Snap happy

Last week three VIPs took a moment in the most important and publicised event in the world that day to capture their own image on a smartphone. Little did they know that this would become the most circulated and reproduced images from Nelson Mandela’s memorial and one which would spark debates on society, photography and what Michelle Obama thought of it all.

It’s a strong statement in our society when a smartphone is the resounding topic of such a momentous event and one which prompted the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries to ask whether camera phones are killing photography.
(You can read his article here: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/13/death-of-photography-camera-phones?commentpage=5)

Jeffries observes that smartphone photography encourages laziness, we don’t stop to consider the shot but are more concerned with capturing the moment than capturing unique angles, compositions and lighting for the perfect image. Smartphones are putting professional photographers out of business, in the same way that the rise of photography in the 1850s meant that many family portrait painters lost their livelihood.

The wave of popularity for smartphones holding ever more sophisticated cameras has meant that the value of a good photograph, let alone a printed one, has diminished and any old person on Instagram claims themselves to be a ‘photographer’. Photography can now be held alongside the fast fashion, throwaway culture that we live in – the mentality that if we take hundreds of photos in five minutes of an event, somewhere within them will be the one we intended to get… or close enough.

We have lost the little rituals in personal photography, such as considering a shot at an event because we only have 26 photos on a roll of film or waiting a week for photos to be developed. The equivalent of having a photo of our family in our purse is now having them as your iPhone background. Hundreds of photos will be forgotten or lost on hard drives and psychologists even argue that there is such a thing as a ‘photo taking impairment effect’, where the act of relying on a camera to record memories means that you subconsciously store the memory to a lesser extent than you would have otherwise. We are suffering experientially just for the sake of a phone full of photos.

It all seems a bit doom and gloom as far as photography’s concerned, but there’s a whole other side to the story. Despite the rise of platforms such as Instagram, a person with a smartphone is not qualified to call themselves a ‘photographer’ and more than a person who can doodle can call themselves Michaelangelo. There is definitely a blurring of the lines between personal and professional photography, but it’s far from being killed off.

Digital photography has brought photography to the masses; as with anything put into the mass market, the quality is bound to suffer, but that doesn’t mean that the craft of taking a ‘proper’ photograph is lost. Digital has taken away the expense of buying, developing and printing film and it allows people the potential to capture great images, even if they’re not the kind of images you’d want to be put in your wedding album.

It has often been said that ‘the best camera you have is the one you have with you’. Naturally a DSLR will always beat a smartphone camera but they are a huge effort to carry on your person at all times, whereas you’re more than likely (if you own one) to have your smartphone readily accessible in a pocket or bag. Yes, the process of photography has changed in terms of the everyday person but we, as human beings, often use our personal, less than professional photographs as a means to connection.

Social networking has allowed us to share with more people and over vast distances more than ever before, and it also allows us to share our photographs – there is often no photo limit and the platforms are usually free to use. We are encouraged by others and it’s often a shameless form of self-promotion with users plugging in to the rise of ‘hey, look what I’m doing/where I’ve been’ photography. Our society loves to be able to see things in our friends’ lives and be able to pass comment on them remotely, we’re often not too bothered about high-res images, excellent lighting or inspired composition.

In the 21st century as a culture, we are recording our own history in an unprecedented way. In September Facebook revealed that its users have uploaded more that 250 billion photos, and are uploading 350 MILLION NEW PHOTOS each day… That’s an average of 217 per person, per day. (http://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-350-million-photos-each-day-2013-9). It’s a momumental amount of data and proves how obsessed we are with documenting our daily lives, from what we have for breakfast to the oddly dressed person we saw on the tube.

We have an incredibly casual approach to taking photographs and a lot of them will be irrelevant to look back on in 20 years time but it’s still an interesting insight into daily lives, I’d rather see a picture of what someone had for dinner than read constant status updates where they tell me they’re bored/hungry/tired.

But I don’t believe that photography as an artform will die as long as there are those who want to learn the craft and consider photographic composition and lighting rather than just being concerned with just getting any photo that hints at the intended meaning. The landscape of photography is adapting and advancing with technology, but this is a natural step for progression. Fashion photographer, Nick Knight, champions the iPhone as a great tool in his photography and the iPhone Photography Awards show that not all smartphone users are taking endless photos of their cats.

Kim-Hanskamp1 Jon-Resnik Maegan-Moore Luyu-Huang

A selection of winning photographs from the iPhone Photography Awards 2013. (See more at https://www.ippawards.com/index.html)

Of course there is potential in smartphone photography, so long as the elements that are photographed are considered, but photography as a profession will still sit on a level higher. Personally I wouldn’t hire someone with an iPhone to take my wedding photos, no matter how qualified they may be, but perhaps we need to see this as an opportunity or a new path within photography rather than a disaster for the industry.

