mobile photography: “don’t you worry, I will photograph my way out”

the quote is from Harry Callahan, and it is in the context of working within limitations. in his case,

« the diminution of the silver content in the paper made for, in most peoples’ mind, less beautiful prints — the darks just weren’t there. knowing this, Harry started to making pictures that would exploit the diminished values of the papers commonly available. [ ... ] the point is that when there were limitations, Harry worked right through them. as he said, “don’t you worry, I’ll photograph my way out.” » — Peter MacGill. [1]

in terms of searching for creativity, photographers may seek limitations as a way to notice scenes differently, and thus, promoting a direction to take from their current status: either drastic, or ever so subtle. one can think of instant film as a limiting medium: if one considers the aspect ratio, and colour shifts inherent in instant film, and in some cases the overall softness.

a modern take on these limitations is “phoneography”. by restricting the recording and processing to be within a phone, and a (false) sense of urgency to share a photo, then phoneography definitely can alter a photographer’s way of looking at scenes or moments. while digital, there are the limitations of lighting, dynamic range, long depth of field, and a fixed (typically) 28mm-e focal length. in a way, the phone became one “complete camera,” the way that Polaroid was, and unlike an SLR that requires the uploading of photos to a computer for processing. other advantages for finer work presentation are available with this SLR approach.

while on a recent trip, the narrow streets and the expansive canvas of what I seeing — regardless of camera — translated into an increased frustration with the phone’s camera. the lines were distorted, as the usual way of working with a square-frame restriction was not a good aspect ratio, and working with the more sensible (for these photographs) 16:9 aspect ratio meant that the lines were very distorted. 

the “style” to be pressed upon all that I was seeing was a sense of panels, either geometrically flat, or “3D”. the phone camera became woefully inept at acquiring the proper detail and angles I was seeking. 

however, I still wanted to retain the small-camera size/weight — as I could return later with other cameras to retake the photos — and I wanted to get to the envisioned result with the least amount of hassle. for this, it was still very much appealing to process the photos with the phone and/or tablet. also, the vast number of apps for processing photos was pretty much reduced to two: Snapseed and VSCOcam.

that’s it: I photographed my way out... to what mobile photography should be for me. photograph with a compact — which I had never purchased before — and a sensible speed to sharing results online. though more importantly, a quick route to results that help me consider a more “serious” return to the scene for re-shooting. (it must be said that, by the very nature of the city's layout, and other factors, it was impossible to find my way back to some locations, or they had an ephemeral element to them.)

consequently, two series (so far) stemmed from this pursuit/rework. mainly, the Lines of Japan, which has a result that would have never been possible (for me) from a camera phone like this first photo below...

kyoto, japan

kyoto, japan

and night photography, which otherwise would be riddled with bad results from a camera phone, such as the second photo below. this second photograph is based on a pre-conceived observation that was borne by the constraints of camera phones: New Topographics, in particular, the work from Lewis Baltz [ link ]. these other photos are collected in an on-going project called Topographies of Japan.

Gion District, Kyoto, Japan

Gion District, Kyoto, Japan

another consequence is a shift from 1:1 aspect ratio with camera phones to a predominant 16:9 with this new style of mobile photography.


[1] Harry Callahan Retrospective, Kehrer Verlag, 2013, pg. 13. 
[2] Lines in Japan, mobile photography by Kodiak Xyza [ link to project ]
[3] Topographies of Japan, mobile photography by Kodiak Xyza [ link to project ]

[4] New Topographics photos from Lewis Baltz [ link to image web search ]