effects. So, with respect to medium, if your goal is to create work along the lines of an Ansel Adams or Paul Strand, you’re not going to do it using a mobile phone. Such distinctions should be acknowledged and celebrated, not homogenized.

But, as Burris said, to which I wholeheartedly agree, to determine mobile photography's relevance to art we must focus on the art itself. Any validation of practitioners in the medium must really focus on the guiding question of what is art? Or more precisely, what is good art?

I certainly have my own opinions on this, but for fun, I decided to Google "What makes Art good?" and, among the list of results, focused on an article that sought answers from various California gallery owners and curators on this exact subject. A few answers that resonated:

Brian Gross, Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco: Art that is unique in conception and well executed.

Cheryl Haines, Haines Gallery, San Francisco: Clear intention, unwavering dedication, patience, perseverance, self awareness and the drive to make for yourself and no one else.

Marsea Goldberg, New Image Art, Los Angeles: Originality, representational of the time when it was created, passion, a frame of reference, freshness, intellectual content, and is uniquely identifiable as the work of that particular artist...

All of these quotes emphasize the importance of passionate dedication and conviction to pursue work that is self-expressive, creating a style that is reflective of the artist and can be recognized as so. It's hard to argue with the notion that any photographer on an artistic path must be deeply personally committed and able to demonstrate a body of work reflective of that commitment.

Is such commitment possible in mobile photography? Certainly. Is such commitment present in today's world of mobile photography? Very questionable.

I guess time will tell if Burris' vision of iPhone 4S photographs hanging next to a silver gelatin prints on gallery walls worldwide will prevail.

I'm not holding my breath.


I do not photograph for ulterior purposes. I photograph for the thing itself - for the photograph - without consideration of how it may be used.

Eliot Porter