Gray’s Anatoly: Make a calendar and force people to look at your photos for a whole year
The other day I was reminded of that line in the Smith’s song, Frankly, Mr Shankly: “Sometimes I feel more fulfilled, making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.”. Snapfish have this really excellent online tool for making calendars out of your photos and I’m getting a worryingly large amount of pleasure from it. So far I’ve done a calendar for my golf club (now in its second edition), one based on my music photos and I’ve just finished one of my mobile photos. I say “worryingly” because it feels like it’s not a very professional or creative thing to do. It involves a lot of sorting and classifying. Yes, going through old photos, putting the best ones into folders, choosing a certain number of portrait ones and a certain number of landscape ones, trying to choose some that match a particular month on the calendar (ie a sunny picture for August and a snowy one for January), putting two or three that go well together on the same page. So, worrying, because it’s a slightly mechanical thing to do. If I wanted to present it as something of greater value, I might say I was curating my photos. Are there other examples of photographers or artists who have applied their work in very practical ways? Come on, help me out here.
Calendars are a great way of forcing people to look at your photos for a whole year. The aim is that the recipients will feel so touched that I have thought of them at Christmas, gone to all that effort of wrapping up a real object, writing a little note and then going down the post office to post it, that they don’t immediately throw it in the bin. I’ll be very pleased if about 10% of them end up hanging on walls. I will put a copy of each on walls around my house - I find it’s good to live with them a bit. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And I think it’s nice to give those otherwise purely digital images some corporeal existence, a new purpose in life.
The cover of the 2014 rugfoot mobile photography calendar (signed copies available).
Gray’s Anatoly: Taking photos doesn’t have to be offensive
I went on a photo walk around Southall with the excellent Click London meetup group on Saturday. This area of London has a large Asian community and our walk took us inside the local Sikh temple and to a music shop, where we were given a workshop in tabla (Indian drumming). I learnt (or was reminded of) a couple of things about photography, and specifically about mobile photography.
1) People are generally OK with being photographed. On entering the temple, we asked if it would be alright to take photos. Sure, said one of the magnificently bearded and turbaned temple officials. He designated a guide and we were shown around. Having a guide was good because it gave us an outward sign to others that we had been approved. Some people worry that the act of taking a photo is offensive to people. But if you go about it in an honest and respectful way, there isn’t usually a problem. In fact, the opposite is often the case. As I wandered around the dining area unabashedly looking for photo opps, a bride who had got married that morning invited me to take a photo of her. Already clearly in the marital driving seat, she called over her groom from the other side of the room for the shot.
2) Although we had permission to take photos in the temple, I’m sure we were bolder and more successful with our photography because we were using mobile devices. We simply wouldn’t have had the courage to take the photos we did with larger cameras and people would have been more aware of us. We weren’t hiding our photo-taking, we were just less obtrusive (and so more successful) because we used mobiles. And sometimes it’s the way you take your photos, or how indiscrete you are (and that involves the size of your camera), not the fact of taking photos, that people object to. If they can’t see you doing it, they don’t mind about it.
Check out some of the brilliant images our group created here.
Already in the marital driving seat
Gray’s Anatoly: your Instagram picture-track
(WARNING: slightly self-indulgant blog post)
Love em or hate em, Instagram provides a useful picture-track (I just invented that term, it’s like a soundtrack but in pictures) to our lives over the last two or three years. When my wife asked me: when did we go to Corsica? I reply, well it must have been after March 20, 2011 (the day of my first Instagram) because I’ve got Instagram photos from there. With each photo, I remember what we were doing and often the process of taking the photo that I went through.
