Techniques, Reviews and Commentary
The Current State of iPhoneography
Just to be clear that the LAMFA was not just about iPhoneography per se but encompassed the whole arena of producing “mobile based” artworks which includes digital paintings, video and audio art. Mobile art can of course be created using devices other than iPhones and iPads, but in the main these are by far the most used tools and I expect were used for the vast majority of the art on display at LAMFA.
My comments here really only apply to the iPhoneography aspects of the mobile art world and not the more specialized areas of digital painting, audio or video, which frankly I don’t know that much about. It also needs to be said that iPhoneography and digital painting techniques cross-pollinate considerably and I don’t think I actually saw any works at LAMFA that were “simply grabbed” iPhone images.
In the recent past I have made the statement that I felt iPhoneography was the most exciting thing to impact photography since the advent of digital capture and represents the true current cutting edge of the creative side of photography, after attending the LAMAF I feel even more strongly about that statement. iPhoneographers are in the main not bound by the past and show little concern for the normal issues that keep mainstream photographers sleepless at night, like which lens should they buy etc. iPhoneographers all pretty much work with the same toolset and apps ultimately the only thing that truly matters is the creativity of the artist.
The creative freedom of the medium has attracted many traditional artists to the fold and along the way has unleashed a torrent of work far removed from the photographic mainstream. iPhoneographers generally have little concern for the “more literal” approach to image creation, most work is far more expressive than literal. In the scheme of mainstream photography and camera club style competitions most clubs and judges would mercilessly disregard and criticize iPhoneographic images, after all from a technical perspective there is probably much to find issue with. But to my eyes at least, it is fresh, exciting and compelling and my particular approach is probably a blend of the traditional and expressive.
But since the LAMFA last year I have been pondering the questions of where are we now with this still nascent art-form that is iPhoneography, where is it going to go and exactly how do I fit into the current styles and conventions of iPhoneography.
The use of the words “conventions of iPhoneography” in some ways is a bit alarming to me but nonetheless I do feel after now looking at an extensive array of iPhoneography work both online (virtually each day) and in physical reality it has developed a certain set of conventions and approaches, it does now have a certain recognizable look.
iPhoneography is I feel still in its infancy, it’s finding its legs. Along the way there will be dead ends, false turns and stuff that simply doesn’t stand the test of time, already much of what was done 2 or 3 years ago as cutting edge looks pretty trite or passe!
I also feel there is a lot iPhoneographers could learn from mainstream traditional photographers, but at the moment that much of that is seen as irrelevant to many in the medium who have come from pure arts backgrounds. Likewise I am totally sure a lot of traditional photographers could learn enormously from iPhoneographers. It is a constant source of amusement to me reading the derogatory comments posted on many traditional photography forums about iPhoneography, some folk are truly tribal in their approach, but in the main I guess many have simply hunkered down in their own comfortable little foxhole and are afraid to look outside.
Bravely or perhaps foolishly perhaps I will try to express my take on the current state, I don’t profess to be an expert or to be the greatest iPhoneographer on the planet, this is just my opinion but I will stand by it by saying that the following philosophies and approaches are what currently guides me in my iPhoneographic pursuits.
Well you all know I am keen, you know I love this stuff and I put my money and effort where my mouth is, I have created thousands of images, I use the iPhone in preference to other tools regularly for strictly creative purposes, not for convenience. I have iPhonographic works upon my walls in large sizes and of course I run workshops in the arena so I guess I am as qualified as most to make at least some comments about its current state, so lets go.
Looking at the Technical Side
Whilst there are a good number of iPhoneographers who have come from solidly developed technically rigorous photographic backgrounds it seems that most have not. In other words in the traditional sense most have little concept of the skills and practices needed to produce work that reaches high “traditional” technical standards.
Many would argue that this is irrelevant, that all the matters is the final image and being creative. To that I say rubbish, your creative vision should not be limited and detracted from by poor technical methods. I defend your right to make deliberate choices, to create images in any way you see fit but to offer up work that is poorly executed and call it “art” as a justification for your lack of real technical control and process is just slack to my mind.
Your work could be so much more! It could have all the impact it currently has, it can tell the same stories, excite the senses but do so more satisfyingly because the message would not be confused by poor technical execution.
