Art / There’s an art show covering the walls at Fishcake that features photographs taken every day for 366 days in a row, by Ivan Wentland using only an iPhone.
It seems like smart phones are quickly becoming more like cameras that we occasionally talk into, and we shoot, process and upload more photographs via our cell phones than any other camera, but it’s time to ask if these photographs are worthy of artistic status. Should it be harder to make a piece of art than holding up your iPhone? Robert Mapplethorpe, Walker Evans, Andy Warhol and other iconic, famous photographers have had their Polaroids validated as fine art; are iPhones this generation’s instant film?
Jay Jensen, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Honolulu Museum of Art, explains that he holds any photograph to the same standards. “I look at a photograph from a cell phone the same way I look at one taken from any of the ‘straight’ photography methods: lighting, composition, subject matter, etc.” But local artist and photographer Drew Broderick, fresh off his recent show, “Paradise What” at ii Gallery, asks, “Aren’t we losing something when we stop using the darkroom? There used to be a time when you were lucky to get one good picture out of a year’s worth of work.” Indeed, Ansel Adams is quoted as saying, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Now, Broderick points out, we can afford to shoot infinitely, losing our discernment in the process.
W. Eugene Smith, the temperamental and brilliant World War II photographer, was known to have spent days obsessing over his prints in a darkroom, making as many as 150 moves (dodging, burning, bleaching) in retouches over just one print. The manual interactions with the product, the knowledge of the chemicals, emulsions, equipment and time, is all but lost in the algorithms of what our smart phones let us do in seconds. So is this where the line lies that separates an “art picture” from the average one?
“Absolutely not,” says Ivan Wentland, whose photos are currently on view at Fishcake through September 15. “I think it’s how you see things, not necessarily what you see, that make a picture interesting or not . . . The truth is, if you haven’t trained your eye to see things in a certain way, you’re going to take pictures that look like everybody else’s.”
One of my favorite Instagram feeds, @swaggerlee, takes street photography of Waikiki tourists (something most of us go out of our way to avoid) to a new standard. Perhaps the inescapability of cellphones raises the cameraphones to a higher candidness, allowing photographers to take sneakier shots of unknowing subjects. As Wentland explains, “Sometimes it’s about seeing very common things in a different way” that sets your photographs apart from the gigabytes of dog and coffee pictures.
One of the strongest photographers of the snapshot aesthetic is London-based photographer Martin Parr, who told me in an email, “Cell phone images can be excellent, but are more likely to be bland and boring, as we take them now with such a casual attitude.” The collective disregard for our discernment in choosing what we photograph, if we care so much to take an interesting photograph, is the burden of digital photography and the photographer who wants to stand apart.
Say you achieve the powerful cell phone photograph. Is there even a market yet for it in today’s art community? Dr. Jim Pierce and his wife, Cherye have amassed one of the most extensive collections of 20th century photography in Hawaii, of which was featured in a major exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2003. Pierce says that yes, he would buy a “phone photograph,” as he called it, after having seen it printed in person, of course.
From snapping the picture, to printing it for view on Fishcake’s walls, Wentland said he snapped it in his phone through the Camera Bag app, saved it to his computer, and printed it on his inkjet at home, a shorter, more affordable and far cry from the chemical baths of the darkroom.
But the advance in technology hasn’t swayed the Pierces. “I think cell phone photography is totally legitimate as an art form,” he said, “but there’s good stuff and bad stuff, and it depends on the person making it, just like in any other medium.”
About what it takes to make a cell phone picture worthy of his collecting, he said, “One of the major things we use is our emotional response to the image. If we respond to it, we buy it. It doesn’t have to be [from] a famous photographer; if we want it and can afford it, that’s our major criterium.” Sounds a little like Nietzsche, who said the “quality of a work of art, or an artist, is proved if it seizes and deeply affects us. But our own quality of judgment and feeling would first have to be proved.”
Stephan Jost, Director of the Honolulu Museum of Art, may have said it succinctly, but best: “I think its great. How else do we justify minimalism?” From the earliest snapshot camera in 1888, the Kodak–a box pre-wound with a roll of 100 exposures–to smart phones with cameras, we’ve certainly come a long way, not only in technology, but in what we accept as serious photography. And as annoyed as George Eastman’s early slogan made photographic artists at the time, (“You press the button, we do the rest”), we do more now with our photographs ourselves from within our phones, further validating the adage that says the best camera is the one that you have with you.