The smartphone has democratized art, making it possible for any user to point-and-shoot and mimic the professional craft of photography. With a touch of a button, the foam on a cappuccino, imbued with a dramatically nostalgic tint, can now be shared with the world in a range once unheard of to even the most seasoned photojournalists, who relied on prints, word-of-mouth, galleries and publications to showcase their work. Last Saturday in Oakland, three of the artists whose pieces are now being exhibited at SLATE contemporary gathered to discuss the current state of digital media and the varying degrees in which the changing medium of photography is reflected in the creation of art.
Silvia Poloto, whose multiprinted blouse and cylindrical collar radiated the same obsession with tangible textures found in her work, is a walking statement of her particular stance on artistic expression in the Digital Age. She sustains the traditional process of creating objects that exist in the physical world, crystallizing, in a sense, her internal emotions as a visual offer to the beholder. Poloto builds by layering resin, wax and fiberglass, and then overlaying the piece with photographs, creating organic palpability within a surrealistic atmosphere. For the artist, photography is but a step in the process, a part of “the inner journey in coming up with an image that doesn’t yet exist.” Poloto believes the emotional connection to her art is meant to be experienced in person, not through a screen on a computer or smartphone, commenting that the moment a piece of art is uploaded to the Internet, it becomes “a completely different thing.”
Diane Rosenblum’s series, titled “Clouds for Comment,” deliberately explores the blurry cross-sections of the digital and physical worlds which Poloto distances herself from. Rosenblum began by sharing her high-resolution photographs of clouds on Flickr and then printed the posted comments on to the original images in subtle inscriptions. The clouds are bold in visual intensity but are purposely undercut by the casual speak of Internet forums. Her pieces communicate that the nature of contemporary photography not only gives the average Joe the opportunity to be a photographer but also free reign to voice and evaluate the works of others. In this increasingly democratic world of artistic discourse, anyone can be a critic.
Rosenblum chuckled as she read one of her favorite comments: “The only thing I would have to say is that the one cloud on the far left was out of your control.” The effect is humorous and unnerving at the same time. Rather than presenting two equal platforms of expression, the typed comments ultimately appear crass, are nearly illegible unless you’re standing an inch away and get overshadowed by the majestic intensity of the clouds, the subject originally presented by the artist. Rosenblum admits, “The comments are interesting from a sociological perspective, but I don’t really care about what they say.” When the series is viewed online, the emphasis fittingly shifts back to the everyday user as the words are undeniably more in focus and away from the artist as the photograph loses its vitality not only in terms of color, but content. After all, how many more pictures of the sky does the Internet really need?
The work by Richard Koci Hernandez, an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, opens the lines of public communication as an intrinsic part of his artistic process. Although having had ample experience as a photojournalist for the San Jose Mercury News, Hernandez’s camera of choice is now his iPhone and his main outlet Instagram. He utilizes a variety of apps, current favorites being KitCam and Afterglow, to create a lo-fi, noir-inspired photo that he marries to a carefully selected quote. The ongoing collection has garnered him over 160,000 followers.
“The iPhone changed everything about the way I approached photojournalism,” said Hernandez during an interview preceding the discussion. “This little device disarms everybody and has helped me shoot more stealthily and unobtrusively. I love capturing the human animal in their natural habitat, as things are unfolding, and the device really lowers people’s anxieties of the camera.”
Hernadez’s photographs shown at SLATE hang just next to the works of Poloto and Rosenblum, but his square prints, transplanted from the digital realm in which the originals exist, embody a near reversal of the two artists’ approaches. “I’d rather be completely plugged in. I’m a child of my generation, having grown up through the evolution of computers, and I embrace it wholeheartedly. This,” pointing to the chromogenic prints of the images first published on his Instagram feed, “is absolutely lovely but to me is secondary.” And as much as he advocates the pocket-sized gadget, he doesn’t see the iPhone as a threat to the art of photography. “Not everyone you give this device to is going to be a great photographer,” he said. “You can’t filter something to death to make it look good. The rules of art are still there. We still appreciate composition, the rule of thirds, great light. So there’s no real threat to the professional photographer besides the problem posed to their ego.”
As for rarity, the indispensable experience of seeing in person the specific orbits in which the oils curled and dried in your favorite work of art is inapplicable to Hernandez’s work and, for that matter, to the whole plethora of digital-only work because it represents a separate mode of expression. But the manner in which we access art is changing. Will the option of scrolling through momentary snapshots of images make galleries and museums obsolete? The cost of democratizing photography seems to be the threat not posed to the photographer but the viewer.