The Art of iPhone: 1197, Instagram, and Richard Koci Hernandez

Richard Koci Hernandez and Hai Nguyen photograph with their iPhones. Photo credit: Vlad (@vladatat)

When something I’ve tweeted gets retweeted, or when multiple people comment on a Facebook status message, a micro twinge of exhilaration travels through my nervous system and manifests itself as a bright smile. Being noticed feels good. It’s reaffirming. It encourages me to share more, possibly stepping even further into the public cybersphere by linking my Yelp check-ins to Facebook or posting my Spotify playlists on Twitter. This is one of the underlying principals of social networking or content sharing applications; sharing begets sharing through social validation.

In the field of journalism, where the commodity is information itself, popular sharing platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr allow more people’s opinions to be heard, and on equal footing, providing checks and balances against biased reporting, as well as diversifying the perspective pool. ABC News’s Twitter feed works exactly like my next-door neighbor’s.

But news and information aren’t the only goods flooding across the sharing circles of the Interwebs; artistry and craftsmanship are being disseminated as well. The members of one such sharing guild both create and distribute their handiwork through a single tool, the iPhone. The name of the guild is Instagram, one of the most popular photography sharing platforms today. Joining takes seconds; it’s completely free; and you can immediately start displaying your photographs for the world to see-and “like” -as they please.

Photo credit: Kate Shay (@justthegritty)

I stumbled upon the world of iPhone photography sharing last month at 1197, the first-ever camera-phone conference, named after the date the first camera-phone photo was ever taken: June 11, 1997. Philippe Kahn, the man who took that photo of his newborn daughter was one of the key speakers that day at San Francisco’s Mission Bay Conference Center. Other speakers included Richard Koci Hernandez, Emmy Award–winning journalist and Berkeley professor; Jessica Zollman, Instagram’s spokesperson and community evangelist; Teru Kuwayama, 2010 TED Fellow and photojournalist known for his reporting in Afghanistan; as well as other professional and successful iPhone enthusiasts.

Though the conference was billed as “dedicated to mobile & iPhone photography,”  a quick glance around the conference hall (as well as an informal show-of-hands survey) revealed the audience to be predominantly iPhone users. Not surprising, considering that the founders of the conference, Nate Bolt and Jessica Zollman, are self-proclaimed addicts of Instagram, which is currently only available for the iPhone.

Nate Bolt, one of the founders of 1197. Photo credit: Ryan Schude (@schude)

Instagram is one of the fastest growing photography sharing applications available today. Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s CEO, stated at TechCrunch Disrupt in Beijng  last month that there are 12 million registered Instagram users, and the numbers are increasing around the world. (Japan is Instagram’s second largest user base outside of the US.) The application is free and can be downloaded from iTunes. What sets Instagram apart from other digital photography platforms, like Flickr for example, is that it gives the user filters, expressive tools that change the look and feel of photographs, and, more importantly, the capability and forum to share immediately from the Instagram app on one’s phone. Instagram is a Facebook-Twitter hybrid, but for photos. Users can amass “followers”  (à­   la Twitter) and “like”  and comment on photos (à­   la Facebook).

Instagram’s success was built around the iPhone, complete with a very loyal and broad user base. And what has sprung up amidst that bountiful field of iPhone consumers is a highly sophisticated community of artists. From professional photographers like LA-based Lauren Randolph  to designer and programmer Dan Rubin, whose eloquent and thoughtful approach to photography-“learn to see by putting your camera down” -won him many admirers at 1197, to the novice photography enthusiast looking to sharpen her framing skills-everyone is sharing feedback and creative ideas on Instagram.

1197 conference attendees. Photo credit: Lauren Randolph (@laurenlemon)

Speed, convenience, and equality make this forum of camera-phone sharing so compelling. Not everyone can afford to purchase a high-end DSLR and, probably more of an issue, not everyone wants to cart around multiple pounds of camera equipment. And now with the iPhone4S, which touts a camera to rival most point-and-shoots on the market today, there is very little incentive to have a camera besides the one on your phone. The iPhone also makes digital editing, via photography apps, or applications, available to users on the go. The intermediate step of downloading your photos to your computer in order to apply Photoshop magic is gone. Snap a photo, run it through an app on your phone, and it’s ready to be published online, potentially within the span of a few minutes.

Dan Marcolina, graphics designer and author of iPhone Obsessed, demonstrated the power of applications and app stacking (processing a photo through two or more apps to produce multiple effects). With the use of vector graphic technology, a photo can be altered to look like a cartoon, a highly textured oil painting-or a hybrid of the two. While these apps (ToonPAINT and PhotoArtista–Oil) are probably more often utilized by graphic designers and illustrators, they are available to everyone with an iPhone for a few dollars on iTunes.  (Other apps discussed at the conference included Filterstorm, Lo-Mob, Decim8, DXP, and Diptic.)

If the photograph taken on the iPhone can be compared to the fresh ingredients of a recipe, the applications are the spices used to flavor the dish. And what a difference the spices can make. They change the flavor of the food, and this is what these applications-with various filters and editing techniques (double exposure, splitting photographs into panels, etc.)-can do. They can make a photograph look like it was taken on a Polaroid, add a green hue to the image, thereby changing the quality, the mood, and the narrative of the photograph. These are terms applied to music, literature, painting-and now iPhone-captured-and-produced photographs.

