OpEd: We Were Discussing iPhone Photography and In Walks Martin Parr

©Li Wei

I had an email conversation with Blake about all the crap photography on the internet and how the creme may not rise to the top.  My position being that what I think is crap, someone else will find to be wonderful, and what I think is wonderful will be dull, boring crap to the cult of connoisseurship.

Then Blake mentioned gradations, and how the gradations will vary for everyone.  The more photography, the more gradations and opinions.  And then bam! We’re huddled in our tribes searching out photography that fits into our gradation while sarcastically bemoaning all the crap that doesn’t fit into it.

While thinking about this last night (not very deeply to be honest with you), I found a blog post about iPhone photography from a blog that doesn’t usually discuss photography.

“I hope the ghost of Walker Evans punches me in the face,” wrote producer Eric Spiegelman last night.

It’s the same argument that seems to be going on about photography and the internet all the time. All the crap, superficial disposable digital imagery we’re exposed to on a daily basis, and how it really is just crap, and yeah, you’re not a photographer because you use Hipstamatic or any other silly effect.

Oh, but the democratization of photography. We’re all photographers now! Take that photographers!

I’m getting a headache even writing this because I have a pretty good idea of the arguments on both sides of the debate.  “Photography is more than just pointing a camera. It’s about ideas, and take years and years to learn,” vs “Digital photography and the internet have liberated the medium from the professionals and now anyone with a digital camera or an iPhone can produce quality photographs.”

I can see your blood boiling already. But! No! Photography is! It’s crap! No! iPhone isn’t!

However, I don’t think most people that casually use the iPhone to snap away are really concerned with photography, it’s really more about the social aspects of sharing their visual reality with friends and family.

Too bad they think that reality needs to be dressed up in weird filters. I guess I tend to be with Winogrand: “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.”

And in walks Martin Parr.

“I’m interested in anything if its good, and if its fresh and original – and exciting.” – Martin Parr

©Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek

The quote is from a recent interview in the BJP which if you haven’t read it, is worth a look.  Parr always has interesting ideas about photography and where it’s heading.

But that sentence has stuck with me since I first read it.  Good, fresh, original and exciting.  That must be Martin’s gradation, and everything else must be crap.

Good, I understand. Basically, shit he likes. But fresh? Original? Exciting? That’s where I start to think in circles.  Would Vivian Maier be considered fresh, original and exciting? Fresh, would be a stretch since the work is decades old. Unless fresh doesn’t mean produced recently, then I suppose it could be fresh.

Is it all that original? Not really. Black and white street photography has a long tradition, about as long as photography has been around. Exciting? Maybe. The discovery of a long lost unknown talent  is always kind of exciting.

But is the work exciting?  It doesn’t matter to me because it’s well executed, consistent (from what we’ve seen thus far) and demonstrates the intelligence of the photographer.

Perhaps this is just all about semantics and we’re all really talking about the same ideas, but using different words.

Much of photography for me is about discovery. I enjoy finding photographs and photographers, young or experienced, new or old alike.  But the metrics for what resonates with me aren’t necessarily based on fresh, original and exciting.  Then what are my metrics? Well executed, consistent and demonstrates the intelligence of the photographer are a little vague and not good enough.

Right now, I’m not sure I can articulate what type of work resonates with me or why. And “I know it when I see it” isn’t a legitimate response in this case. But I do know that the hunt for the best, most original, fresh and exciting photography also doesn’t resonate with me.

This creates sort of a predicament when you’re editing a blog about photography, so I figured it’s time to work on this problem.  I’m working on post that will lay out ‘What I Look for in Photography for LPV,’ which will hopefully illuminate some ideas for both of us.

I’m also in the process of starting a Tumblr that will contain one photo and a link to a portfolio from all the email submissions I receive for LPV.  I think it’ll be an interesting experiment in transparency. You’ll be able to see what I choose for the blog and what I don’t, and then make up your own mind.  Of course, some of the work might not resonate with you.

  • http://www.tomstappers.com Tom Stappers

    I guess the whole matter is not so much about the occasional “good” photograph (for whatever that means), but rather the body of work that builds and allows the serious photographer to really express himself about his interests in life, his obsessions even. Therefore in looking for quality we automatically deal with the so-called “serious” photographer, rather than the superficial shooter (professional or amateur) who’s only out to impress with a striking image amidst the deluge of mediocre photography.