So I decided to map my1,652 Instagrams in chronological order (more for my own benefit than yours) to date. I know you can get a map of all your Instagrams but that doesn’t map the “when”:
March 28, 2011: Lisbon; April 25: Brighton; May 1: Bruges; June 18: Auntie’ Maggie’s 70th; June 30: Arcade Fire in Hyde Park; July 9: Corsica; July 15: Latitude festival; July 31: Brighton; August 9: London riots; August 26: Rock en Seine festival, Paris; September 3: End of the Road festival; September 18: the apple crop; September 24: David Graham NPG workshop; October 10: Grayson Perry exhibition; October 22: Instagramers exhibition; October 29: Almeria; November 18: Norwich; November 29: Pixel This exhibition; January 1, 2012: Isle of Wight; January 7: Brighton; February 6: Bristol; February 15: Apple Store talk; February 19: Morzine; February 27: Aunty Maggie’s funeral; March 31: Highgate Cemetary; April 15: Dubrovnik; May 2: Other Cinema; May 6: Torrevieja; May 14: iphoggy launch; May 21: Luton playoff at Wembley; June 3: Applecart festival; June 9: No Direction Home festival; July 6: St Albans, J’s birthday; July 14: Latitude festival; July 26: Olympics; August 16: new season at Luton; August 23: Campus Party Berlin; August 26: Brighton; September 1: End of the Road festival; September 9: V’s birthday; September 29: Madrid, Vejer, Jerez; November 7: KCC exhibition; January 23, 2013: Snow in London; Feburary 1: San Fransisco, New York; March 11: Jura; April 6: Brighton; April 23: Wake Fest; May 5: Surf Savers; May 15: Ostend; May 31: Field Day festival; June 3: Berlin; June 26: Galaxy experiment; July 14: Latitude festival; August 3: Holi Festival; August 10: Brighton; August 18: Greenman Festival; August 30: End of the Road festival; September 7: Bordeaux.
Between these noteworthy events are pictures from various football matches, concerts, wanders around London, business trips to Zurich, cycle commutes, museum visits, rounds of golf and train journeys. What a life we lead.
It’s in the vault
Did I mention I’m a Seinfeld fan? There’s a running joke where one of the characters is told a secret and they swear they will not tell anyone: it’s in the vault! they say. But then they have a few drinks and predictably they let the secret slip. And here’s an app I found the other day called Photo Vault. Finding new apps I like these days is quite a rare ocurrence so I thought it worth sharing. Quite boringly it’s not about taking or apping photos, it about archiving photos. This is a serious issue and one that people probably don’t devote enough time and energy to. Guy Yang on his now disappeared Beginners Lens devoted about 10 hours of his excellent iphoneography course to archiving. Long-term and safe archiving of photos is an important issue and one for another blog. This is about short-term archiving.
You’ve been to see the Stone Roses and you managed to get right to the front and get a photo of Ian Brown when he clambered down from the stage to swagger around right in front of you. You also got some great shots of fans wearing some of those laughably baggy trousers they used to wear in the 90s. You created a lovely little folder of all the Stone Roses photos to show Brian when you meet up at Glastonbury. Oh yeah, you’d better clear some hard drive space on your phone for Glasto. So you connect your phone to your computer and start deleting some of your photos. Don’t touch the Ian Brown ones! Or that classic photo you took of your friend Janice’s 50th back in November. Brian would like to see that too. The annoying thing with the iPhone “Photo” app is that even if you put photos in a folder, if you delete them on your camera roll, they disappear from the folders too. And there’s no warning if you block-delete via your computer.
Photo Vault solves this problem by allowing you to create folders of photos (in the “vault”) that won’t disappear when you delete a whole block of photos from September to May to free up some space on your phone. That’s pretty much it. An app that’s useful for one thing, but worth getting just for that.
Not Ian Brown
When a disruptive technology actually disrupts
The news that the Chicago Sun-Times had fired its entire staff of photographers brought a howl of complaint from many people. The detail that the newspaper had decided to issue some of its reporters with iPhone cameras as an alternative to the fired photographers may also have caused many in the iphoneography community to wince slightly. And to feel a bit guilty. Much has been made over the last few years of how great mobile devices are for citizen journalism and up-close street photography. How mobile devices are game changers and how this new technology is “disruptive”. When people used the word “disruptive”, they perhaps didn’t foresee how disruptive it might be. Disruptive here means: getting a team of professional photographers fired from their jobs. Back in November, I said in a Guardian article that photojournalists had most to fear from the iphone’s disruptive camera technology.
