Monday, 27 August 2012

The Rise of iPad Photography

iPad photographers © Karin Bareman

It's probably beyond dispute that most photography museums consider it part of their task to educate their audience about the history of photography. However, some of them do so in a rather direct way. The Fotomuseum in Antwerp for example has an entire exhibition gallery dedicated to this purpose. By using the concept of four different kinds of gazes, it illustrates key moments in the history of photography by using acquisitions of its own permanent collection. The National Media Museum in Bradford does something similar with its Kodak Gallery, but its focus lies more on consumer photography.

Nonetheless, once you have seen one such gallery, you have seen them all. There are certain key references that come back everywhere: cameras obscuras are mentioned, as is the first photo by Niepce, the near simultaneous invention of the daguerrotype by Daguerre and the calotype by Fox Talbot; then comes the first war picture by Roger Fenton, the arrival of cartes de visite, and the images of the galloping horse by Eadweard Muybridge; the popularization of the media is analysed, especially after the arrival of the Kodak Brownie thanks to George Eastman; the production of the Leica camera deserves a mention, as does the founding of Magnum, the continuing development and refinement of various black-and-white films and printing papers, the start of colour photography, the first polaroid camera; and to skip a few stages, it ends with the arrival of digital photography.

It is fascinating to see that exhibitions like these tend to be really technological in nature. The message is clear. The machine came first. Or the film, or the paper, or whatever. But not the artist. Or the subject matter. Everything is presented with simple and straight timelines. A perfect linear development is established. Causes and effects are demonstrated. Never mind that history never works in such a neat fashion and that reality is always much more messy than the graphs used to represent it. The photographs themselves, and the photographers who produced them, tend to get subsumed in such a narrative. One can know the dates and developments by heart, and still have no idea of what kind of photography the defining practitioners of the medium have shot since Niepce.

Incomplete as I consider such an exhibition, and indeed question whether a complete overview of photography as a medium can actually be represented via an exhibition, I wonder whether future galleries will include a technological development that has come to my attention recently. Whilst walking down the streets of Nice one early evening this summer, I nearly bumped into a woman talking to her iPad. She was pointing it at the scene in front of her and describing her last night on holiday. Startled, I had not quite grasped until that moment that the iPad was of course capable of recording still and moving images. Dismissing her though as a bit of an oddball for using an iPad instead of a normal camera, I walked on. However, in the next few days I came across quite a few tourists walking around with an iPad in hand, occasionally holding them up and taking pictures of the sights.

In the last decade, photography for the masses has really changed beyond recognition. Indeed, about eight years ago I would still occasionally and happily sell a consumer film camera to a customer during my time working in a camera store. But with the ongoing and rapid developments in digital photography, every month would see a new consumer camera model which would not only be smaller, but also contain better sensors, boost more pixels, more zoom, and more possibilities. More and more people would be seen photographing by holding the camera at arm's length. They would judge the composition of the image by means of an LCD screen, rather than looking through a viewfinder. Indeed, with later models the viewfinder would disappear completely. More and more people would snap away with abandon, because digital photographs 'cost nothing' as opposed to having 35 mm film developed and printed. This had dire consequences for photography stores and printing labs, but especially for the film and paper producers of old. Agfa went bust and had to reinvent itself, Polaroid went down the same road, and even that eternal bastion of consumer photography Kodak has since gone bankrupt.

Meanwhile, the development of consumer digital photo cameras parallelled the transition of mobile phones from functional and brick-size devices to smaller and sleeker models, providing more and more possibilities. Indeed, at some point it seemed that the mobile phone had virtually taken over from consumer cameras. This happened because of their increasing capacities to film and photograph, and their possibilities for instant publication via social media apps. Despite the enhanced capabilities of digital cameras and phones for producing pictures of decent quality in comparison to the consumer film cameras of old, people would simply point, shoot, and publish without paying much attention to the actual result however.

But now there is the iPad, and people have started using it to take photographs. I cannot quite fathom why it seems so strange to me. The arm's-length-posture is still there, as is the composition by use of the LCD screen. But whereas a mobile phone at least still more or less resembled the latest models of consumer digital camera in size and appearance, the iPad cannot be mistaken for anything else but an iPad. It almost seems like 8x10 film cameras have been given a portable and user-friendly form. Indeed, the size of the iPad closely mirrors large format film.[1] Almost every professional photographer using a large format camera praises its enhanced depth of field, the sharpness of the details in the resulting image, and the need for careful composition. I am idly wondering whether the iPad will do something similar for consumer photography.

And of course the iPad can double as an album, a picture frame and a projection screen, which is something cameras have never been capable of, and mobile phones not quite. Swiss artists Rico and Michael have been quick off the mark to exploit these features in their work Double Extension Beauty Tubes. Combining more than a thousand pictures they have shot into an archive portraying the Facebook generation, they simply and essentially present a slideshow of photographs. This has been done by photographers as long as slide projectors have been in existence. Paul Fusco for example presented his series Funeral Train as a slide show. So did Jacob Holdt with his American Pictures, and later Nan Goldin with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. But rather than whipping out a white projection screen and a slide projector, Rico and Michael use a device that can now double up as a camera. I am therefore really curious to see if and how this technological development will impact the medium in general.

Karin Bareman

[1] The most recent version of the iPad measures 9.50" x 7.3",

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