I got a chance to chat via Skype with Jonathan Marks, a professional photographer who will be presenting at Macworld on January 26th at 11 a.m., and later that day at the flagship Apple store in San Francisco at 7 p.m. Jonathan has been traveling around the country talking about iPhone photography. His talk is titled “Zen & the Fine Art of iPhone Photography.”
Here he gives us insight into his process, vision, and the future of iPhone photography. You can check out his work at www.jonathanmarksfineart.com.
Alex: Hi everybody, my name is Alex and I’m the editor in chief of iPhone Life magazine. Today we’re chatting with Jonathan Marks, who is a professional photographer and multimedia artist. Jonathan will be presenting on the first day of Macworld talking about iPhone photography, and he also happens to be a contributing writer to iPhone Life magazine. Jonathan, it’s a pleasure to have you with us today!
Alex, thank you very much for having me, truly my pleasure.
A: I love people’s stories; how did you get into photography?
J: That’s an interesting question, Alex. When I was quite a bit younger, I was always in pursuit of some way to express myself. But I wasn’t a loud kid, I wasn’t a highly athletic kid, I was very average in many respects, but I knew I had this eye that needed to somehow come about. So I started with photography when I was very young and pretended like I was this avid photographer that knew exactly what I was doing and going and shooting horribly blurry pictures, and blown-out pictures, off-center, and things that just didn’t really jive, but I knew I had it in me. So it was a passion that I’ve been pursuing essentially all my life, on the side. I’ve always had something else going, so as not to have to rely on it and I could pursue it as a hobby and a passion.
A: And when did you start getting into iPhone photography?
J: I got my iPhone about two years ago. I was a bit of a holdout for a while. I had another smartphone, and I was happy with it. Now that I look back, it was foolish, of course.
I really started to gravitate towards the iPhone as a result of the photography more than anything. Yes, I love Apple, actually I have been using Apple products since 1986, almost since they started, and I have used Apple products ever since. Never been a PC guy (pardon the pun). At the time, I was carrying a Canon 5D everywhere I went, thinking that I would always have something with which to shoot, but I found that I really wasn't using it as much as I wanted to once I discovered the iPhone and it's photographic capabilities. The rest, as they say, is history.
A: The first iPhone you got was the 3G?
A: Since then there have been so many apps and new gear focusing on iPhone photography. How have you seen that change?
J: That's a really valid and pertinent question these days. Thanks to your terrific blog, which I get every day, where you introduce no less than 10 to 15 apps -- and kudos to you for doing that -- there is certainly a great proliferation of photography apps in particular. The thing that I go back to more than anything, Alex, is that my photography is not based on how many new apps I can get, or how I'm going to experiment with all of them. I do I try apps all the time for my photography, but really it's a personal expression of my fine art that I am striving for with my iPhone. I have found that no matter how many new apps come out, I gravitate to essentially the same small corral of apps that do a lot of what I'm trying to do, without overextending myself or feeling overwhelmed with so many apps on my phone that I don't know where to turn.
A: So you feel that with a small group of apps you can cover the majority of what you want to do with the images.
J: Yeah, I would have to say that what I've found most useful in that regard is just having a basic understanding of some photography software. Whether it's Photoshop, or Lightroom, or those who use Aperture, there are a lot of small fixes that one can do to an image that can enhance it without having to take it to such an extreme artistic realm that one loses the feeling of the image. Granted, there are those that are happy to take an image and turn it into line art or some cartoon-looking thing, and that's their presentation and all the power to them. I fully support and encourage individual expression. For me, my goal is to really maintain the photographic integrity of the image, but present it in a way that I can attain with apps. I want to do more things with the same apps than people really know are possible, as well as combining a lot of apps.
A: For our readers or amateur photographers out there, can you give us a couple of little tips?
