THE FIRST TIME I READ CHASE JARVIS‘ The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You was some six years after its 2010 publication date, a short time in years, but a century in the development of mobile camera technology. After dashing through what was one of the first books ever compiled solely of phone camera images, I was furious at myself for investing, albeit in a Half Price Books store, in what I first saw as a pile of technically inferior, self-indulgent mush. The images were soft, hyper-saturated, low-contrast shots of, well, anything that caught Jarvis’ fancy as he jetted around the planet doing what I thought of as his “real” work. Shot in those heady first days of iPhone novelty at a mere two megapixels per frame, TBCITOTWY seemed a work of complete impulse. The pictures had no plan, no premeditation.
It took several days for me to realize that Chase wasn’t shooting “like a pro”. He was shooting like an artist.
In the post just previous to this one I had explained that it was the new kind of photographer, borne of the cell phone era, that had influenced me in learning to let go of a few, if not all formalist rules in my own work. Chase Jarvis had no way of knowing, nine years ago, that mobile cameras would re-introduce a kind of instinctual shooting into the mainstream, a sudden, relaxed see-it-shoot-it attitude based on desire and not calculation. The first cel cameras were certainly limited, lo-fi toys, but they embodied the same what-the-hell spirit that had typified old Polaroid users and, in the digital realm, the back-to-film Lomography hipsters with their plastic light-leaking Soviet-era snap cams. Cels had reignited the desire to take a chance on a picture, to indulge a whim. If the result was great art, cool. If instead you got a weird mess, even cooler.
This was all made possible by being absolutely comfortable with a camera that was good enough to at least give you something every time. The designers put a little computer in everyone’s hand that almost never failed completely. This was faster than film, and your absolute clunkers could be vaporized and tried again immediately. This same freedom had already come to digital cameras in general, but the sheer gobsmacking convenience of making pretty good pictures with almost no forethought or planning was beyond revolutionary. As with every other technical advance in the history of photography, it was democratically empowering.
The cameras are better now. So very much better, in fact, that they have freed people up even more to shoot a lot, enjoy it a lot, and speed up their learning curves. So much better that I can knock off a shot like the one seen here in less time than it would have taken to spool film into my camera just a generation ago. “I feel more free with (this) little camera than I have with any other”, wrote Chase Jarvis in the introduction to The Best Camera. “I somehow recovered an innocence I’d lost. I was able to see the world again for what it is: a beautiful, funny, sad, honest, simple, bizarre, and honest place”. I am still not ready to completely toss my photographic rule book, but the revolution in the world’s way of seeing has swept a part of me up, and my work reflects that. I love my own journey, but I am happy to sneak a peek at everyone else’s, too. To be surprised, in any art, at any age, is a blessing.
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
I’VE BEEN TRYING TO FIND A WAY TO DESCRIBE THE COMBINATION OF HOPE AND ANXIETY THAT ATTENDS MY EVERY USE OF A SMARTPHONE CAMERA. Coming, as do many geezers of my era, from a tradition of full-function, hands-on, manual cameras, I have had a tough time embracing these miraculous devices, simply because of the very intuitive results that delight most other people.
But: it’s a little more complicated than my merely being a control freak or a techno-snob.
What’s always perplexing to me is that I feel that the camera is making far too many choices that it “assumes” I will be fine with, even though, in many cases, I am flat-out amazed at how close the camera delivers the very image I had in mind in the first place. It doesn’t exactly make one feel indispensable to the process of picture-making, but that’s a bug inside my own head and I gotta deal with it.
I think what I’m feeling, most of the time, is what I call the “Polaroid Effect”. To crowd around family or friends just moments after clicking off a memory with the world’s first true instant film cameras, those bulky bricks of the Mad Men era, was to share a collectively held breath: would it work? Did I get it right? Then as now, many “serious” photographers were reluctant to trust a Polaroid over their Leicas or Rolliflexes. Debate raged over the quality of the color, the impermanence of the prints, the limited lenses, the lack of negatives, and so on. Well, said the experts, any idiot can take a picture with this.
Well, that was the point, wasn’t it? And some of us “idiots” learned, eventually, to take good pictures, and moved on to other cameras, other lenses, better pictures, a better eye. But there was that maddening wait to see if you had lucked out with those square little glimpses of life. The uncertainty of trusting this…machine to get your pictures right.
And yet look at the above image. I asked a lot in this frame, with wild amounts of burning hot sunlight, deep shadows, and every kind of contrast in between just begging for the camera to blow it. It didn’t. I’m actually proud of this picture. I can’t dismiss these devices just because they nudge me out of my comfort zone.
Smartphone cameras truly extend your reach. They go where bulkier cameras don’t go, prevent more moments from being lost, and are in a constantly upward curve of technical improvement. People can and do make astounding pictures with them, and I have to remind myself that the ultimate choice…that of what to shoot, can never be taken away just because the camera I’m holding is engineered to protect me from my own mistakes.