Serious whimsey

November 23rd, 2010

Linda & Linda.jpg

©Rob Reiter

The show is up now. This last show of the year in The LightRoom Gallery features ten photographers showing maybe a couple hundred pictures from mostly iPhone (one lonely Droid) cameras and run through one or multiple photo apps on the phones. Is it a gimmick? Well, sure, as much as any category of pictures is a gimmick. Cell phones are kind of common nowadays. Most have at least basic cameras. Smart phones have better cameras and applications to play with the pictures. Since these apps are usually free or no more than a couple of bucks apiece, many people start loading up on them once they start playing with the first one.

It’s certainly an interesting phenomena from a cultural standpoint, whatever you think of the resulting pictures. Pushbutton “art” has long been possible with Adobe Photoshop® and other programs, with their art filters (make it a watercolor! Make it look like a pencil sketch!) and multitude of ways to distort any photograph. It’s hard to put my finger on just why I like doing stuff like this on my iPhone but have little interest working with pictures in a similar way in Photoshop. Part of it is the immediacy. No waiting until I’ve fired up the big iron, opened PS, downloaded the pictures. And some of it is the Buck Rogers factor. Not a wrist phone, but still way cool to have this at my fingertips-anywhere! Those are two of the initial motivations, anyway. But after playing with a few apps and printing a few pictures, there inevitably comes that moment of, “Hmmm, this isn’t too bad…” Then it’s usually a time of furious experimentation, maybe followed by settling down to a recognizable style and the exploration of how these effects can be used to express an aesthetic, as an augmentation of a feeling that goes beyond the pushbutton art phase.

No matter how serious I get with my iPhone pictures, the element of whimsey tags along, partly because of the spontaneous nature of this work. When I shot friend and fellow App Show photographer Linda Hanson in front of her self portrait oil painting, I didn’t have my “real” camera; I had my iPhone. The light was low and a resulting straight, unmanipulated picture I took was noisy, harsh, a record of a moment in its crudest form and not very interesting. Then I shot her again using the Hipstamatic app. Ran that picture through Toon Paint to get a cartoon outline. I then combined that with the original Hipastamatic “old Polaroid” picture through another app called Pro HDR, an app originally meant for HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography to combat contrasty light through multiple exposures. The result was a picture I like very much. All the technical problems of the unmanipulated shot went away after these conversions. The final picture can be blown up to at least 16″x16″ and still look good, because it’s not about fine detail anymore. The smooth outlines of the Toon Paint version are almost vector-like and the soft color from the Hipstamatic shot has no detail to speak of-it’s just a wash of color added to the cartoon outlines.

That’s part of the appeal of working with relatively low resolution phone pictures and these apps. When I use my Canon 5D for landscape photography, I’m all for sharp pictures, maximum detail, no blown out highlights or inky black shadows devoid of detail. For me, the iPhone is just the opposite. The pictures are softer, but just as interesting. It’s not about recording a scene accurately. Everything is more consciously run through my internal filters as a more obvious interpretation of the world. More painterly, if you will.

Sarah Kurtz, another exhibitor in the show, said she never considered herself to be a photographer, but the iPhone apps brought her into their world and she found herself hooked by the creative possibilities she found there.


Sarah Kurtz


I don’t think I’m being especially prescient to say phone cameras will get better and straight or manipulated, the medium will become more  popular. The NY Times blog recently featured a story about war photojournalist Damon Winter pulling out his iPhone when on patrol with US forces in Afghanistan and using Hipstamatic to capture shots and moods when he felt it appropriate.

With any luck, I’ll upgrade my Canon next year to whatever the latest and greatest in that realm offers. I also plan on replacing my iPhone 3GS with what will probably be an iPhone 5. And I’m not sure which excites me more.

One Response to “Serious whimsey”

  1. Eric

    I think you might have to move to Nikon for the latest and greatest is. D800e.

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