J: Yes, that’s easy, I’ve found that there are some really basic steps that I do with every single image, and it’s a little daunting to those who have never heard of or used curves and levels, but every image that I use I start with a crop. Everything I do is a square crop, it goes back to my medium-format days. I much prefer the square format. I find it to be more challenging, to center or not center images, but I love the fact that I am bound by a perfect square. And trying to pull an image out of that and give it the feeling I want is important to me. I always adjust the levels to get a black point and a white point that’s solid. And then I almost always put in a contrast curve. At that point, the sky is the limit. There’s always a sharpening level in there too, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end. Without getting too technical, I can say that the main thing that people can do is really try to define their darks and their lights, because really, what draws people to a photograph, or what causes them a little bit of dismay, is when there is great contrast. Sometimes you strive for that, extreme black or whites; other times you don’t necessarily want to have such an extreme contrast that your eye is drawn to that and away from the subject.
A: Tell us a little bit about your iPhone photography presentations.
J: So I was invited to present at the flagship Apple store in downtown San Francisco last July. I came in there on the advice of a professional photographer and she said, “You really should show Apple what you’re doing." I showed the gentleman there and he said, “I want you here.” So, two months later I was presenting to arguably their largest crowd ever for a photographer, or so I’ve heard, because they have photography events there every month. The presentation that I did then -- that I’ve since adapted for Macworld coming up on Thursday as well as the Apple store -- is called “Zen and the Fine Art of iPhone Photography.”
The difference between this year and last year, [when] I did a vastly different presentation with great music [that was] very energetic, [with] a lot of information, the one factor that I’ve added and defined this year is the “fine art” aspect, as opposed to Zen and the Art of iPhone Photography. My emphasis right now is really on producing limited edition fine art pieces that are a result of my iPhone capture and processing. The iPhone is just one of many tools that people are going to use to make images. Today it’s the iPhone; tomorrow, who knows what.
The presentation will cover such things as how to see and really feel an image, the apps that I use to bring that out, and how to present that image in the end.
A: Is the “Zen” part the feeling aspect?
J: Yes, the Zen part is really allowing oneself to be in their world with minimal, if any, preconceptions. One of the best parts of my show, or so I’ve heard in the past, is that I show the before and after images. So I show a starting image, and then I show how it ends up. What’s fascinating is to see people’s reactions when they look at the before image, and in their mind, somebody sees a chair is a chair is a chair. They may come to my presentation and come away thinking, “Oh, so a chair isn’t necessarily a chair; a chair is something that blocks light. I see now that I can use the light and the dark of this and play with the shadows.” It’s expanding someone’s recognition of the world in a way that is beyond definition that allows their subconscious to enter and really make the image what it is instead of taking the image.
A: For the people watching [or reading] this, in his iPhone Life articles Jonathan goes through that process step by step, and it’s really cool to see the before and after.
J: Yes, I call it a three-step process, and I’ll be discussing this at Macworld. I call it Inception, Creation, and Presentation. I find across the board for all of my fine art images, when I capture an image I may not know why, but there’s something that drew me to that particular shot, to that image, wherever I was, whatever I was doing. As you said, what I do in the magazine is really go step by step what I do on a daily basis, as I’ve been doing for almost 2 years now, and every day uploading just one finished piece.
A: You do one every single day?
J: I’ve done one every day for almost 2 years exactly. I upload it to my Facebook page, to Twitter, to Tumbler. In fact, speaking of the before and after, if we direct people to my Tumbler site (jmarksphoto.tumblr.com), there I post the original and final images. One image a day every day is challenging at times, it’s taxing -- there are days when it’s 11:50 pm and I’m trying to jam that image out before the end of the day to stay true to it -- but it’s always there.
A: Wow, kudos for the consistency! Have you been surprised by the reception of iPhone photography?
J: The surprise has been not so much that the iPhone can take photos; what’s been really enlightening to me is the reception of the iPhone’s capabilities, and how technology has changed our ability to produce imagery that heretoforth would require someone sitting in a computer for many hours, or sitting in a dark room. And let’s face it, most images, if not all images, have some sort of work done to them, whether it’s black-and-white film from 40 years ago or digital images from 10 years ago. What I really love seeing is [that] people’s eyes really just light up when they see the capabilities of the iPhone, and I might be doing it sitting at a traffic light or waiting for a dentist appointment. So that in and of itself is really exciting for people, because it opens their eyes to using their camera as more than just a camera and taking images, but like I said, really making images.
