Ge­off Har­ris

Is pho­tog­ra­phy as dead as movie direc­tor Wim Wen­ders claims? Ge­off Har­ris is re­luc­tant to write an obit­u­ary quite yet

Amateur Photographer - - 7days - Ge­off Har­ris is Deputy Edi­tor of Ama­teur Photographer.

‘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 ( 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?

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