To give some perspective here, my wife and I recently returned from our second trip to the US. The first time round, a few months back my wife (who does not see herself as a photographer, but loves shooting with her iPhone) took lots of photos with her iPhone. She didn’t allow me to interfere much with her process, which was fine. On return she popped the pics on the computer and whilst initially excited was ultimately disappointed about the quality of her results, particularly tonality and colour.
This time round Wendy asked for some advice on how to get better results and of course I showed her. She learnt how to really use all the features of ProCamera, how to nail colour and exposure, allow for framing options and a whole raft of other things including the practicalities of the histogram.
Long story short, she is absolutely over the moon about her pics this time and more often than not it was me waiting for her to take her pics than the other way round. Already she has created a 100 page book. And I can say as a proud husband, my lovely wife did a brilliant job with her photos, she should be very pleased with what she has achieved and our friends have all been complimenting her on her “good eye”.
Getting the technical stuff right really helps and should not be discounted as just some geeky pursuit.
Of all the technical issues, poor exposure is by far the biggest sin I see committed. iPhones have such a limited dynamic range and unless we are careful with the exposure we lose important information right at the start of the creative chain. Colour and focus are also poorly handled, I don’t in any way say that images need be sharp all over, or naturalistically colour perfect but I do feel having such poor control of these that it gets in the way of your message is not actually all that clever. All those technical deficiencies are enormously magnified as you attempt to print your work to larger scales. Trust me on this, what is fine “quality wise” for a web image is vastly different to what is adequate or needed for a moderately large print. If of course, the web is your ultimate output your life will be somewhat simpler, but still gross exposure errors are clearly evident even in 640 by 480 pixel image.
With several thousand apps on offer for peanuts, which contain an almost limitless array of effects, the temptation for their “over-use” or misuse is pretty significant.
This is probably where I have the biggest issues with iPhoneography because for many the effect has become far more important than the message of the image, in fact the effect has often been used to cover up some pretty huge deficits in images, like mind numbingly poor composition, hopeless exposure, banal subject matter. Currently iPhoneographers have got away with it, but there are lessons from the photographic past that tell us, “this will not last”. Anyone who has been around long enough in the photography world to remember “cokin filter trippy hippy madness” and “wedding montage atrocities” can tell you for sure, effect for effect sake has a limited life and ultimately just ends up looking tacky and kitsch.
Were there images at the LAMFA that I think fell into that trap? Absolutely, a significant proportion actually. The use of texture effects and over the top film aging effects to give some sort of faux authenticity was rampant in some images just as it is on the web. In many many cases if you, as I did, imagined the works sans effects you were left with very little to satiate the visual palate. Effects should support the work, not be the work. It reminds me of the old great Aussie saying “you can’t polish a turd”, but by gosh a lot of people try hard to do so. A great chef adds a top sauce to a steak, but he always makes sure the steak is of prime quality first!
A couple of examples, many of the iPhoneography images currently have a brown dirty aged look, it seems to have become one of the conventions, in some cases it works well but often it just seems at odds with the content and message.
Another commonly used one is text effects, where a layer of some non-descript old script is overlaid over the top of the image, I look at most of this and go WTF. The content of the text has nothing to do with the message in the image, its just pre-canned text!
Many, way too many, of the effects are so obviously canned, in other words they are direct applications of generic effects provided in a myriad of well known apps, they are not in any way optimized or created for a specific image so they are often a jarring fit. In many cases the same filter is applied to a myriad of images without any real thought as to how it makes the image look no different to those thousand other images and simultaneously devalues the real content and message of the image. This goes for faux fogged film, textures, lens simulations and most of the stuff found in the special effects apps. I am not by any stretch saying we should not use them, but we need to be a little more focused in doing so.
I feel that most people would agree that in terms of any 2D artwork, be it painting or photography that composition is probably the paramount concern. Good composition can make even a banal subject look interesting and can easily lift an interesting subject to far more engaging heights. There are of course rules of composition, I tend to disregard them as rules but nonetheless I am composition driven and expend a lot of effort in trying to get my composition just right.
Poor composition can destroy the intent and message of an image and often the differences between a composition that works and one that is unsuccessful is very subtle but as in music getting the right arrangement of notes is pretty darned important.
So what about iPhoneography? Clearly there are a lot of folk out there who have impeccable compositional skills, it shows instantly in their work. But there is a lot of work that simply lacks any sort of compositional sensibility, in effect the works are again purely effect, remove the effects and other treatments and you were left with ill conceived snaps.
