These days, when I travel home, I don’t even bother taking Marky Mark with me anymore. Too cumbersome to carry when going to a place that I have been to many times and that has been captured on film by me endlessly. But invariably I nonetheless end up photographing my surroundings. Hail the iPhone! When looking at the images from my most recent trip to Bremen, it occurred to me that they were classic examples of pictures taken, not made.
Taken and not made? Is there a difference? Yes, there is, apart from what you may perceive as the idiomatic misuse of the verb in the phrase “to make a picture”. In a previous life, long, long ago, I was an English teacher, and as a sucker for grammatical correctness, I squirm every time I hear the phrase “to make a picture”. To me, as a native speaker of German, it smacks of interference with my mother-tongue (in which the German equivalent of the verb “to make” is used in the translation of the phrase “to take a picture” – ein Foto machen – as opposed to the literal translation ein Foto nehmen). But I ought to get used to it because this phrase is by and large replacing the previously used “to take a picture”.
The reason for that is slightly academic and harks back to critical theory. “To take a picture” basically implies the uninvolved “grabbing” of a slice of life, a mere mirroring of a real-life scene. It can be interpreted as displaying a negative attitude towards the process of photographing, in the sense that it subconsciously associates “stealing” or “appropriating”. The phrase reflects the previously generally accepted idea that photography is documentary in nature. Despite the long established “pretensions” of photography as an art form, it was thanks to the ground-breaking theoretical writings of thinkers like Barthes, Sontag, Berger etc in the second half of the 20th century that photography was finally acknowledged to be more than just a visual recording of a given subject or object but a conscious creative process that demands more than a simple capturing of a scene. Therefore, the phrase “to make a picture” implies a deliberate decision of the image creator to photograph something. It takes into account creative choices such as size of image, framing and composing, focussing, timing and even the decision to shoot b/w or colour. It places the emphasis of the process of photographing onto the creator of the image and not on the reality she photographs, or the hardware she uses to do so. A photograph is made by the photographer, not by a camera.
The often quoted worst insult you could ever throw at a photographer is the well-meant but utterly offensive little compliment “Your photos are great. You must have a great camera!” No! *I* make great pictures; my camera merely takes them! Except, I guess, when I am using my iPhone. Then *I* take a picture. There was no conscious decision about colour format, sizing, framing, exposure, when I took the above tourist picture in Bremen. Ok, there was a little attempt at framing and composing the image in an aesthetically pleasing way, but how much creative choice have you really got when you use a cameraphone? Certainly very little for the initial capturing of a scene. Since the latest iOS update, the iPhone also offers some picture editing choices – cropping, filters, the usual digital gimmicks that Instagram, flickr and the like had already incorporated a year ago. Does that mean, we will soon be making images with our cameraphones as well?
Sincerely? I doubt it. While I love the handyness of my cameraphone – always at the ready, quick to pull out of the pocket, quick to shoot with no lengthy fiddling with manual settings – it remains to be used as a tool for documenting rather than interpreting. It is a bit like visual note-taking as opposed to the creating of a statement with the proper camera. It will always be useful to me. But I will never make a photograph with it.