Duluth photo exhibit highlights images captured by smart phones

Famed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz has shot a naked John Lennon tucked into Yoko Ono. She's captured Mick Jagger wrapped in a robe in an elevator in Buffalo in 1975. And when Demi Moore posed pregnant and naked for the cover of Vanity Fa...

Boat and sky
Emily Rose realized she was an artist about two years ago when she began fiddling with phone photography and the apps available to users. She said the process has made her a better mother. "Even my parenting is different now that I've become an artist," she said. "I used to be concerned about messes, now if the kids want to paint I say do it. If the table is stained forever, it's stained forever." Rose's work has won awards and been featured in exhibitions in San Francisco. (Photo by Emily Rose)

Famed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz has shot a naked John Lennon tucked into Yoko Ono. She's captured Mick Jagger wrapped in a robe in an elevator in Buffalo in 1975. And when Demi Moore posed pregnant and naked for the cover of Vanity Fair, Leibovitz made the photo.

So what does she recommend when asked for advice on camera buying? The iPhone.

Leibovitz called it "the snapshot camera of today" in an interview on "Rock Center" last year.

"It's a pencil, it's a pen; it's a notebook. ... It's the wallet with the family pictures in it," she said. "It's so accessible and easy."

The Duluth Photography Institute won't argue with that. The local photography gallery, studio and tutorial space is hosting "iPhoneography," an exhibition of work shot on smart phones. The opening reception is 5-8 p.m. Saturday at 405 E. Superior St., Suite 140.


"It's just gaining a lot of popularity," said DPI co-operator Christina Youngblood, who has photos in the exhibition. "We've had several submissions in our regular shows of iPhone photography. We're just trying to keep with the trends."

Phoning it in

Emily Rose never considered herself an artist until spring 2010 when she started getting serious about iPhone photography and the available apps.

"The iPhone was just there," she said. "It didn't take additional time, cleanup, training or costs, so it was this perfect tool that helped me find a creative side to myself."

Now Rose is part of an online community of iPhone photographers and is part of exhibitions around the country. Her award-winning photographs have been shown at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, San Francisco Art Fair and ARTHAUS in San Francisco.

She also has had iPhone pieces in non-iPhone specific shows at the DPI.

Photographers cite the phone's accessibility as the main reason they use its camera. The phone always is in a pocket or purse. While they're still using digital or film cameras, it's the iPhone that gets day-to-day action.

"For me, it's a convenience issue," Youngblood said. "Carrying around 20 pounds of equipment isn't convenient."


Travis Melin identifies himself as a large-format film user who isn't yet sold on digital photography. But when he started using his iPhone, he found a simplified medium of expression.

"I was having fun with it again," he said. "You don't really have to buckle down and be really serious about it. Large format is a completely different thing. It was fun to express yourself in a different way.

"It's freed me up a bit. The whole large-format thing, it can be restricting. The size, the weight; there is a lot more at stake every time you pull the trigger. You really can't loosen up. The iPhone, for me, is more playful."

Is it art?

Leibovitz-approved or not, the legitimacy of iPhone photography as art has its naysayers.

"A lot of people think it's gimmicky and it cheapens (photography) -- especially with the filters," said Derek Montgomery, a former News Tribune staff photographer who now works as a freelance photographer.

The signature Instagram-style photo -- retro fade with built-in frame -- has been called cliché. Montgomery said he believes iPhone photos can be legitimate art, but that the topic has become as charged as another great photography debate.

"It's like Canon versus Nikon," he said. "You bring it up and you're going to have opinions on every end of the spectrum."


Shawn Thompson weighed in on the topic with a short post on his blog. All film distorts reality, he wrote, field camera, digital SLR or an iPhone with a processing app.

"So, get off your high horses and relax a bit when your cousin's father's mother's daughter takes a photo with her camera phone and processes it with an app," he wrote. "The moral of this is that you should use the medium that suits you best."

The camera does the work

Melin was showing his photographs taken with his large-format camera a few years ago at the Park Point Art Fair. He said a man came into his booth, browsed, and as he was leaving said, "You must have a really nice camera."

After the man left, Melin considered the statement.

"What do you tell a painter? You have a nice canvas, nice brushes?" he said. "Photography has been a household thing. Everybody has a camera. There is that disconnect. They don't think photography is an art. They think the camera does the work."

Since becoming an iPhone photographer, Rose has doubled back to buy a professional-caliber digital camera. She uses it for her work as a professional photographer specializing in portraits.

Still, she doesn't think the tool matters.


"It's just your eye," she said. "What you see and how you capture it. It can still be fine art even though it's a camera phone."

Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
What To Read Next
Get Local