People have happily sung the praises of mobile devices as a photojournalistic tool because: 1) it’s the camera that is always with you so will capture a newsworthy event almost as it happens; 2) it gives you access to places and people that wouldn’t be possible with DSLRs (the strengths of the iphone camera in war zones have been well documented); 3) it’s small and quick, which can mean the difference between getting the picture and not; 4) it’s cheap: so if you have the skills (but not the money), you can still produce good photos. Sorry, but it is a good tool for the job. That’s not to say you don’t need the same skills that the fired photographers had to take good photos with the iphone. Simply issuing iphones to unskilled journalists won’t give you good photos.
The camera won’t make the picture
It’s simple maths
I reckon many of tomorrow’s leading photographers will have started out taking photos on mobiles. It’s partly simple maths. More photos are taken on mobile devices than on regular cameras today.
And similarly I reckon a lot of photographers who are now regularly deified as “great” because of their work fifty years ago would probably not have received much attention if they’d been working today. I recently blogged about the photographic fawning over William Eggleston. Again, it’s simple maths. Very few people could own a camera or spend much time taking pictures back in the 50s or 60s. So, if you could produce good images, you didn’t have much competition. I recently read an article about Robert Frank, which talks about his “brilliance”. If I saw Robert Frank’s Americans on Instagram, yes, I would have thought they were brilliant. But I see a lot of brilliant photos by other people today on Instagram. Check out @mrwhisper, @sionfullana or @arnold_daniel for some great modern-day street work. Many of Robert Frank’s more recent photos (eg the tree shown in the article) anticipated the sort of photos we see today on Instagram. But a photo of Frank’s such as this is held up as a masterpiece not because it’s particularly good, but because i) he was already famous; ii) again, there weren’t that many photos around at that time (compared to today).
Of course, photography is a totally subjective thing. Curators and critics anoint their chosen heroes for many reasons, not always aesthetic ones. And photographers become successful, again not always for reasons to do with the aesthetics of their photos. And of photography today, Frank says: “There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life.” He’s complaining about the maths and he perhaps realises he was lucky to have been taking photos in the 50s.
Become a filter designer
I recently did a photo shoot for Sport England. I took about 150 photos and narrowed my final selection down to around 30. Then I wanted to app them. Yes, all of them. As we’ve established many times before, apps were put on this earth to be used and the iphone camera takes pretty dull photos. So I wanted to app these photos. But I’d also had quite a hard day and I wanted to go home. Either I submit fairly uninspiring photos or I go through all 30 one by one and edit each one manually. Since this sort of shoot is probably the most enjoyable work I’ve ever done, I decided it was in my interests to edit each one manually. So using Snapseed: open, drama (I know), sharpen, brighten, saturation, subtle vignette. To keep a consistent style, I gave most of the photos very similar edits.
When I got home I did some research and discovered I could have saved myself some work. Filter Storm allows you to create custom presets, or automations, as it calls them. So, if you have 4 or 5 edits that you apply over and over, you can save those steps as one single preset. It’s a great time-saving way of not having to repeatedly go through the same steps. I then discovered that you can do the same thing in another app, Photo Toaster. There may also be other apps that allow you to do this. For me though, this was new and amazing.
The world of iphoneography has often been criticised for being “just a bunch of filters”. With custom presets though, you take creative control of your images. You decide the exact look of your photos. You effectively become a filter designer.
I call this my Cheerleader filter
Is mobile still newsworthy?
