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Teaching photography in the cellphone age

‘Being there’ with a camera is no longer distinctive.

So much cellphone photography has its entire afterlife

So much cellphone photography has its entire afterlife online or in a gallery on someone's phone. Photo Credit: AP / Kiichiro Sato

When I began teaching college photography in the late 1980s, I asked my students about their experience — how many pictures they had made, what equipment they used, if they knew their way around a darkroom, and so on.

Generally, no more than half of my students had made many photographs in those pre-digital years, other than those made with one of the many Instamatic or disposable film cameras popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, of course, the situation is far different — thanks in large part to the iPhone, which celebrated its 10th birthday on Thursday.

Yet students often don’t realize they’re seasoned photographers until I prompt them to take their phones out and share a photo they’ve recently made.

We could certainly discuss the quality of their photos. What’s most important, however, is that the camera is being used, that photographs are being made at an electric pace, and that most everyone also serves as curator of all they produce.

How, then, do I teach students to make lasting photographs when we are so inundated with images day after day? With everything being photographed and tagged and posted, what should a serious student photograph? Is there is anything that hasn’t already been photographed? A rainbow appears over your small town and everyone has the same impulse to photograph it. A heated political conflict leads to an impromptu demonstration and you attend, camera ready. Everyone directs his or her iPhone lens at the same moment, in the same direction. It’s often hard to find a vantage point that doesn’t include someone else taking a picture. So, is that your subject, the response of the crowd to the march?

“Being there” with a camera is no longer distinctive. Everyone has some semblance of a camera, and many are comfortable with the ease, clarity, and flexibility of the iPhone, with its nearly unfailing iris, aperture and memory. Exposure is the essential first act, and the second just as fundamental in this new age: The ability to immediately deliver the image to a broad audience — to “share” — almost as quickly as the photograph was created.

It would be easy to come down hard on cellphone photo habits, the selfies and food porn, the pets and sunsets. And yet the cellphone has made regular photographers out of us all, with thousands of images stored on a single phone as evidence of the picture impulse.

With all this shared experience, I’ve learned that we have a common place to start in photography class. In the days of film, students seemed reluctant to snap away, almost fearful of mistakes. The cellphone has loosened up the visual reflexes, made people must more inclined to look and record, to try another angle. That lets me spend much more time on the craft of image making and discussing artistic intent and documentary representation.

So much cellphone photography has its entire afterlife online or in a gallery on someone’s phone. My photography classes focus on moving from the digital to the material, in making prints that when gathered together in a portfolio coalesce into a coherent body of work. In some ways the iPhone has provided a foundation from which to go deeper, an opportunity to move from the simple understanding of “making a picture” to something more personal, serious and lasting as I challenge students to find their own compelling subject matter and render it through a carefully seen and printed series of images.

My approach doesn’t solve all the challenges the phone camera has delivered to us. When is too much just simply too much? How can I sensibly argue that we need more pictures? Five minutes on Instagram and you can see more photographs that one mind can fully measure or comprehend.

In his essay “Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy describes someone who has longed to see the Grand Canyon for years. He finally gets his chance, but upon arriving, Percy tells us, “instead of looking at it, he photographs it.” How do we avoid surrendering our ability to see by instead photographing? Our most compelling photographs, ones that have the kind of “sovereign” vision Percy advises, must come from “looking” through freshly creative and steady eyes. We can learn in part from the speed of the iPhone to slow ourselves down, to rein ourselves in, to attend to observation with heightened discipline and intention.

What is so often missing in the flutter of day-to-day photography is any considered reflection on craft, on making a coherent body of work, of translating digital files to material prints, of staking a claim on what the photographer thinks other should see and reflect on. This work requires more slow photography than fast, more reflection than exposure.

Tom Rankin is professor of the practice of art and director of the Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University.

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