Is Phoneography Ruining Photography?

The winners of the eight annual iPhone Photography Awards, an informal event meant to recognize the best amateur photography captured via iPhone, have officially been announced. Though the contest is lauded as one of the most accessible photography competitions around — anyone can enter so long as their pictures were taken with iPhone, iPod, or iPad, aren’t photoshopped, and the $3 submission fee is paid — many artists are decrying the democratization of their craft.

Kate Bevan, a writer with The Guardian, said “the Instagram/Hipstamatic/Snapseed etc filters are the antithesis of creativity. They make all pictures look the same. They require no thought or creative input: one click and you’re done.”

“Phoneography,” as smartphone photography has come to be known as, offers the everyman a chance to instantly become a photographer, but it’s this instant-gratification that’s ruining photography, a craft that not only takes years to learn (let alone perfect), but hours upon hours to perform. Phoneographers seemingly make a mockery of photographers’ devotion.

We’re losing our appreciation of photographers in favor of a love of people who snap a photo with their iPhone,” argues Melody Weister, writing for Digital Pivot, a new media e-zine.

“I’m not trying to say that Instagram should be eliminated entirely,” continues Wesiter. “What I’m saying is, if you want to learn photography as an art form, don’t look to Instagram to learn it. I wouldn’t call myself a culinary artist because I know my way around a cookbook; don’t call yourself a serious photographer because you picked a filter on Instagram and took a picture of your socks.”

Bevan argues that these filters, which attempt to instantly replicate effects photographers spend countless hours producing, are meant to add authenticity to photos — to make them stand out. Yet, it’s this very need to stand out that’s part of the problem. The sheer quantity of images being posted, shared, and liked across the wide spectrum of social networks devalues the snapshots. Photos of grandparents and great-grandparents are partly valuable for their scarcity. They’re valuable because they’re rare, unlike the thousands of photos on a person’s Facebook or Instagram.

“Innovation in camera technology is happening at an unimaginable pace. Although there will always be a market for high quality cameras for amateur and professional photographers, it’s only a matter of time before smartphone cameras are able to do what high-end cameras are doing right now,” says Fred Tilner, 42nd Street Photo Manager and Marketing Director of the New York camera store.

Yet, it’s hard to argue that the winning pictures of the iPhone Photography Awards aren’t artful. The winning selections are stacked with breathtaking, exotic landscapes filled with glaciers; dramatic, stark portraits of men in half-lit walkways; and technicolor sunsets of gently churning lakes.

The Photography versus Phoneography argument might seem patronizing — especially in light of the iPhone Photography Award winners — but it’s worth thinking about. Does the ability to instantly improve the quality of our photos improve their worth, or does it devalue them as much as the tendency to overproduce pictures?

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