Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent some of my spare time locating, editing and curating a number photographs I took in Colorado back in December 2012. These images have sat dormant and unappreciated for the last five years, although they have moved from one hard drive, to the cloud, to another hard drive, and then back to the cloud again over that span of time. I’ve held onto them, but I haven’t really valued them. This is mainly because I took them with an old iPhone 4s. I haven’t respected their worth because of my assumption that photos taken with an obsolete smartphone can’t be very good. Up until recently, I also figured that no one would care to see them or take them seriously if I shared them publicly.
I went searching through my folders for these photos after I saw a Call for Entries from the Southeast Center for Photography (sec4p) entitled iPhoneography that opened for submissions on November 20th. Those of you who follow my blog know that I have participated in a show hosted by this gallery in the past and was lucky enough to receive a portfolio review last summer from its director, Michael Pannier. I continue to follow developments at the sec4p, because I find its program to be one of the most innovative and inspiring out there among small galleries in the US.
The iPhoneography prospectus opens with the statement:
“Cell Phone cameras surpass many of the DSLRs we once owned. Some of us use our phones as reminders as to where we parked, others create art. The SE Center for Photography is looking for the Art. Any subject, any cell phone and processing app, photographers of all skill levels and locations are welcome.”
Entries will be juried by Dan Burkholder, photographer and inventor of the original digital negative in 1992. The prospectus emphasizes Dan’s history as a pioneer who has bridged the worlds of film and digital photography. More recently, he has been an important champion of the fine art potential of images captured using digital cameras with small sensors, like those found in smart phones.
Reading the iPhoneography prospectus inspired me and gave me occasion to review and edit my old iPhone photos from Colorado. Not because I planned to enter the competition, but because it made me curious about their potential. Now, in a very different place than I was at the end of 2012, I see something especially moving in these photographs. Now I see them for what they are; the embodiment of my desire for renewed hope and my powerful longing for comfort in a world that for me was devoid of both. I shot theses photos while instinctively seeking solace and a new understanding of my deepest self in the natural world.
Breathless Wandering Among the Red Rocks
Although I believe that viewers sense emotion and intensity in these photographs, I think you must know what was happening in my life in late 2012 and what I was seeking at Red Rocks to fully appreciate what these images communicate about me. In the summer of that year, I had lost my home, my pets, and most of my possessions to long-term unemployment. In late November, I moved out to Colorado Springs in search of a new life. Saying that I “moved” isn’t quite accurate, as I arrived with just two large suitcases of some clothes and essential items. When I lost my house and left Michigan, I also lost any hope I had of resuming the lucrative career I had worked hard to build over preceding 15 years. There was nothing holding me anywhere and I was virtually homeless, so when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to take an old friend up on her offer to live in her house and search for work while she was deployed to Afghanistan.
When I arrived in Colorado on that cold November evening, I was only just beginning to understand that my sense of self and optimism for the future had also disintegrated along with everything else in my former life. I was lost. I think that I hoped a new adventure in a beautiful place would help me get back on my feet. But it all ended up being a lot harder than I anticipated and healing was a very long time coming.
No one and nothing was as I had hoped upon my arrival. Every morning I awoke, walked out on the back deck, and gazed west towards the mountains, across the tightly-packed sea of houses that is suburbia in eastern Colorado Springs. I was uncomfortable there and longed to be in those mountains. So, nearly every day, I borrowed a car and used some of my meager savings to purchase gas, so I could drive over to the Red Rocks area of Manitou Springs and hike in solitude. During that time, I was truly ‘wandering in the wilderness’. I was isolated, very lonely, sad and… out of shape. Hiking mountain paths at 8-9,000 feet was quite difficult for me and required frequent stops to catch my breath. But the weather was unusually fine that December, the lower altitudes were free of snow, and I felt compelled to keep trying.
Every step I took was an adventure; each one carried me to a new place I had never been and offered new sights I had never seen. And, for me, each step upwards was a true hardship. It took me about a month of trying to summit the mountain above Red Rocks at over 8,900 ft. Journeying up and over that mountain to the other side was a major personal achievement for me that went unnoticed by everyone in my life (apart from my deepest self), because it didn’t signify any of the key indicators of success everyone was hoping to see; a new job, money, and renewed self-sufficiency. But it gave me precious moments of sheer joy and wonder at the beauty of nature and instilled a sense of accomplishment in me that set me on the path to healing. It was so important to me that I tried to document it with a selfie (something I never do). Although, as you can see at the bottom of this post, it didn’t turn out so good.
I wanted to document what I was seeing and feeling in the beauty and isolation of winter above Manitou Springs, but all my old camera gear was stored at my sister’s house back in Kentucky. All I had was an iPhone 4s; already obsolete in 2012 with an 8-megapixel, tiny sensor. It also had poor dynamic range, lacked any ability to zoom, and any control over aperture, shutter speed, and focal point. Still, when I look at the photographs I took of the Red Rocks area in those first few weeks, I see compelling images of my personal experience of the place unique to that time in my life.