Currently many iPhoneographers look at the past for inspiration but limit it to simulating the effects of the past, things like scratched film or faded film, processing errors etc disregarding the actual content, approach and meaning of high quality works of the past.
iPhoneographers could learn vast amounts from looking at the works of great painters and photographers, and up front accepting that there is something significant to be gained from looking at the past for inspiration but not by just trying to create some faux effected version of it.
Composition really should be the single most important issue to iPhoneographers because great composition shows through and overrides all other aspects. Perhaps your iPhone can’t capture full detail in the highlights or shadows, maybe it can’t render ultra fine detail all over but great composition can transcend these issues.
Anyone who has attended one of my “Taking Great Photos” workshops will know I labour the point that people become too fixated on certain subjects to the exclusion of a world of photographic opportunities. Photos are not great or valid just because they are pictures of babies or pretty landscapes or flowers or an attractive model. Photography is more than anything about improving your ability to see the world with fresh eyes and appreciate all it has to offer.
If the only thing you’re seeing is flowers or babies or landscapes or pretty girls you’re missing out on a world of opportunities and limiting your growth.
Somehow the iPhoneography world has gravitated towards what seems to me to be a very limited subject set, I find it odd, considering that the iPhone is the camera you always have with you, I would expect the subject materials to be captured and displayed to be truly diverse.
To give you an idea of what I mean by this consider the LAMFA display. Self portraits and portraits in general seem to be almost at epidemic proportions. Portraits, I kind of understand, we are human animals who have an intrinsic interest in other humans but self portraits, where is that coming from. The “selfie” has become the rage, what is this, narcissism gone made? Perhaps it’s just me, I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to look at 100 different photos of me with slightly different effects and expressions, covered in text overlays, or with tattoo effects painted on my face,I’m just not that interesting! And .....frankly I don’t find 100 photos of another everyday Joe or Jo that interesting either.
I guess the problem I have with many portraits taken with the iPhone is that its focal length and rendering make it only suitable for a very limited range of portraits, there are far better tools for many styles, but somehow it is being misused to create portraits that are average at best and then dressed up with effects and sold off as works of great artistic merit.......rembrandt they are not, and I am pretty sure they will not stand the test of time. If the tool is used appropriately then the results can be amazingly satisfying and I did see some very very satisfying examples at the LAMFA show.
Other subjects seem to have taken over as well, street photography being a very strong theme, but like much of what I see offered by normal photographic channels much of it is banal in the extreme and says little about the human condition. This is sad, as I feel more than any other photographic device the iPhone could just be the ultimate street shooting machine, its stealthy, focus is a non-issue for normal distances, its quick to use and easily carried. Perhaps the issue is that those using it for street work are trying to simply use it as a replacement for the conventional camera rather than a different type of tool?
Flowers are another recurring theme, and I understand this too, I have shot many images of flowers with my iPhone, but the iPhone is a tool of limited application in this area, its focal length is far too short for satisfying results in many cases. Nonetheless the flower in its various worked states has become a signature piece of the iPhoneography world. I must add than many of these works are utterly beautiful and satisfying, but future iPhoneographers need to realize that the tool should not be used to exclusion of other tools which are in many ways are better configured for that specific task.
What don’t we see?
Its a fair question, I have looked at the current themes and tried to determine what is missing or perhaps untapped.
There seems to be very little in the area of architecture, really good landscapes whilst present are limited, purely abstract works are no where near as common or widely represented as the medium provides for. Group portraits are uncommon, yet the iPhone is perfect for this, mechanical subjects are reasonably rare, still life's seem low on the agenda, slice of life works to which I think the iPhone is so suited almost missing in action.
Now I must say, every sin here I have mentioned I too have committed, I have been guilty of over-apping, I captured the banal and boring, disregarded many great opportunities, even stuffed up the exposure and colour occasionally. I have never taken a “selfie” though, I don’t want to replace my iPhone just yet! But I have tried to learn from all those errors, the one thing I am certainly not about to do with iPhoneography is settle. I am not about to say OK, that’s it I have it all sorted, from this point on I am going to take “x” or ‘y” images.
I guess ultimately thats what I don’t want to see for iPhoneography as a movement, for it to settle and be defined by a specific set of conventions.