Richard Koci Hernandez. Photo credit: Robyn Dudley (@gemini606)

Co-leaders of 1197, Richard Koci Hernandez and Dan Cristea led a how-to workshop, the most dynamic and compelling presentation of the day. How to improve your photography skills on the iPhone. How to use apps to enhance images. How to observe light. How to tastefully share your creations. Tips ranged from the practical, like “zoom with your feet,”  to the more philosophical.  Hernandez, an Emmy Award–winning journalist known for his nontraditional methods of photography before the advent of the iPhone, emphasized that “the most important thing about [a] picture is [the] story. It doesn’t matter how we get there. It’s the story behind it.” 

After the conference I contacted Richard to ask him a few questions about art, journalism, photography and cameras in general.

Untapped Cities: When I was listening to you give tips on how to take photographs, it occurred to me you were also giving tips on how to become an artist. You talk about the camera being an extension of the heart. That through it one reacts/responds and captures the singular “aha”  moment in time that made your heartstrings sing, so to speak. And that by utilizing the practical tips (zoom with your feet, let it bake, give yourself assignments) one can improve the art of capturing and expressing. Do you think of yourself as an artist?

RKH: Yes, it’s taken me a long time to just get over myself and call myself an artist. I’m just trying to get back to that happy place called kindergarten, where I colored with abandon outside the lines, and if you asked me then if I was an artist I would have happily said yes.

Untapped Cities: How do the artist and journalist personas inform each other in your work, if at all?

RKH: The artist makes all the visual and creative mistakes that go unpublished, then the journalists learns from those mistakes and creates something informative, ethical and publishable with a dash of creativity.

Untapped Cities: When did you make the transition from regular camera to iPhone?

RKH: When the iPhone added a video camera in the 3Gs model, it became my tool of choice.

Untapped Cities: Do you still use other cameras?

RKH: Yes! I have 12 Holgas and three Lomos, and several DSLRs. I just bought a Polaroid SX70!

Untapped Cities: And how do you decide what camera to use?

RKH: It takes a lot nowadays to get me away from my iPhone. The deciding factor is money. If someone is paying me to do a job, I don’t show up with my iPhone-even though I want to and know I could pull off the job with it. It just doesn’t go over well with the client.

Kuwayama and Hernandez. Photo credit: Alexandra Jones / Goof City Graphix (@mayorjones)

Untapped Cities: Do you feel that using app filters is a little like cheating? Very little “skill” now is involved in getting special effects that in the past required dark room expertise, knowledge of light properties. It seems that with these powerful tools, Mr. and Ms. Everyone can make something that looks pretty good without understanding “what happened,” besides their pressing of an “apply” button. It’s almost as if one can become an artist without mastering the fundamental techniques of photography.

RKH: I disagree. I think the “filter” debate is misguided. We are focusing on the wrong thing. I don’t think slapping a filter on an image makes it better or a good image as everyone is saying. I think it makes it feel “familiar” but doesn’t automatically make it a good or passable photograph. We are focusing on the artifice surrounding the image and not the content. As they say, if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. That’s what the masses are doing, putting filters (lipstick) on a pig (bad photo to begin with). It’s still a bad picture. Until Mr. and Ms. Everyone learn the art and rules of good photography, light, composition and moment, then they’re just contributing to the visual pollution of our time. Again, the addition of a filter only makes that bad image feel familiar, like an old sweater, but it’s not a good image. The right filter added to a beautifully composed and well-lit image can be a piece of art. A digital filter is no different than an analogue “filter.” For example, when I choose Fuji Velvia film, I know my final images will have a beautiful greenish tint, and if I print the resulting photos on my enlarger where I file out the negative carrier to create a sloppy border, and then print it on fiber-based photo paper, I would have something [similar] to what Hipstamatic “digitally” creates. No one was screaming foul when we added filters in the darkroom, say sepia-tone and other toners, or contrast filters. Somehow, the fact that I can create the same effect in three seconds on my iPhone compared to three hours in the darkroom equals the end of photography as we know it. Cheating. I don’t think so.

Untapped Cities: Has iPhone photography transformed your view of the world? Do you “see” in the language of your favorite iPhone filters?

RKH: Not at all. I look for moments, light and composition. Everything else is secondary. The border and the scratches, the artifice, if you will, come later. They don’t influence or inform my initial creation process. They enter later if needed.

Man must rise above the Earth-to the top of the atmosphere and beyond-for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.  - Socrates  | #hipstamatic #iphoneography #lomob #filterstormPhoto credit: Richard Koci Hernandez (@koci)

Untapped Cities: What do you think is the greatest benefit or contribution iPhone photography and social sharing has brought to journalism today?

RKH: Immediacy. In two “clicks” you can document and share with the world. That’s huge! It’s not only the camera and the darkroom in the palm of your hand. It’s also the printing press. The potential to create change in the world is available to the masses. That’s a powerful thing.

After all the 1197 presentations were said and done, I walked slowly out of the conference center, my thoughts racing back in time to remember all the helpful instruction I received throughout the day. I almost didn’t hear a question directed my way by a fellow conference attendee. He looked to be in his mid to late 40s and was asking whether or not I was going to the happy-hour social event hosted by Postagram. I answered in the negative. But I asked him what he thought of the conference. He looked at me with wide eyes and admitted he had actually purchased his first iPhone the day before. All of the information was still very new to him, but he was excited to start taking photos, playing with filters and sharing.

It struck me then and there that the potential to create change in the world was coming not only from the technological innovations that helped to develop these tools, as well as make these tools and sharing platforms more accessible to everyone, but that “everyone”  is gaining the confidence to creatively express themselves, to initiate change. This to me is technology at its best, when it allows us to tap into our humanity.

All photographs in this article were taken by participants at the 1197 conference. Their Instagram handles are included in the photo credits.

Follow Untapped Cities on  Twitter  and  Facebook. Get in touch with the author @annylam81.

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