A: How do you prepare for your presentations?
J: [laughs] It’s a lot of work! I wish they would give me deadlines that are far earlier than they are. Because I’ve known for months and I’ll sit there and jam the thing out until moments before it’s due, and I’m still working on my presentation tonight and I will until the very last minute. It’s an organic process for me. Asking me to think about and articulate what is intrinsically a part of me, it’s not something that comes naturally. If you talk to an artist, they have artist's blood, whatever that is. Whether they are a cartoonist, whether they are a photographer, whether they make stained glass -- there’s something in there that compels then to create and to produce. Asking them to find that is almost like asking somebody who is blind to define a color. You really can’t get a grip on that and get a grasp on that, so I sit here and work on my presentation. I’m finding that every time that I’m away from it, I have some other thought that I want to share. It’s not all well of me that I can just pour out on paper and into a presentation; it’s been a challenge. At the same time, it’s been most enjoyable for me to be able to work on articulating that which is really not able to be articulated.
A: What do you hope the audience walks away with?
J: Mouths agape [laughs]. My goal really is to inspire. I want them to come away with a newfound love of their smartphone, not even limited to an iPhone or any [particular] smartphone. Last July, when I presented at the Apple store, I got emails from people saying, “Hey, I really want to thank you. I left there that night, and I took this great picture on my way home, and I really want to share it with you, and I don’t usually use my phone to take photos.” So if I inspire people to make greater use of their phone’s camera abilities, and capture the world in a way that is uniquely their vision, that’s all I want. That’s all I want out of it.
A: What about the future of iPhone photography? Where do you think it’s going?
J: I wish I knew [laughs]. Here’s what I can say, and I firmly believe this. There’s a point in which the “iPhone” part of iPhone Photography is just going to disappear. And when that line gets so blurry that people just look at it as just photography, which is really my goal, which is why I’m pursuing the fine art aspect of this and why I have galleries interested and I’m really going to pursue that with a fervor, because it’s not so much about [the novelty of] taking it with an iPhone. What it does is it enables me to have my singular vision come out in a way that’s purely mine. Today it’s the iPhone, tomorrow it may be some other tool, and at some point, you can see as people were coming up with medium format, as it became much more accessible to people, there was a time when people talked about their medium-format camera. But then that dropped and dissipated and you just realized, it’s a camera, it’s a capture device. Whether it’s an iPhone, whether it’s your Canon gear, yes, it’s all capable of different functionality and standard of excellence that you’re going to find in the higher quality DSLR and medium formats than you are iPhones, but it’s less about that and much more about just the fact that the iPhone right now is one means by which people are making, or taking, photos. For me it’s about making photos using the iPhone, and where it goes from here is anybody’s guess. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a photographer!
I was just recently asked to photograph a somewhat famous author, and I told them I would do it, but only with my iPhone. The publicist loved it! She loved it because [the author] is an older gentleman, and he would like to become more “current.” How great would it be to have his photo taken with an iPhone and put on his promotional material and his book cover. So I would like to pursue that with the iPhone, until that just drops off, and it becomes just another great shot.
A: What’s next for you?
J: To be honest, Alex, I love being open to the possibilities. I don’t put definitions in what I do; I don’t limit myself. I’m highly motivated. I get up early, I go to sleep late, and I fill my days with so much joy and amazement and wonder. What I want more than anything right now is for the fine art that I’m doing with the iPhone to go further. I want people to recognize my unique take on the world, and make it a collectible item to the point that 5 years from now, iPhone photography and my name -- we’re the same, baby! [laughs]
You can check out Jonathan Mark’s work on his website: www.jonathanmarksfineart.com
And his Tumblr site, where he posts one before/after picture every day: www.jmarksphoto.tumblr.com