For some time Joe Cornish has been using his iPhone both as a visual diary and as a sketchbook for exploring compositions. After discussing whether gallery visitors might be interested in the results, Joe and the gallery team decided to create a small exhibition. Our hope is that eventually we will be able to display Joe’s initial vision captured on his smartphone and then complete the journey by also having the finished large format composition exhibited in the gallery.
In the meantime Joe and our curator Jo Rose have put together a selection of his iPhone images to display in the gallery. The exhibition is designed to be an illustrative eclectic mix of subjects that underlines the spontaneous nature of a smartphone, from Rodin’s The Thinker in San Francisco to woodland in Ryedale and even breakfast in Borrowdale.
Joe has provided further context to the collection in a written text on display with the images that explains in more detail his inspiration behind the exhibition:
In the visual arts, practice and preparation are essential. In sculpture that means making a maquette. In painting, the process is characterised by drawing or sketching, whether with pencil, charcoal or watercolour. Eventually the process leads to a definitive piece, perhaps a bronze sculpture, or a major easel painting, incorporating many of the ideas explored in preparation.
Perhaps photographers have always practised too…by making photographs. The evidence for this is preserved in the rolls of film and contact sheets of famous photographers. We see many ‘almost-but-not-quite-moments’, but there is one where everything seems to come together. The definitive exposure’s special status is then reinforced through the interpretation of the printing process, which becomes the finished work.
For all the years when I worked on large format film, such a liberated approach would have seemed an indulgence. The cost of the materials and processing was so high that it was (of economic necessity) important to make every exposure count. Since I wanted to make immersive images that conveyed depth and detail this was a situation I had to accept.
Only large format could deliver sufficient quality. And it also had the advantage of instilling a rigorous technical discipline. As large format film was always an aspiration in making a finished work, sketching was done in the mind, or maybe with a rectangular black window card!
However, the most obvious drawback was the lack of freedom to experiment. The inability to simply try and, to paraphrase Gary Winogrand,‘see how things look photographed’. Digital technology revolutionised photography by making the exposure process essentially free, at least in terms of money. When I started making pictures digitally I began to play with different ideas, where previously I felt obliged to stay in my comfort zone, with what I knew would work. It was possible to see the precise effect of wind or water motion on the LCD playback. Exposures could be checked for tonal accuracy. Focussing errors could be corrected. The rendering of the image provided ideas for interpretation, or for alternative compositions. Previously that feedback would have to wait until the film came back from the lab, far too late to make changes in the field. Digital inspired a more creative, ‘what if?’ mentality.
Yet my desire to continue making ultra high quality prints still meant
– still means – that I use large, heavy and cumbersome technical cameras, especially when using a medium format digital back. These are at least as difficult to set up and operate as a 5x4inch (large format) film camera, so limiting some of the spontaneity that digital makes possible.
For several years I carried a compact digital camera with me, a useful notebook. (As a bonus I was delighted to find I also now accumulated pictures of friends and family, whereas previously I had none!) Over the last four years or so my sketching process has been done with a smart phone. These remarkable hand-held super-computers make more sense than a digital compact because they are almost always with us. The screens are far larger and brighter than a digital compact. And finally, the phone manufacturers have revolutionised the technology, so that their native jpeg image output is more appealing than that of any conventional camera.
Even so, one wouldn’t expect to make a high quality, large print from a smartphone image; the laws of physics make that impossible (at least for now). But printed quite small they can still be perfectly acceptable. Perhaps more importantly, they illustrate a vital stage in the creative process.
Some of my personal favourite pictures of recent years were shot with my phone, and the reason is simple…they are responsive, spontaneous and fresh. Sometimes they show a unique moment of light, never to be repeated. At other times they reveal a perspective which, for reasons of convenience or risk, are unobtainable with a ‘proper camera’.
Sometimes my phone compositions inspire me to set up my tripod and use the technical camera. This is the best example of a sketching process in action. Occasionally the phone image is still superior because of the light, or the feeling of the moment.
More usually, the technical camera version is not only better composed (or at least as good) but will be of far higher quality for printing. Nevertheless, the value of the phone as an instrument of composition is proved through the process.
The exhibition aims to acknowledge the value and significance of the smartphone, at least as it relates to my creative process.
We enjoy and appreciate sketches, drawings and cartoons of artists from history, so I feel it is only fair to ask, in the context of contemporary stills photography, has the phone now become the sketchpad and notebook of our time?
Joe Cornish, February 2018.
Images made on an iPhone 7 Plus