Johanna Adorjan

Women without mobile phones
10.10.2021 – 27.11.2021

Women without mobile phones

The modern gaze has a habit of inscribing a cell phone into certain photos. I first noticed this when I was drowsily scrolling through Instagram one time, a few years ago, and stumbled upon a photo of Romy Schneider, who was looking absentmindedly at her mobile phone. So we were actually mirroring each other in what we were doing. But I was mistaken. My modern way of seeing had fooled me. Romy Schneider had nothing in her hands. Her gaze was going nowhere. I saved the picture.

A few days later, it happened again. I was looking through the endless stream of Instagram posts that are suggested to you if you are careless and fail to put your phone down in time, and suddenly I discovered a photo of Audrey Hepburn on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was sitting in a chair, writing something down with a stylus on her phone screen. It looked extremely elegant and modern. A stylus! The filming of Breakfast at Tiffany’s took place in 1960. Audrey Hepburn simply couldn’t have owned a smartphone. Let alone a stylus pen. And once again, my present-day-trained vision had deceived me.

The contemporary human appears to be one with their phone. There are hardly any photos of young people on Instagram without an iPhone in the frame. Influencers love taking pictures of themselves in mirrors, preferably in elevators, and their smartphones are always clearly visible. As an accessory, it’s part of the look; if you can, you use it with one hand. And unless you have the latest model with the three round photo lenses, you might as well give up. Even all these new celebrities, who you obviously have never heard of if you’re above a certain age, are always clutching their smartphones in the paparazzi photos that show them crossing California parking lots either on their way to a restaurant or bearing Whole Foods bags.

But you don’t even have to check Instagram to notice it, you can just walk down the street: there’s hardly anyone on the sidewalk who isn’t staring at their screen while walking. There are already PhD theses being written about the accidents that happen as a result.

So I started looking specifically for photos of celebrities who looked like they were holding a mobile phone, even though mobile phones had not yet been invented. Those were my criteria: it had to be someone famous, and the pictures had to be from the pre-mobile phone era, so mainly 1930s to 1980s. It’s astonishing how many I found at once. At first I was only looking for female movie stars, which is why I used the hashtag (#womenwithoutmobilephones). Then later I added men, mostly grouping them together in tens to show that they were the exception to the rule. Or at least the exceptions to the hashtag.

Over time, I got a sense of where were good places to look. According to my bold and probably untenable cell phone search hypothesis, the more insecure the celebrity is in reality, the more often they will be doing strange things with their hands, which can then be interpreted as something else in the following century. I haven’t found a single cell phone photo of Marlene Dietrich, for example, at least not a good one. She seems to have no problem standing completely upright in front of a camera and just letting her hands hang elegantly. Whereas Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, often seems to have something in her hand. Or poses with her hand on her cheek. Or gazing at her hand, for whatever reason, but nowadays it looks like she’s staring at her non-existent iPhone.

As for men, Elvis was particularly fruitful. From the number of times he looked at his invisible iPhone, playing with it nervously, scrolling around on it, making phone calls with it, or just holding it, he must have basically been on the verge of inventing it. He was definitely using cell phones long before they existed.

And while I was collecting these images—sometimes more, sometimes much less proactively since starting in 2017—the evolution of humanity and cell phones was progressing relentlessly. The image of someone holding a cell phone to their ear now seems almost ludicrously outdated. Who still makes phone calls like that? Today, people hold their phones horizontally to their mouths to talk. And to listen to a voice message (which is, of course, much too long), you hold it horizontally in front of your ear. Today, people hardly ever use smartphones, not least because they are incredibly bad phones (especially those made by Apple). The environment is much noisier, the connection poor, the most common phrase being: “What did you say?” People don't understand each other, so they try to bring speech as close to the ear as possible in a very practical way—and hearing close to the mouth. This looks completely ridiculous, of course. And doesn’t make much difference acoustically. They are merely gestures of hope.

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find this novel phone posture in old pictures. No such hand postures have ever existed before, not even by accident. Once, just once, I have succeeded in finding it so far: in a photograph of Jean Harlow standing with three men, who are in fact eating toast, which the group is holding rigidly in front of their mouths for the photo shoot. But I’ll admit right off the bat that you have to be really committed to recognizing this new way of communicating in it, and not just four people posing with toast.

That’s why my series is still focused on classic cell phone postures: the celebrities shown are either making a normal phone call with no phone, or they’re staring at no phone. Occasionally, they’re typing away on no phone. I’ve been posting the photos intermittently on Instagram since January 2019. I justify my inexcusable disregard for photo rights to myself on the grounds that it wasn’t me who put them on Instagram unauthorized and uncredited, but that I find them there already, put there unlawfully by other users before me. Despite this legal shortcoming, I understand this series as a tribute to the elegance of a vanished era.

The cell phone, they say, came into the world in the late 1990s. The collection #womenwithoutmobilephones proves that this is actually a myth.

Johanna Adorján
(Übersetzung: Dylan Spencer-Davidson)