The Tube Map: a very British symbol of simplicity from complexity

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We’ve all seen it, I see it every day and stare, absent-minded, at it for roughly two hours as I travel to and from work on a variety of lines. To me it goes hand-in-hand with ‘please mind the gap’ and ‘stand clear of the doors’, but to a newcomer it is an aid to getting around the world’s second largest megacity.

It has inspired other underground (or subway) maps the world over and has been parodied globally to give the lines new significance – from a Biblical tube map to what each tube station tastes like, put together by a man with synaesthesia.

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The Biblical Underground

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‘Tastes of the Underground’

It’s a map of London, albeit a non-geographically accurate one, which is symbolic of more than just train lines, but has become an icon of the capital and an inspirational piece of design. But why has it been so successful? How has it become this icon of our capital city and why is it so highly merchandised – why don’t we want iPhone cases and pillowcase covers with local bus routes printed on them?

 In March 2013 the creator of the tube map, Harry Beck, was honoured with a blue plaque which commemorated the 80th anniversary of the map’s birth in the year of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.

However, Harry Beck wasn’t a big-shot designer working for TfL, but was originally employed to draw electrical circuits for the Underground and, in his spare time, sketched out a diagram to replace the haphazard and complicated map that Londoners used at the time for want of something better

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The tube map before Beck

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Beck’s tube map

A map, by definition, is a representation of the features of an area of the earth, showing them in their respective forms, sizes and relationships. However the tube map, for all it’s simplicity and accessibility, is not geographically correct; as this is the premise for a map then there must be a deeper explanation as to the success of such a diagrammatic and geographically inefficient ‘map’.

Map designer, Aris Venetikidis, gives us a possible explanation as to why we have such a love for those inaccurate coloured lines. When we move to a new environment we start to build a cognitive map in our brains of where we are – as we spend longer in the environment, this map expands until, eventually, you know your way around. In order to do this, you construct linear routes linking point A to point B – our mind constructs these straight lines and generally a route coming off that first line will be at a 90 degree angle. We attach meanings and emotions to the things we find along these lines and fill our cognitive maps with markers of meaning. Imagine for a moment that you are drawing a quick map for a friend, you are likely to use straight lines and corners but it is highly unlikely that it would be a geographically correct representation if you laid an OS map over it.

Explaining this unlocks the secret to the success of Harry Beck’s map; although he didn’t realize it at the time, he was creating a map which correlated to the language of our brains and how we would create a simple map of our environment. Aris Venetikidis therefore attributes Beck’s success to three things:

  1. the omission of less important information
  2. extreme simplification
  3. extreme geographic distortions

(Aris’ TED talk can be seen in full at http://www.ted.com/talks/aris_venetikidis_making_sense_of_maps.html)

There are many who argue that geographic distortion is detrimental to both Londoners and tourists in terms of creating a sustainable way of getting to know your environment. The misrepresentation of the distances between stations causes confusion and unnecessary travel – for example between Covent Garden and Leicester Square which is a three minute walk. Another example is the route between Chancery Lane and Farringdon Station; on the tube this would require two changes and four stations yet it is a seven minute walk between the two.  

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The ‘Walk Map’

‘Legible London’ is a system which encourages and helps those in the capital to find their way around by walking. They describe themselves as ‘giving people the confidence to get lost’ (Patricia Brown, Chief Executive of the Central London Partnership) and make the point that ‘109 journeys between Central London Underground stations are actually quicker on foot than the Tube’ (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/microsites/legible-london/3.aspx). With this in mind the Central London Partnership created a visual language and consistent mapping system which encourages people to walk around London and to remedy the fact that Beck’s tube map may have skewed people’s perceptions of where things are. The CLP also developed terminology which tapped into the phychological idea of cognitive mapping in order to implement their scheme. During research they identified specific areas of London which they termed as ‘villages’; these were areas such as Leicester Square, Covent Garden and Knightsbridge, areas with commonly used names which can help pedestrians to quickly relate one part of London to another. Within these villages they further identified ‘neighbourhoods’, for example within Covent Garden lie the neighbourhoods of Seven Dials, Neals Yard and Long Acre, with the intention that as the pedestrian becomes more familiar with the area, the more they will subdivide it into smaller, linked pieces, building a more detailed mental map.

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Legible London

Despite the drive for people to really get to know their surroundings and walk around the city rather than use public transport, Beck’s tube map remains an iconic design which is immediately recogisable globally and has visibly influenced other transit designs, for example the Moscow and San Francisco subway maps

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Moscow’s diagrammatic subway system

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San Francisco’s subway system

Beck’s design is an extreme simplification of an overcluttered system which has made navigating the warren of the underground possible both for Londoners and newcomers to the city. The oversimplification prompts the language of wayfinding in the brain and explains that virtually all perception is about simplification, omission and compression; The success of a non-geographically correct map such as Beck’s is that the mental map we build is not strictly geographic but revolves around the relationship between relevant and memorable locations and routes between them.