Thursday, May 17, 2012

"iPhone-ography?" Is that even a Word?

Image from
There are a few things that instantly raise the hackles of any "professional" photographer.  For example, ask one of your friends who considers themselves a serious member of this field about "soccer mom" portrait studios.

Everyone's personal pet peeves aside, nothing seems to be more contentious these days than "iPhone-ography;" or, more accurately, photographs taken, processed, and shared using an iPhone.  With the recent $1-billion acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, the potential scale of iPhone-ography is just now starting to rear its (ugly?) head.  Other digital apps, like Hipstamatic, are only helping to increase the availability of photo resources on-the-cheap to budding "fauxtographers."

Photo © Winder Holeman
I recently curated a show for An Otherwise Empty Room by a photographer that uses mobile phone media to capture his images.  As I often would say to my students, I am fully convinced that the medium never matters, it's the concept, intent, development, follow-through and result that are most important.  When I was looking at this photographer's work, I was not looking at the light flares, grain and vignetted edges that are so prevalent with mobile phone photo apps, but at his use of the frame space, of the way he carried an idea from one frame to the next.  To appropriate the saying, a thousand monkeys pounding away at a thousand iPhones would eventually produce one monumental image (or, according to the new popularity of the "abstract" aesthetic, maybe just one monkey and one iPhone), but this is a big difference from approaching the photo with a pre-conceived concept in mind.  The development of this concept is what drives the push of the shutter, the eye looking for the right image to complement the work.  I liken it to a writer searching for the right adjective to enhance the sentence.

Image from
If people are upset about iPhone photography, I don't know how they're even going to begin to feel about some of the products emerging on the market.  I recently tested the new Creative Suite Photoshop 6 beta version, which introduces one of the most mind-blowing options I have seen on a digital manipulation platform: an actual tool to manipulate the depth of field (tilt/shift) of an image, very much like a view camera.  Now, I own a view camera.  It is an expensive, very much adored, custom-built cherry-wood 4x5 Wista.  I used this camera to photograph a portion of my thesis portfolio for grad school, and took some of my favorite portraits of all time with it.  It is cumbersome, heavy, and must be handled carefully.  As much as I love the tonal range and buttery bokeh of the view camera, it is a burdensome and costly process to product an image.  At about $3 a sheet of color film, plus $3 per sheet processing (plus mailing fees, since very few of us live near a place that still processes large format film), not to mention the scanning (and drum-scanning fees, if you are a perfectionist like me), you are not very likely to use the view camera as your go-to.  When I played around with this feature, using images I took using a Canon 5D, my heart sank with sadness for my view camera, but my spirit stirred in excited anticipation for potential future projects.

"Buy the best and fastest computer you can afford," is what I tell people when they ask me to recommend a camera.  Follow that up with a reasonably recent version of Photoshop, and learn how to use it well.  The camera will happen one way or the other, where it's your phone or a photocopier, or even the built-in camera on your new computer.  The idea is the intent.  Process away on your computer to get a consistent result.

Why are iPhone photographs so compelling? Probably because they incorporate, at a flick of a finger away, all sorts of digital actions that take a long time to reproduce using Photoshop.  The designers behind the scenes at Instagram know what they're doing.  The better argument, I think, is whether an iPhone creates an artist, or an artist creates using an iPhone (a fantastic metaphysical question prevalent in the ever genre in the art world, in one form or another).

Until the day we all stop applying labels, may all iPhone "photographers," paint-by-number "painters," auto-tune "singers," and other faux-tistes carry on, the world is a richer place with your contributions.               

1 comment:

  1. Katherine,

    Your article was very timely. A coworker of mine just this morning introduced me to the Lytro camera. I am sure you already know about this. But, if not go to and play around with the depth of field. It seems that if you use this camera the images it produces with be embedded with the software to allow you to choose your focal point on the fly.