Ashish Uppala

Product Designer & Software Engineer
Chicago, Illinois

What is a Photograph?

Fiddling with film, digital, and smartphone cameras got me thinking about what a photograph "is" and how it's changed over the years.

I grew up surrounded by cameras and lenses and started taking photography more seriously in my late 20s. It sounds a little silly but walking around my neighborhood with a tiny Ricoh GR3 put me in a state of focus I hadn't experienced before.Things that in the past I walked by without a second thought suddenly began screaming for my attention.

I eventually got my hands on a film camera to see what all the fuss was about (spoilers- it didn't stick: the film lab I worked with lost my first few rolls of film and I eventually decided it wasn't worth the risk... besides, there was enough to learn with digital photography). Others always say that shooting with old mechanical film cameras puts you into a greater state of focus with each photo you take and I generally found this to be true, especially considering the increasing cost of buying and developing each roll...

With film and digital, the photograph itself was fairly similar: I froze a moment in time. Things happened to be arranged in a way that lined up with my aesthetic taste, or maybe even told a story. But there were times I forgot to take either of those with me and only had my little smartphone.

Boy is that thing smart. In a pinch, it gets the job done. It doesn't have the best resolution (photos looked OK on the phone but not so good on a larger display). But the photos from it are more linked. Metadata, geotagging, I can easily organize, connect annotate, and reference images to one another. Each photo I take with the smartphone captures more information, even if it isn't evident within the literal photo itself.

I can take an entire roll of photos from a trip on my phone and use the metadata to map out exactly when and where I was. Sharing becomes easy and opens the door to even more information being attached to the photo (comments, likes, shares).

In a way I think the era of smartphone photography pushed my understanding of what a photograph can be. There's a higher-order category of "information capture" that I think all photography falls under. If that's the game, then smartphones win.

Ultimately for me it's about a camera as a tool, and I don't care about maximizing the information potential of a photo. I enjoy capturing interesting moments, paying attention and "reading" the many scenes unfolding around me, and finding ways to anticipate and tell stories that happened in those key moments. All of this requires focus, and the pared down tools (simple film or digital cameras) work much better to that end. While it serves a specific purpose, my phone has many other things begging for my attention and as much as I want to pretend to have the willpower to resist, I find it's much easier to leave it at home, grab a good old camera, and focus on the world around me.