Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Unseen Photographer :: Poker Faces

I've been intending to write this post for awhile now. To delay any longer would be negligence on my part, since I think the subject is somewhat time sensitive. It goes without saying that I am not the first to postulate on the topic of cell phone photography, but it is something that comes to mind often, and that I was reminded of recently while visiting the SFMOMA where they have an excellent exhibition called "Exposed: voyeurism, surveillance, and the camera since 1870".

The following is a breakdown of my musings inspired by the aforementioned exhibit, and my recent forays into cell phone photography:
Thesis: Phone cameras could be to contemporary street photography, what the 35mm in the hands of Walker Evans was to the street photography of the 30's.
Relevance: In a time when phone cameras have become relatively powerful, yet are still not recognized as cameras by a majority of the world's population, there is a brief window into a new realm of photographic possibilities. In a sense it is a voyeuristic window, but not in the perverted sense that we associate with "voyeurism". Rather it is a chance to take photos that we would not normally take with an SLR - whether because SLR's are prohibited, or because pulling out a large camera would in some way disturb the subject and alter the scene, or simply because the most readily available camera is our cell phone.

Experiment: The experience that got me thinking about this took place in an old cafe in Missoula, MT that runs a poker table into the wee hours of the morning. Cameras are strictly forbidden there - a rule which is enforced. However I soon found that my iPhone was seen as just a phone. No negative camera associations. Over the course of a couple weeks, I alternately lost and won large stacks of chips, ate too many plates of gravy smothered hash browns, and earned the nick name the "cell phone kid" at the poker table. I was addicted though, and not just to the gambling and gravy, but to the thrill of capturing something that I had a feeling no one had captured before (at least not here, not with these old characters). While everyone thought I was busy texting or playing games on my phone, I was able to snap the following set of images. Shots that could never have been taken with a 35mm camera.

Conclusion: While you can debate the artistic or journalistic merit of these photographs, I am sharing them in the hopes that they will spark your curiosity (as they have mine) to explore what seems to be a unique window of time in the life of photography, in which many of us carry a "camera" that is not in the eyes of others a "camera" and thus has given us a new outlet through which to free our vision and bring to light scenes which would otherwise be very difficult if not impossible to capture...

The images above were taken using an iPhone4, and the Hipstamatic app

Note: The inspiration for the title of this post comes from the following excerpt pertaining to the SFMOMA exhibit, "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the camera since 1870".

"The Unseen Photographer"

"Photography has been central to voyeuristic looking since 1871, the year in which the gelatin dry plate was invented and cameras became small enough to be secreted in books, clothing, shoes, pistols, or canes. Although most "detective cameras" were advertised as harmless amusements for amateurs, the public found them troubling from the start, raising concerns about privacy that remain valid to this day. This section of the exhibition traces the use of the hidden camera in public spaces, from the turn-of-the-century amateur picture makers Paul Martin and Horace Engle, to modernist photographers Walker Evans and Weegee and contemporary artists such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, whose series Heads, featured here, famously inspired a privacy lawsuit in 2006."

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


  1. wow forest...this is a great project on so many levels. real images, real emotion...thanks for sharing and inspiring...

  2. Nice set and edited well ;-)

    As chad said: real images, real emotions -- that's what visual storytelling is about. And whatever tool works.

  3. So Forest, did you tell people that you were using your phone as a camera to photograph them? Would they have believed you? And if so, would they have prohibited the picture taking just as if you'd had a "real" camera? I get the point you're making but am a little troubled by the ethics of the situation. Photos are very cool, though!

  4. im curious as to whether you won or lost, how you found such a cast of characters, and when we´re meeting up in Argentina.

  5. Forest, this is fantastic! I understand Kathy's concerns & wondered about them too, but I tend toward the "act now, ask for permission later" philosophy when it comes to a relatively innocuous act such as your experiment. It allowed you to capture real, uninhibited life in a beautifully artistic light. Really love your opening image.

  6. Thanks for the comments guys.

    @Derek - I'll see you in a couple of days

    @Kathy - No I didn't tell anyone that I was using my phone/camera to photograph them. Yes, it would have been prohibited had it been an SLR - or if they had known that I was taking pictures with the phone. There are many times when I find it best to first build a connection with my subject, to engage them, earn their trust, and take their photo when they are comfortable and open to me. This was not one of those situations - for a number of reasons. Most significantly because, regardless of the other player's reactions, it would have never been permitted in that establishment and in the context that the photos were taken. That is where the voyuerism comes in - yes, I was taking/capturing something without permission or others knowledge of what I was doing. But does that make it wrong? That all depends on your perspective I suppose. Obviously I was comfortable enough, with the ethics of my means, to post the photos. I am not however, advocating everyone to go out and spy on their friends, neighbors or random strangers. Not advocating anything really, come to think of it, just sharing something that I found interesting.

  7. wow, great photos and great opportunity.. thanks for sharing!

  8. The OX!

    IT truly has never been so aptly, gorgeously captured.

    I'm hungry.

  9. really loved this post -- wouldn't mind getting in a game or two while I'm out in Missoula either ;)