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Mobile photography finds a place in the fine arts world

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One of many images from a recent exhibition of cell phone photography at an art gallery in Oklahoma City. Image by Aaron Hauck, Nested pools, iPhone 4. 

The advent of mobile photography has inspired the masses to start shooting in never before seen magnitudes. The photo sharing app Instagram is just one indication of its immense appeal, having attracted 100 million members who’d posted 5 billion images before the app even had its two-year anniversary. 

Perhaps in part because of its intense mainstream popularity, some circles have been slow to accept the genre as anything more than Twitter in photographic form and firmly resist consideration of the medium as fine art.

Jon Burris, executive director at [Artspace] at Untitled, an art gallery in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is among those in the fine arts community embracing the possibilities of this burgeoning art form.

This past summer the gallery hosted its second annual exhibition of cell phone photography, entitled Cell Phones in Summer. The open call for entries garnered far more interest this year than last, and a final juried selection of works by 38 artists were featured. Burris expects the trend to continue to grow, and is anticipating a third annual event next year.

Sofia Verzbolovskis, Bairro Alto, iPhone 4S, from the Cell Phones in Summer exhibition at [Artspace] at Untitled.

The gallery has labeled all participants in its most recent mobile photography exhibition “image makers” to account for the uninhibited style of photography a cell phone allows. 

Burris, who’s been personally exploring mobile photography since purchasing the original iPhone, was intrigued by the idea of a mobile photography exhibit when he came across a virtual exhibit of cell phone photography online a few years ago organized by another gallery. A good idea, but at the time he felt the quality of the images wasn’t quite up to par. Burris shelved the idea until the technology caught up.

Angela Renai Comer, Midnight Swim, iPhone 4, from the Cell Phones in Summer exhibition at [Artspace] at Untitled.

Burris’s fine arts perspective has informed his ideas about a cell phone aesthetic that’s related to the average distance people are standing from their subjects. With limited zoom capabilities on most devices, Burris is interested in how are our personal space bubbles are shaping this look and feel of mobile photography. He is also noticing that the propensity to shoot at eye level is influencing the aesthetic of most mobile photography.

“I thought we would see more intimacy,” Burris noted of the recent Cell Phones in Summer exhibition. 

Carl Shortt, Hot Day at the Beach, iPhone 4, from the Cell Phones in Summer exhibition at [Artspace] at Untitled.

Burris compares the reluctance to accept smartphone photography as a valid art form to the same hesitation toward digital photography several years ago. Collectors once shied away from purchasing digital prints in favor of those made from film. Burris anticipates the same necessary learning curve for collectors as well as the general public to take mobile photography seriously, but expects that in the future, galleries like his won’t put so much emphasis on the medium, instead focusing on the art. He envisions a digital print of an image taken on an iPhone 4S hanging next to a silver gelatin print on gallery walls worldwide.

(A short aside: Burris developed a relationship with the photographer Ansel Adams after serving as a curator for Adams’ work at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Burris guessed that the forward-looking photographer who mused about processing electronic images through a television-like device long before the advent of digital photography and who was among the pioneers of Polaroid photography would have been interested in mobile photography too. “He’s probably be developing an app,” Burris teased, pondering a Zone app. Indeed the Zone System Companion app already exists. One wonders what Adams would have thought of it.)

Trey Hansen, Caught Looking, iPhone, from the Cell Phones in Summer exhibition at [Artspace] at Untitled.

Such shifts have happened before, he noted, citing the slow inclusion of Polaroid images into the fine arts realm. Mobile photography is just another trend, one of many Burris has been watching for decades, having worked as a photographer and curator since the 1970s.

“People will free up their thinking more,” Burris said of the old guard that’s unsure of the new mobile photography medium. “There’s no one way to use photography.”

Indeed, there's many indications of the infiltration of mobile photography into the fine arts realm. 

The L.A. Mobile Arts Festival was touted as the world's largest, held in Los Angeles, Calif., this past August. The nine-day event encompassed not just mobile photography, but also video, sculptural and performance art related to mobile devices. Its founders, the creators of iPhoneArt.com, showcase the work of mobile photographers in online galleries and recently launched the iPrints Store, specializing in museum-quality fine art prints of mobile art.

