The Relentless Eye

Global cell phone photography

A new format in the field of still photography has very recently emerged and is currently being celebrated in an exhibit at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. An impressive display of images made from cell phone cameras, The Relentless Eye: Global Cell Phone Photography was first organized by the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe, Vermont and shown there in the fall of 2009.

In a pioneering international call to cell phone photographers, Curator Odin Cathcart solicited entries from around the world by using social networking sites such as Facebook and Craig's List. This approach brought in 1,500 digital photos from cell phone users worldwide. Acclaimed photographer Eirik Johnson, Assistant Professor of Photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, whittled those down to 135. In addition, five established professional photographers using this format were chosen: Wafaa Bilal, Sean Capone, Chris Greene, Shawn Rocco and Gabrielle Russomagno.  All the work, submitted by digital files, was downloaded and printed at the Center's media lab. The resulting show appears to be one of the first times that cell phone photographers were the subject of an exhibition in an art gallery. The work revealed a wide-ranging display of talent, with multiple subject matter and styles, all proving that this new format has the expressive range of traditional photography and more.

The cell phone photographers showed interest in composition, pattern, color and perspective and all manner of subjects, including landscapes, portraits, abstractions and scenes both grand and ordinary, some possibly referencing the work of previous artists, much as photographers always have. One can only touch upon a portion here, as there are too many wonderful ones from which to choose. The collections include numerous photos of buildings captured in inventive ways such as Andrea Grayson's depiction of the "Fox Building NYC" with soft glittering lights and the structure seen from below looming into the clouds; "Lasalle" by Ngiap Tan features an interconnecting mass of black and white geometric layers; and "Rome July 1st" shows a portion of an ancient building, columns and a ceiling forming an engaging pattern of geometrics and color. 

Color often comes into play as seen in "Colours of Festivities" by Linda Ismail that depicts a variety of colors in ladies clothing and plastic hangars at a street shop; in Katherine Majestic's "Drain" paint colors form a chrysanthemum  shape as they enter a drain, the final image like a Morris Louis acrylic painting; Avadhoot Khanolkar noticed the similarity of the coloring of a grey and white speckled dog as he sits on a mottled grey and white pavement in "Road and the Dog" so that the dog almost seems to blend into the road.

Many others capture interest or beauty in ordinary, everyday scenes: the detailed, green body of a grasshopper on a blue/grey dashboard in "Hitchhiker" by Lonnie Burke; Camilo Ramirez’s ”Downed Kite," normally an unremarkable sight, is made to seem important in that the viewer almost mourns the fallen bird. And, last but not least, some photos simply radiate beauty. Joseph Peila's "Morning Ferry," and "Morning," both convey quiet, harmonious scenes of nature absent of humans.

Nathan Suter, Executive Director of the Helen Day Art Center and show panelist, and William Earle Williams, Humanities Professor and Curator of Photography at Haverford, discussed the remarkable changes that have occurred over the last fifteen years in the medium of still photography and the impact of the technology used to create the exhibition's photographs. 

Snapshots using roll film cameras capable of capturing fleeting moments were the historical antecedents of digital cell phone photographs, as well as the widespread use of color in amateur photographs of the 1960s and 1970s, and Polaroid's introduction of easy-to-use instant color photography system in 1972. And now the ability to capture images on a cell phone has become increasingly common and a camera is now a standard feature on most cell phones.

The statement that "the best camera is the one that's with you" coined the photographer and author Chase Jarvis sums up today's popular camera choice.  Smartphones now allow for easy sharing of photos via email and social networks, and upgrades include video and sound capabilities that can be easily downloaded for wider distribution.  Technology has dramatically changed the landscape of photography. Cell phones have transformed how photography is practiced. The fact that cell phone photographs can now be taken in all sorts of conditions, are almost everywhere and can be transmitted quickly, allows for a new kind of spontaneity and freshness.  Mr. Suter sums up, "The ubiquity of cell phone cameras, and the ability to share images via text or upload to Facebook, Flickr, and other sites has made it possible for almost anyone to be a photographer and make an impact on the field."  It allows more people to produce visual art on a regular basis and for that art to be more readily seen and appreciated by wider audiences.  The medium has become more democratic and allows for more art to be created by more people for everyone to enjoy.

THE RELENTLESS EYE:GLOBAL CELL PHONE PHOTOGRAPHY continues at Haverford College, Marshall Fine Arts Center, Atrium Gallery, through April 22.

To view Final Photograph Selections for the show:

To view the work of the five invited photographers:



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