Long Reads

This filmmaker said photography is dead. He’s wrong

Wim Wenders thinks smartphones have devalued the art of taking a photo. He’s sorely mistaken.

Taking pictures has always held a special kind of magic for me. I remember my first disposable camera well; a classic Kodak single-use that took just 39 photos, packed lovingly into my luggage by my mother before I embarked on a residential school trip aged 10. Much of the trip was spent fumbling with the camera, attempting to pull it out in time to capture the moments that had ensnared my attention. When I got back, I eagerly waited the requisite three days for my local Boots to develop my film, thinking some great truths might have been preserved by my keen lens. Instead there were lots of close-ups of my chubby little finger and wonky pictures of small children in a variety of fleeces.

But the joy of snapping a photo – of freezing a moment – was one that only got stronger for me. Which is why it was so infuriating to hear the notable German filmmaker and photographer Wim Wenders declare that “photography is dead”.

72-year-old Wenders, who made the comments at an exhibition of his own Polaroid photography, blamed smartphones for what he perceives as a decline in quality photo-taking – presumably counting his own contribution as an exception. 

A young woman photographs a building on her smartphone.

“Photography is dead” says photographer and filmmaker Wim Wenders

“The trouble with iPhone pictures is nobody sees them,” said the Oscar-nominated auteur, who was also a recipient of the prestigious Best Director prize at Cannes Film Festival.

“Even the people who take them don’t look at them anymore and they certainly don’t make prints.”

Wenders had an equal dislike for the advances that have made photo editing software available to a mass audience.

“I know from experience that the less you have, the more creative you have to become,” he grumbled.

“Maybe it’s not necessarily a sign of creativity that you can turn every picture into its opposite. Photography was invented to be some sort of more truthful testimony of our world than painting. It’s not really linked to the notion of truth anymore. People look at photographs and think something is done to them.” 

Film photos hanging on a line

Photography has always been a more accessible artform

Normally I ignore engaging with sweeping generalisations on the internet; there are only so many hours in the day and I’ve got tweets to compose. But Wenders’ words made me sad.

Photography, alongside other visual mediums like film and TV, has always been at the more accessible end of the scale when it comes to culture. To read books you must be literate, and to read highbrow books you must be equally highly literate (or trying to impress someone you met on Tinder). Appreciating art – the type you’d find hanging in the Tate Modern or the Louvre – isn’t supposed to be restrictive, but there’s an undeniable elitism surrounding it. Just look at the V&A Museum, which proudly – and tellingly – reported last month that a ‘less intimidating’ entrance was helping drive up visitor numbers, as ‘non-traditional museum-goers’ felt more at ease approaching the building.

The theatre is also supposed to be a great leveller, but in practical terms it is often expensive and who, really, has the time for regular trips? Even growing up in a middle-class household with the kind of Baby Boomer mother who bought takeaways from M&S and swapped Christmas panto excursions for festive outings to the ballet, I didn’t go to theatre more than twice a year.

So you’re left with photography as the great democratised artform – which is exactly why Wenders’ comments left a bad taste. His complaint seems to be that giving all of us great unwashed access to everyday photographic equipment has devalued the discipline. 

True, the ubiquity of devices with cameras (in the Western world at least) means we don’t even question our ability to become photographers when the moment calls for it. New Ofcom data shows that 78% of all adults in the UK own a smartphone. That’s 78% of adults owning what amounts to a portable DSLR camera, with massive storage capacities and the capability to upload pictures in an instant to any platform, or person, in the world. The statistics speak for themselves; in 2017, the increasing use of smartphone cameras caused people to take 100 billion more photos than they did in 2016. And although the traditional camera ownership figures have doubtless decreased since they were last collected, in 2015 22% of people still primarily used digital cameras to snap their photos.

I know what Wenders means when he says we don’t ‘see’ photos anymore. The kind of power that has come from being able to snap dozens of HD photos in a minute means the end of the ‘one shot only’ mentality that was necessary when you had a finite amount of film. Now, we can quickly rack up shot after shot of the same scene, with only tiny changes to the composition, lighting or angle. 