In what has got to be one of the best bits of media coverage of mobile photography, the New York Times today did a piece on an exhibition of mobile photography in Paris. At the time I spotted the article, there were 4 comments online. I braced myself for the usual vitriolic outburst by the traditional photographer who after 35 years of mastering aperture and shutter speed would rather chop off their hand than take a photo with an iphone. And, yes, the first comment was from a photographer of 35 years standing, Leslie Plaza Johnson. But surprisingly there was no vitriol. Her point was that it doesn’t matter what you use. What’s important is whether the image gets an emotion from its viewer.
We’ve seen a lot of media coverage of iphoneography over the last couple of years. When I launched a course in mobile photography back in February, London’s two most widely circulated newspapers carried big articles on it. A course on mobile photography, yes, isn’t that amazing! Whenever exhibitions of mobile photography (like the one in Paris) are announced, the typical media angle is: yes, can you believe it, these beautiful pictures, all taken with your little mobile phone camera.
The nature of the genre is what it is: mobile is incredibly good at close-up photography and has allowed many more people to be creative with their image-making thanks to all the apps. For those reasons, it is a sub-genre in itself, with particular features that mean that blogs like this one have something meaningful to talk about. In the same way that water colours is a sub-genre of painting. But at the end of the day, it is just another way of making images. And one day soon an exhibition by mobile phone artists will be no more newsworthy than an exhibition of water colour enthusiasts. The only thing that will make it newsworthy will be if the images get an emotion. Which in the case of this excellent exhibition, they do.
Does it get an emotion?
Closer candid portraits then ever before
Earlier this year, I set my class the task of taking candid photos of people on public transport. To inspire the students I showed them the photos of one of London’s best candid photographers, Bal Bhatia, aka @mrwhisper. In his images of London’s commuters, he manages to capture real human emotion in beautifully composed images. Much more than just finding an interesting facial expression, his images have balance and harmony too. I’d never really done much candid before, so I joined in with the task too. And very quickly got hooked.
The iphone camera is so unobtrusive and people are so used to seeing other passengers gazing into their devices that very few people realise we’re taking photos of them. Which gives us a rare perspective. Especially at busy times, we can get within centimentres of complete strangers’ faces and photograph them completely naturally without them knowing. If they knew, their whole look would change. So although candid portraiture has a long tradition, we are now getting closer to people than ever. Smart phone photographers are doing things that were almost impossible before with traditional cameras.
When I ask my students to do this task, I ask them to first of all consider what they’re doing. Yes, we’re taking a photo of someone without their permission. That’s partly the point. If we asked for permission, we would lose their natural look. And what’s our motivation for wanting these photos? We’re not making fun of them or exploiting them for nefarious purposes. We want to understand our fellow citizens by looking into their faces and we want to share that understanding with our audiences. And we want to create beautiful images featuring something that never ceases to fascinate us - the human face.
ps thanks to Sandi Wiggins aka @ancestorsfound for the idea for this blog
Candid portraits: closer than ever
Shamless plug for my iphoggy courses
OK. No shame about this one. This is a plug for my two upcoming iphoneography courses. It’s a 5-week deal, 3 hours each week. We start out simple, but get advanced very quickly. We look at all the best weird and wonderful apps out there for the iPhone and do some thinking and arguing about photography generally. And of course, we also do a lot of iphoneography-taking. I’ve run the course three times before and (modesty aside) they were very popular. We recently had an exhibition of some of the students excellent work. And they keep on asking me when I’m going to be putting on a more advanced version - so they must have enjoyed it.
Your two options are:
1) Starting this Thursday November 15 at Kensington and Chelsea College. Five Thursday evenings 6-9pm. The course has already run 3 times here, so we have it well honed. Within the college’s excellent photography department, it can lead onto more advanced photography courses.
2) The Photographers’ Gallery, starting this Saturday November 17. Five Saturdays, 2-5pm. In a great central London location, the gallery is a Mecca of serious photography. We have a newly refurbished high tech room and will be surrounded by photographic excellence on all sides.
Both courses will be very sociable affairs. So if you’re in or around London and want to ramp up your iphoneography skills and generally have a good time, I would love to have you on board!
Thinking about improving your iphoneography skills?