Monday, April 25, 2011

iPhoneography and the Art of Spontaneity

By Dr. Gregory Robinson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English

Photo courtesy of Gregory Robinson
When I was a graduate student, I played guitar for a punk band called Milk Carton.  I never bothered to learn how to play, and the band’s major gimmick was that people could throw old milk cartons at us while we performed.  We often played for crowds of less than ten people, and sometimes the milk cartons were not cleaned out very well.

Although it hardly changed the face of music, it certainly changed how I felt about creativity and art.  Every once in a while, Milk Carton came up with some songs I really liked.  It was totally by accident and no one ever really noticed.  That did not matter.  Perfection, skill, talent, and attention to minute detail all have a place in the art world, but so do freedom, spontaneity, surprise, and (of-course) complete accidents. 

This is what I love about iPhoneography, a growing movement of people who take and edit pictures on their iPhones.  Admittedly, the idea of a “camera phone” bothers me a bit, in the same way a “television toaster” or a “Wi-Fi enabled electric razor” might.  Why not just have a phone that makes calls and a camera that shoots pictures?

Hold on, my camera is ringing...

Here is why the idea still works.  Art is often about working within a set of limitations.  Sonnets are 14 lines long and have specific meter and rhyme schemes.  The “art” of sonnets is not just the meaning of the words, but the way that those words are structured by a set of rules.  Some photographers still work with pinhole cameras, which are the most basic form of capturing images on film. They could use digital processing, but they choose not to do so.  Part of what makes their art interesting is the restrictions they impose on themselves.

Photo courtesy of Gregory Robinson

iPhones are limited.  The zoom is small and the lens is fixed.  Assorted apps limit them even more.  One app, called the Hipstamatic, provides a tiny viewfinder, random light leaks, and changeable lenses and films.  It mimics a real camera from the 1980s, a plastic “toy” created by Bruce and Winston Dorbowski.  The brothers were about to start mass-producing them, but an accident involving a drunk driver put an end to their dream.    Although the iPhone camera itself is capable of providing a clear, detailed image (5 megapixels was impressive not that long ago), the Hipstamatic app does the exact opposite.  It revels in imperfection. 

Digital photography never looked so analog.

These photos recall a time when you cared about the pictures you took, but did not really know how to take them.  The results are random, haphazard, and often somewhat out of focus.  At times, (like any other camera) Hipstamatic photos are complete junk.  More often than not, they are beautiful and nostalgic.  They give you the feeling of coming across an old photo in your grandmother’s attic, even if they were just taken yesterday. 

The medium is the message.

Photo courtesy of Gregory Robinson

The Hipstamatic helped to start an entire photographic movement, now called iPhoneography.  There are books, blogs, dozens of Flickr groups, and hundreds of specialized apps available, all devoted to it.  The governing aesthetic in the iPhone community is that the photos must be taken and edited on the iPhone, without any help from a PC or Mac. 

In late 2010, New York Times photographer Damon Winter used the Hipstamatic app to shoot a series about the war in Afghanistan War.  It made the front page.  (  Critics went crazy, but not in a good way.

Chip Litherland saw it as another sign of the death of photojournalism, saying that the Hipstamatic shots were “dig[ing] another knife deeper into the back of its decaying corpse.”

It is nice to see that art still makes people a little grumpy.

If you would like to see a little more of iPhoneography, come check out Vegas from the Hip, an exhibit of Las Vegas images taken with the Hipstamatic app. 

The opening runs from 5pm to 8pm, Friday, April 29th at

Nevada State College Library
311 S. Water St. (BW2 building)
Henderson, NV 89015

For more information:

Gregory Robinson

Photo courtesy of Gregory Robinson

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