  • J.Goupil

    Shall I enter this debate now, and why? My eyes don’t like what they’re seeing and to me that’s enough to say it’s not quality, and I like some lomo, pinhole, and whatever can be taken, if the man behind the camera knows a little about the basics of light measurement and noise.
    To me noise is unbearable, as well as japanese flag pictures.

  • http://jophilippe.com/ jacques philippe

    Nothing new under the sun, just personal impressions.

    - Abundance sucks. At least to me. I know it could be fascinating and somewhat envy those who can stand it. As you put it before “what if there’s actually an abundance of good photography?” and is a good point. For that very reason I dislike photostreams, such as the ones from Flickr. It is not a matter of “quality” vs “crap” (or relevancy to my “gradation”) but instead a very problem of stream. Disconnected stuffs. What if Egglestone had been trying to make a name of himself through Flickr ?

    - Instead I like the “intimate” set-up of a personal website, or books (not to speak about gallery exhibition), or projects. To me is the best way to expand gradation. In a sense I am more interested in photographers rather than in photographs. It is the way of seeing rather than the description which interests me.

    - Nothing wrong with iphone (more generally phonecams). By the way they are probably the future of street photography with the hassle all around. I don’t like them for personal usage (at least so far). I am an old fashioned photographer who likes to “get” that frame in the dark of an optical viewfinder and click. That is my personal version of instant gratification.

    “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.”. Definitely.

  • Bryan Formhals

    I agree. I don’t think I was knocking iPhone photography. I use my iPhone camera and like some of the work by friends who use it, but they can make decent photographs with any camera.

    I guess my point, which I didn’t make very well, is that the same argument filters through everything about photography, digital and the internet whether you’re an experienced photographer or a novice – it’s all disposable crap.

    What I think is interesting about how some novices use the Hipstamatic is that they need to use the filters because they think that makes the photography more artistic. As we all know, it’s not the tools, it’s the photographer.

  • http://www.wadegriffithphotography.com Wade Griffith

    I don’t understand why the Hipstamatic and other forms of phone photography have to be looked down upon like this. I love all forms of photography; film, digital, lomo, camera phone. Just as with any camera, 1 in 20, 50 or 100 photos might be really good with the rest being ok or crap. I feel the same about the Hipstamatic and other apps. Just because they apply all these effects doesn’t make them a good picture. I’ve seen a ton of Hipstamatic photos that stink. You still have to apply the same principals of photography that make a great photo. If an effect is placed on top of that by this new medium of photography that makes the photo look even better, so what. Great! Vintage film and certain toy cameras gave many of the same effects and were used by wonderful photographers. I don’t think you can be closed minded in photography, this is just another form of artistic means. Just like HDR, which I don’t particularly care for, you can’t say it’s ALL bad. A good photographer can take a good picture with any camera, including his phone. A bad photographer will take bad pictures, even with the Hipstamatic. I think if someone is building their entire portfolio around the Hipstamatic they might want to reconsider branching out, but as far as having a tool on you at all times that can give you a similar feel as old film, I say go for it. Have fun and keep experimenting with all mediums. Keep your mind and options open.

  • Bryan Formhals

    Funny. That was actually my hesitation in posting any photographs :) But I figured people would hopefully not think these are examples of crap. Although, I guess that depends on your gradation…

  • Bryan Formhals

    Yeah, I didn’t really mean to make any of it a BW or color issue. More about what we consider new and fresh.

  • MB

    Oh, I also want to add that I love Martin Parr’s thoughts and curating of photography.

  • MB

    First off I think the color vs b&w debate is getting old, very old. Photos aren’t “contemporary” because they’re color and b&w isn’t necessarily old and boring because it’s b&w. In fact the most cliche’d work I see nowadays is color on different blogs and websites “curated” by non-curators. Large format or cropped to 4×5 color portraits and architecture or 35mm hipster work. And interestingly enough many photographers seem to get away with this not so original and not so fresh work.
    Good photography, good editing and PERSONAL work translates to modern, fresh and exciting. What I think the problem is that many photographers are doing personal work that’s not really personal at all. Vivianne Maier’s work is amazing because she wasn’t shaped or formed to take certain photos and she photographed for herself and not to get others linking and praise, allthough she has a large following now for natural reasons.

  • http://danielgebhart.com/ Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek

    so, is my picture the perfect example to illustrate the crap photography you’re talking about in here? ;)