ARE WE BEING SERIOUS NOW?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THIS MONTH MARKS AN IMPORTANT MILESTONE IN PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY, in that it was almost exactly ten years to the day that a major news magazine, on deadline amidst a horrific disaster, decided, for the first time, to run a cellphone image from an Instagram posting as its cover picture. The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was, due to the newly accelerated penetration of mobile photography, covered to a much greater degree by the average shooter, but it was one very above-average professional, news photographer Ben Lowy, who provided the magazine with the image that would define the destruction and fury of the superstorm, and he took it not with his usual battery of Nikon and Canon gear, but with an iPhone 4S.*
This seems trivial in retrospect, but at the time, it actually represented a fairly seismic shift, as publications changed their idea of what constituted “real” coverage of a major new event. It also conceded what millions around the world already knew in their DNA: that their camera of convenience was now, also, their device of choice, their “real” camera. if you like. Lowy himself explained the mindset: “People don’t think twice about it. It’s a fast little camera, and I do like that on a tough assignment. At times, though, ‘pros’ will push me aside, assuming I’m a tourist or amateur. It’s the mind of the photographer that defines the quality of the image, not the equipment. Everyone has a pen, but not everyone can draw.”
Just as the average phone shooter knew by 2012 that the best camera is the one you have with you, so the world of editors had to grudgingly admit that a picture is a picture is a picture and who the hell cares what it was captured on? Of course, we know the answer to “who the hell cares”, as we all know people who argue that you need a “real” camera to get artistic results, at which point I remind them how many Pulitzer Prize-winning images are, in fact, underexposed, blurry, badly composed, or askew, despite the fact that they were made by world-class equipment. They copped Pulitzers because, despite how much we may spend or scrimp on gear, in the end, a compelling picture trumps everything else.
I have made my own dog-legged journey in my conception of a “good” camera, the device I would count on to make the “official” or “permanent” images of an important event or place. When traveling, for instance, I still use my mobile for snapshots, experiments or “pencil sketch” versions of things, bringing my formalized equipment in to render the “final” edition. I’ve gradually become more and more even-handed in budgeting shots between my “casual” and “serious” camera, but I know too well that I am behind a kind of global curve in thinking this way. Turns out photography is not merely about perfecting one’s technique, but also about perfecting the brain behind the shutter finger.
*Full disclosure: a bit of texture was added to Lowy’s shot before it was posted, not with Lightroom or Photoshop, but with the phone app Hipstamatic.