Martin Parr on the Smartphone Camera’s Transformation of Photography

martin parr
Mr. Parr’s career has spanned profound technological shifts, including the gradual acceptance of color in professional photography and the recent smartphone revolution. (Image: VISION+ Mobile PhotoAwards 2021)

“I think we’re in a new territory,” posited renowned British photographer Martin Parr on the sweeping changes brought to his trade by the now ubiquitous smartphone camera.

With recent advancements in image quality, content creators’ instant access to millions of potential audience members through social media and the transformation of the artist-subject relationship, photography in the digital age is almost unrecognizable to industry veterans.

Mr. Parr has seized on the opportunity presented by smartphones, albeit not without some reservations. “Most of the pictures on the internet are rubbish, you’ve got to remember that,” he quipped, continuing, “Most of the pictures I take, by the way, are rubbish. Because you have to take bad pictures in order to get good ones.”

This year, Mr. Parr is serving as a judge in the VISION+ Mobile PhotoAwards 2021, organized by Chinese technology firm and smartphone maker vivo, in partnership with National Geographic. The contest is currently accepting submissions from the public across a range of categories before the application deadline on September 30. Finalists will be selected on October 31.

The contest presents an opportunity to test the limits of photography as an artistic pursuit when conducted through the lens of the seemingly humble cell phone camera. Today’s smartphone cameras, however, have become less and less humble.

The cameras integrated into today’s everyday cell phones are now capable of capturing high quality images that even professional photographers can no longer dismiss. Tom Ang, a New Zealand-based photography expert was quoted by the BBC in April, saying, “Today’s smartphone cameras can make a better image than cameras I paid [$7,077] for only 20 years ago.”

Vivo, founded in 2009 and headquartered in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, has become one of the global leaders driving innovation in the field of smartphone camera technology. On September 10, the firm officially debuted its X70 series of professional photography flagship smartphones, including models with four rear-facing cameras and a 32-megapixel front-facing selfie camera.

Technological developments such as these, while altering consumer expectations and habits, are also changing what it means to be a professional photographer.

“It’s all very simple and straightforward,” Parr said. “30 or 40 years ago, you had to really learn how to make the right exposure, get the light meter out, set it to the correct everything. And then that would hold you back. So, the only thing that’s going to hold you back now is – is the content of your picture engaging? Does it have personality? Has it got any vision?”

Mr. Parr on a recent photoshoot in Bristol, UK. (Image: VISION+ Mobile PhotoAwards 2021)

Born in 1952, Martin Parr is a British documentary photographer and photojournalist. His work has been displayed at a series of globally renowned institutions including the Tate, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Portrait Gallery, London, in addition to being published in roughly 40 photo solo photobooks. His style is distinguished by its intimate look at daily life, street scenes and the visual embodiment of wealth and social class in various global contexts.

Much of Mr. Parr’s work is imbued with a subtle sense of humor, framing seemingly commonplace subjects in unexpected ways or in deliberate juxtaposition with other objects, often in a way that sheds light on the complexities and contradictions of modern life.

The smartphone revolution is not the first time that the British photographer has had to grapple with technological disruption in his line of work.

When Mr. Parr first began his career, purists asserted that to be considered a serious photographer, working in black and white was practically obligatory, despite the decades-long existence of color images. “Color was thought to be the domain of snapshots, movies or commercial photography,” he recalled. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, however, the art world gradually saw photographers make the switch from the traditional black and white medium to color imaging.

Mr. Parr has embraced the technological and cultural shift in the industry. When asked if he will ever return to black and white, he said, “The basic answer is no. You know, I like color because colors and the scenery and the clothes and everything about it plays such an important role. If you’re a documentary photographer and you’re trying to show your contemporary life, I think you need that extra layer of information you get with a color picture.”

The global mass market adoption of smartphones has also had a profound impact on the production and consumption of professional photography.

Social media platforms, especially the image-based Instagram, have provided content creators with a channel through which they can access vast sums of potential viewers, allowing amateur photographers to get noticed and amass a following.

After some initial skepticism, Mr. Parr has accepted the migration of photography consumption to the digital realm. On his Instagram page, which currently has more than half a million followers, he regularly shares curated images spanning his more than 50-year career.

Before the onset of social media, he recalled, “the only way you could get your work seen was to go to a gallery or go to a publisher and queue up with everyone else, but now you’re in control of your own output.” As a result, Mr. Parr contends, “the audience for serious photography is getting bigger and bigger all the time.”

A recent submission for vivo’s 2021 smartphone photography competition. (Image: VISION+ Mobile PhotoAwards 2021)

One of the unanticipated and often ridiculed byproducts of the smartphone revolution is the now widespread practice of taking pictures of oneself (see “selfie culture“). Mr. Parr is particularly interested in this phenomenon, and has sought to capture this social practice through his own camera lens, even publishing a book on the theme in 2019.

Moreover, the near universal adoption of smartphones globally has had some negative repercussions on the photography industry itself. The notion of photojournalism, in particular, is undergoing a complete re-examination as common citizens increasingly supply media outlets with images of breaking news events, rather than trained professionals. “In a sense,” Mr. Parr said, ” you could argue that the role of the photojournalist is somewhat doomed because there’s always going to be someone there photographing.”

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For street photographers, however, smartphones offer one major advantage. In the past, large professional cameras featuring long telephoto lenses would often have the undesired side effect of intimidating whomever the photographer sought to capture. Now, the photographer-subject relationship has been deconstructed.

“The great thing about these smartphones is that you don’t feel like a threat,” said Mr. Parr. “They are by nature un-threatening, because everyone’s got one.”

Despite the broad set of challenges and adverse impacts of recent technological shifts on the industry, perhaps this is why he has embraced the smartphone. Photography, what Mr. Parr refers to as “the great democratic art form,” faces fewer barriers than ever before in documenting the human experience.