Is photography as dead as movie director Wim Wenders claims? Geoff Harris is reluctant to write an obituary quite yet
‘If photography is about storytelling, I would argue that it’s very much alive’
Back in August, famous German film director Wim Wenders ( Paris, Texas etc) got a lot of coverage when he pronounced that photography as he knew it is dead, with smartphones sealing the coffin lid for good. It’s well worth watching the video on the BBC website (bbc.in/2oB7b4x) and Wenders makes some good points, especially on the disposability of smartphone photography and the astute observation that ‘the trouble with iPhone pictures is nobody sees them. Even the people who take them don’t look at them any more, and they certainly don’t make prints.’
It’s certainly one of the ironies of the modern age that tourists from Barcelona to Beijing now have an almost manic compulsion to shoot what’s in front of them with their phone, even though most of the images never get further than a transient post on Facebook and Instagram (or Weibo if you’re Chinese). Watch Wenders’ video, however, and a few holes start to appear in his argument. The interview took place at an exhibition of his old Polaroids from film sets, which he admits in a previous Guardian interview ‘helped with making the movies, but they were not an aim in themselves. They were disposable.’ So what’s the difference between a disposable Polaroid image and a disposable smartphone snap? Presumably in the printing, but not much more than that?
Wenders also claims that smartphone photography filters and Photoshop image manipulation have made photography somehow less truthful, less ‘realistic’ than it was in the pre- digital age. This is not a new argument, and is again problematic as film photography pioneers like Ansel Adams were famous for manipulating their supposedly pure, natural landscapes in the darkroom, to add drama and impact. Going back even further to the 19th century, many early photographers experimented with comping and artistic multiple exposures, so there wasn’t much concern with absolute realism from the likes of Oscar Rejlander (1813–75). Wenders also talks about how early photographers strove for the realism of painting, but the greatest later-19th century painters were actually moving away from merely trying to document the world, in favour of conveying feelings and moods.
I do agree with Wenders that one- click Snapseed or Instagram filters are not a quick shortcut to true creativity, and I for one am unconvinced by the supposedly revolutionary ‘SLR-a-like’ features that Huawei in particular shoehorns into its phones; a lot of the effects can still look a bit synthetic compared to the results you get with a ‘proper’ camera and quality lens. I also agree that even casual smartphone photographers should print more, if only to help ensure that there is a more tangible record of life in 2018. In the earlier mentioned Guardian interview on his Polaroids, Wenders observed that ‘the meaning is not in the photos themselves – it is in the stories that lead to them.’ So if photography is about storytelling, I would argue that it’s very much alive, and we should surely welcome smartphones as an aid to telling these stories. Just print your shots more, OK?
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The end of photography or just a way of taking images no one really sees?