In recent years the image quality of mobile phone cameras increased rapidly. Combined with the popularity of smartphones, this gives a great number of consumers a camera at hand, that produces images of an aesthetic, previously reserved to professional photographers and cameras. The main aim of the camera manufacturers is to produce cameras that make “good” photographs and entitle their users, not being professional photographers, to take these photos. The criteria for “good” consequently needs to respond to what the majority of potential customers assesses with this value. In her “Defense of the Poor Image”, Hito Steyerl argues for a “poor image” aesthetics as a cultural phenomenon, that stands aesthetically and etymologically opposite of the “rich image”. For the latter, she classifies them as professionally made, commercially used images and talks about a fetishisation of image quality that is attached to them (Steyerl, 2017). The photography industry always aimed for the “best” photographic quality contemplating a close reproduction of reality. Earlier this objective was tied to physics and chemical processes, leading to sharper and brighter lenses, finer grain, higher dynamic range and appealing, saturated colour reproduction. Later, megapixels were a measurement for the technical quality of digital photography. The rich image was always defined by the latest high-end technology and the adequate use of it. And in response, the rich image always defined how the reality it supposedly reproduces would look like. Technological advancements were strongly linked with viewing habits, that fed back into the development of photographic aesthetic. However mobile photography traditionally produced poor images as a result of small image sensors, premature technology and the specific way mobile photographs are made and used by amateur photographers (Kindberg et al., 2005). Until recently mobile photography was a step backwards from the state-of-the art photographic technology. However today’s success of mobile phone cameras in the consumer camera market is thanks to the continuous rise in image quality of these cameras. Among other technological improvements, this is made possible by instant and unnoticeable image processing, engineered into the image capture process of the digital cameras. These algorithms occupy a significant role in the creation of images, they are at the core of a new, extended type of Apparatus, enabling manufacturers to implement more refined and responsive approaches to the manufacturing of “good” photography.
The first chapter of this thesis presents examples of how computational photography is used in some popular smartphones and how the software adjusts the camera image. The examples show where methods of artificial intelligence for the computation of images are used and how different the creation-process of the images can be to the traditional photographic process. Currently, commercial computational photography very likely represents the most popular application of artificial intelligence image making, without being widely considered such; the genre of consumer or amateur photography is far more present, because it is the photographer representing the image when it is published. Aesthetic interpretation plays an increasingly relevant role in the programming of image editing algorithms, since they can affect more detailed levels of image style than lens sharpness, film-grain or colour reproduction in analogue or early digital photography ever could. This strengthens the importance of the question about norms and aesthetic standards that define “good” photography. The creative empowerment and agency mobile cameras promise on one side, are in fact compromised by the influence of the sophisticated Apparatus that takes over the writing of wide aspects of the image’s connoted message to satisfy the user with a kind of image that he*she expects and can utilise for the novel practice of image based communication which developed simultaneously in recent years as a new means of personal photography:
Specific to mobile photography is that it is embedded in a cohesive ecosystem for image making, distribution and consumption. This gives new possibilities and meaning to personal photography. In this ecosystem, mobility and velocity of photographs are high, making mobile photography an ideal tool for immediate communication (Van House, 2011). The Internet plays a substantial role to this ecosystem. As the accessible and conveniently usable mobile cameras, the commercial Internet promised agency through democratic investment and self-publishing platforms. Even if the initial idealistic interpretations of the new medium have abated, for many the Internet turned out to be an infrastructure allowing them to draw their own public image as an expression and way of communication (Van House, 2011; Ullrich, 2019). Especially social media provide various novel ways of mass communication using images. Self-publishing and self-performance feed the new mass media and are their main source of content, including personal photography. In these media the line between public and private space abolishes. The surface is more personal than mass media have ever been before, but at the same time the underlying system relies on decades old mass media and PR practices. So conversely, the private spaces of communication that moved to the commercial Internet, are now part of this system that uses simulacra to create an obedient version of reality (Baudrillard, 1994). The second chapter will focus on the role of the media audience as content creators, showing what the consumer photographs are used for. Intentional planning of communication and careful staging of images is just as common with the consumers drawing their own public figure on the canvas of social media as it is with corporate communication selling luxury products in TV adverts. Consumers acquire an active role in a commercialised media surround, thus becoming tied more intensely to the common language of these media and using mobile cameras to speak this language. This thesis aims at exploring the relation between the new computational form of photography, the media surround it is designated to and the amateur photographer: As soon as he*she is releasing the shutter of the deeply influential Apparatus that is programmed to meet popular aesthetic norms and the demands of a commercialised mass medium, the role of him*her can only be that of a multiplicator in a complex, algorithmically supported system of a ‘Consciousness Industry’ (Smythe, 1981).
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