My iPhoneography of Red Rocks is full of breathless beauty, clarity, and hope, seasoned with a hint of pain and sadness. Now I appreciate many of these photographs as much as I do my more recent work shot with more proficient and expensive gear. These iPhone photos are art in the true sense of the word. There are lessons in this fact for photographers and collectors of fine art alike.
It’s Not About the Gear - It’s About Feeling and Vision
In the world of fine art photography, it’s all-too-common to encounter an elitist mentality cohering around the cost and quality of the gear one uses to produce images. Although it’s true that the capabilities of your camera can make it easier for you to realize your vision; a great camera will not make you a great photographer. The most important thing to me is having access to a tool of expression that is technically adequate to the task of satisfying my personal and professional needs for creativity. In truth, that tool can take the form of anything capable of visually capturing my emotional experience of the subject at hand.
It’s sometimes true that certain kinds of gear are required to create excellent photographs of certain kinds of subjects. For example, it’s very difficult to capture compelling pictures of most kinds of birds without a costly telephoto lens of good quality. But requirements like these are the exception. The functionality found in the camera of a typical smartphone is more than adequate to the task of creating photographic studies of an unlimited range of subjects, from landscapes to portraits and beyond. The vision is part of the photographer, not a technological aspect of the camera she wields.
iPhoneography and the Democratization of Photography
Today, cameras are ubiquitous because of the rapid and widespread adoption of smartphones. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that about 77% of American adults now own a smartphone. That translates into over 180 million smartphones (and cameras) in the hands of just those Americans aged 19 to 64. Many of them also use a phone as their primary camera. Consequently, camera phones have dramatically increased the access of people globally to the act photographing; they have caused the democratization of photography.
Along with the spread of this new technology has come the proliferation of billions of images of subjects from the inane (e.g., what your buddy had for lunch today) to the extraordinary (e.g., an award-winning photo of children playing near oil wells set alight by IS militants). Today we are inundated by images at a scale and rate unprecedented in the history of photography. Some have lamented the democratization of photography for this very reason. Not only are there too many images; anyone with an iPhone can claim to be a photographer. Many argue that the problem with the former is that the excellent work of ‘real’ photographers is getting lost in all the noise, while the problem with the latter is that there are many more people with whom to compete for awards, shows, jobs, and sales.
The Democratization of Fine Art
However, I think it’s all good, because I hope that along with the democratization of photography will come the democratization of fine art. The world is full of fine art snobs; insider elites who feel entitled to define what is Art-Writ-Large for the rest of us. These people make and break careers with an authority derived from a refined and developed sense of taste. I recently read a blog that suggested, as photographers, our work improves as we learn to assess it from the point-of-view of a more developed and educated aesthetic. Although, I think it’s true that one’s tastes do tend to develop and refine over time, as an anthropologist I also know that taste and what is considered art, are both determined by culture and history.
Taste is not an objective reality that exists unto itself apart from the vagaries of culture change, societal norms and the established institutions of art. After all, today’s kitsch painter is often tomorrow’s creative genius. Taste is taught and learned, and it can assert its own form of tyranny over artists; stifling creative impulses and discouraging unconventional directions and ideas.
As an outsider to the established world of fine art photography, I’m all for overthrowing the status quo. I’m most concerned with the technical quality of my images, and work every day to trust my inner vision and curation more than I do the expectations of the establishment. At this point in my career, I’m striving to create work true to myself (which just happens to be selling), rather than striving to get a solo show at a gallery or to win awards.
iPhoneography as Fine Art
An important part of the democratization of photography is recognizing photographs created with the decidedly unprofessional gear of the iPhone as fine art. Some artists, gallery directors and patrons of the arts are paving the way. There are several contests out there today that only consider works captured on iPhones. There’s a very active iPhoneography Facebook group, and there are opportunities to get in curated shows, like the upcoming iPhoneography show at the sec4p. Now it’s time for the buyers of fine art photographs to assess works equally, no matter what cameras were used to create them.
My journey back into my iPhone photographs of Red Rocks has reminded me that creativity is not really about technology. Most importantly, finding solace in photography requires only the most basic equipment. The images we create when we are at our most emotional (whether filled with happiness or sadness) can be some of our best work. Fine art collectors of all stripes should always remember to look for the images that speak most deeply to them, and buy them. A photograph is never cheapened by the equipment used to create it, since purity of vision creates the most valuable work.
I doubt that I will ever willingly exclusively embrace iPhoneography as my chosen mode of expression; I’ll mostly choose to use my dedicated cameras whenever I can. But I hope to remember that my iPhone camera is with me just about everywhere I go and ready to help me capture something inspiring that I’ve seen and just can’t leave behind.
Finally, I encourage anyone with at least a few provocative photographs created using a smartphone to enter the sec4p iPhoneography competition. The deadline for submission is January 7, 2018 and the show opens March 2nd.
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-- Angela Martin