As a child I loved to color. I remember losing track of time and being absorbed in the process. I will admit to a slight sense of artistic accomplishment when one of my drawings was posted on the refrigerator. Ultimately, my reward was in the doing, not the result. Somewhere along my creative journey, I lost my box of crayons. Some 30 years after my last drawing was displayed in the kitchen gallery, I found a new creative tool and a new gallery to share my work. The newfound box of crayons I’m referring to is the iPhone and the refrigerator is the photo-sharing mobile application, Instagram.
The iPhone is not just a camera, but also the darkroom in the palm of my hand that includes instant ‘shareability’ with the world. My love affair with my iPhone as both serious tool for journalism and a new form of creative expression began at a crime scene in early 2007.
As a photojournalist for the San Jose Mercury News, I had the city desk breathing down my neck to get an image back to them as soon as possible in order to scoop the competition. Usually the process went something like this: shoot an image on a digital SLR, go back to the car and transfer the image to my laptop and then FTP it to the office—by all accounts, a fairly quick and easy process. But then it dawned on me that my new iPhone had a camera. I snapped a picture of the scene, attached it to an email with a caption and sent it back to the office without leaving the scene of the crime. It was posted to the front page of the website within seconds. After that it was my go-to tool for immediately sharing photos to the newspaper on tight deadline. With subsequent explosion of photography apps for the device, I began to explore a form of creative image making that was far from journalism.
Outside my work as a photojournalist I dove head first into another passion, street photography. With the camera phone, I hit the streets and began to make images with the likes of Robert Frank and William Klein in mind. I was immediately greeted with an overwhelming sense of gratification at how much easier it was to capture unguarded moments with the iPhone.
Before, my stealthiest attempts to capture street images with a traditional camera in a post 9/11 world proved challenging. Shooting with the iPhone I was identified as just another person on the street, not a suspicious person with a camera, but a person with a “phone.” I was able to blend-in unnoticed like never before.
In late 2010 I started to add another element to my street photos. With the plethora of post processing apps on the iPhone I began to “color” outside the lines of traditional street photography and use the darkroom in my hand to add several layers to my photos. For instance, some of my images have been shot, then opened in one application to add a grunge-like border, then opened in another app to convert it to black and white, and still, processed in several more apps to add various other layers, including other images. This process of “App Stacking” as I’ve coined it, is done before I open the image in Instagram and share it with the world. I’ve recently added another new layer to my posted works online, famous quotes as captions. I was intrigued by the idea of finding and attaching meaningful quotes as another element to my work. I have found that discovering the right quote to match my images is often as time−consuming and rewarding as the post-processing of my images. Instagram has quickly become my default app for sharing my creative mistakes, failures and occasionally small miracles.
Regardless of the technological advancement of photographic tools, I’m certain of the survival of one key element, “the eye.” What I mean to say is that our creative vision will never change. The brushes and canvas might change, but the creator’s vision will remain intact. I like to think it’s the story of an image and the “secret” that lies inside the frame that is most important. It’s the story, NOT the filters, not the artifice.
Filters and technique are part of the story, but strip them away and what’s left is story. I often need the artifice of filters to tell my story. And that’s ok with me. I’ve been around long enough to know that all the artifice in the world won’t make a “bad” image better. Knowing this, I base all of my camera phone images on the same principles that make a compelling traditional photographic image: light, composition and moment.
In the end, I’m grateful for the creative potential that modern day tools like the camera phone offer to photographers. There are no barriers to flexing your creative urges and sharing them with the world. Break out the coloring book and get to work.