The international juried Mobile Photography Awards are bringing attention and accreditation to the art form. 

The first large exhibition of mobile photography in Paris debuts on November 21.

Organizers of the three-day 1197 conference on mobile photography and juried exhibition are aiming to recreate the success of last year's innagural event from November 29 through December 1 at the Soho Gallery For Digital Art. Update: We've confirmed with 1197's organizers that the event has been postponed until a February timeframe. We'll provide more information as it becomes available.

Comments

Total comments: 10
dcphotokat
By dcphotokat (Dec 2, 2012)

To me, it's the photographer, not necessarily the camera; take it from one who cut his photographic teeth on film. It's easy to debate fine art + mobile photography due to the plethora of "work" we see on line (thanks to such apps as Instagram). However, I've seen fine art taken with toy cameras and Polaroids back in the day and camera phones today ; just as I've seen crap with the best cameras (film and digital) money can buy.

Nuff said.

0 upvotes
maboule123
By maboule123 (Nov 19, 2012)

When Ulam Chac, ancient Mayan stone carver & engraver, first saw Michelangelo's painting said:
"Yeah, everybody is an artist now..."

0 upvotes
PhotoKhan
By PhotoKhan (Nov 19, 2012)

It's amazing the effort the goes into affirming any single new communication medium into the "fine arts" sphere...I'll bet it is because the hardly felt need to convey meaningful messages ...not!...more like "ta-tching!"...

0 upvotes
dyuriar
By dyuriar (Nov 17, 2012)

Meh...smh. I think WAY too many photos are snapped these days just because they can. And just because they are clearer and higher-resolution, WAY too many people are impressed WAY too easily. All this "fine art" talk is nonsense, as much of "fine art" talk always is regardless of the medium.

0 upvotes
Decoboy
By Decoboy (Nov 14, 2012)

Of course we shouldn't be snobs about what type of camera was used....,
but likewise we shouldn't be suckers for fads, i.e. just because it was taken with a gosh golly PHONE! doesn't make it any more worthy either. Can someone point me to the great trove of 'fine art' taken with box brownies back in the early 1900's (equivalent to today's phone cameras)...no I thought not.

I took the time to view all 38 finalists, most look like clumsy 'happy snaps' tortured with PP to make up for sloppy technique, some were just embarrassing, and a couple were OK, but fine art? The Age of Narcissism reigns supreme.

Sad that everyone thinks they have talent just because mummy told them so.

9 upvotes
Hector Jesus Photography
By Hector Jesus Photography (Nov 14, 2012)

You can do fine art with a phone but none of the pictures above ara fine arts so try again or let a pro show us why they will never use a phone for fine arts work you should know the pictures above will never meet the level of been called fine arts and cant be on a so called fine arts exibition....sorry for my english but i think you will get the idea of what i mean...

0 upvotes
Alex Efimoff
By Alex Efimoff (Nov 14, 2012)

If above shots belong to 'fine art photography', then I am a dolphin.

8 upvotes
maboule123
By maboule123 (Nov 19, 2012)

I wouldn't go as far as seeing myself as a dolphin.
They are high intelligent mammals.

0 upvotes
Deleted pending purge
By Deleted pending purge (Nov 13, 2012)

Where one can't see the metadata, those critically minded are much more reluctant to show their bias; they'll concentrate upon the final results. Sometimes people tend to downplay their enthusiasm when they see the image out of a camera which is not their "favorite manufacture", or simply doesn't "cost enough to produce good photos".
One can see this kind of non-thinking everywhere, and daily.
It's like saying, "this sculpture sucks, it's made of clay and not alabaster"...
Let's talk about it in ten years again... ;)

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 8 minutes after posting
3 upvotes
absentaneous
By absentaneous (Nov 13, 2012)

I find it stupid to even make such a distinction. a photograph is a photograph. I mean it's like we would have art exhibitions of full frame cameras, compact cameras, etc., or just nikon cameras or just pink color cameras or whatever. I really find it so stupid when people focus on irrelevant things and try to make them matter. A photograph can't be art just because it was taken with a mobile phone and it can't be not art because it was taken with one.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 10
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