78% of all adults in the UK own a smartphone

But that doesn’t devalue the time or energy spent poring over those same shots once they’re banked on our phone. You might not recognise fiddling with the sliding contrast scale in Snapseed as ‘editing’ in the same way the word is applied to the work of professional photographers, but it is an act of focused creativity. It’s the opposite of failing to ‘see’ an image. Think about the last picture you selected for your 500-something followers on Instagram. Was it a casual snap-and-go situation? Or did you – like me – take several options, flick between them for about five minutes to identify the almost imperceptible difference in details, then send your chosen finalist to the last stage of editing before uploading?

Not only are the general public ‘seeing’ their photos, they are also treasuring them. The other day an acquaintance posted a picture of a print (meta) that had started life as an Instagram photo. For her 21st birthday, my sister received a drawing of her self-professed best friend (the family dog… she’s popular and cool) that was a recreation of a particularly beloved picture, first taken on a phone. 

I’d be interested to know how Wenders squares his take on digitisation killing film photography with the slow burning manual revival, attributed to a new generation whose experience of the immediacy of digital has caused a nostalgia-driven return to slower photo development techniques. This year alone, demand has seen firms like Kodak (a company on the brink of bankruptcy in 2012) resurrect old film types, and the production of a brand new SLR camera, the Reflex.

Sure, not every selfie is going to be treated with a reverence befitting an Annie Leibovitz portrait, but it wasn’t as if that was the standard before the advent of phones anyway. Prior to the first bonafide camera–phone (the J-SH04, released only in Japan in 2000) there were billions of bad pictures (a particular roll I took of our kittens – mostly ears and whiskers – springs to mind), forgettable pictures and pictures best lost to the annals of history (one of me, aged two, titled ‘Einstein on the potty’; Mum, please destroy), taken every single day. That’s part of the fun of photography, whatever your level of proficiency – taking crap shots until one finally comes good.

And with smartphones, far more of us have been given a crack at doing that. No, not everyone will be able to afford one, but far more of us are likely to own a phone than a camera . In 2016, global digital camera sales were 12 million, whereas 2.1 billion people reported owning a smartphone.

And using the camera on a smartphone is so much less alarming than using an actual camera. For Christmas 2012, I waged a two-month long campaign for a DSLR (that I also had to pay half towards). When I finally got my hands on the kit, I barely used it. The reason? It overwhelmed me. I had no idea where to start. I was a little girl, playing at taking pictures. I didn’t feel worthy of the camera. So I put it away. 

A woman photographs a street on her smartphone

In 2016, global digital camera sales were 12 million, whereas 2.1 billion people owned a smartphone

In comparison, when I started taking pictures on a smartphone, it felt unthreatening. Easy. Everyone had a phone; there wasn’t the same pressure to be good at photography using my little handheld device as there was when I was clutching a Canon. The camera highlighted my inexperience to everyone. The phone was forgiving, patient. With the phone I had space to practice taking pictures without expectation, to work out the difference a change in exposure or distance would make, in my own time. Slowly and surely, I grew in confidence.

And the learning was aided as the technology in phones steadily advanced. My current phone (a Google Pixel) boasts a portrait mode that blurs backgrounds automatically, a widened aperture than previous models and its processing additions mean every image is suffused with incredible detail. I love it. To take pictures now gives me a certain flood of endorphins I don’t get from anything else. I’ll never be David Bailey, but when did I ever need to be?

That’s what Wenders gets wrong about photography – to call something ‘dead’ simply because more people than ever have access to it, is a form of artistic snobbery that’s hard to swallow. Photography is pure pleasure that should be available to as many people as possible. Even if their thumbs get in the way of the lens. 

Images: Sirotorn Sumpunkulpa/Brigitta Schneiter/Angela Franklin/Annie Spratt/Robin Worrall